The recent revelations of the stomach-churning opinions and activities among the top echelons of the Labour Party are not an aberration but symptomatic of Labourism
One week after Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader in April, an internal report into the role of the party’s rather opaquely titled Governance and Legal Unit (GLU) in dealing with allegations of antisemitism was leaked to the press.
Over 860 pages, the report draws on detailed content of 10,000 emails and thousands of WhatsApp messages between senior party officials. The participant lists read like an inventory of Labour’s internal party apparatus. The report’s revelations caused a wave of outrage and disgust on the left. It exposed how the apparatus worked systematically to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Labour officials expressed hopes that the party would lose the 2017 general election, and were dismayed by its success. They ridiculed and treated with contempt Corbyn’s policies on foreign affairs, nationalisation, taxation and housing. Party officials predicted his campaign would go into free-fall after the Manchester bombing, when he claimed a link between the wars UK governments had supported domestic terrorism.
Labour’s international policy officer and the head of international affairs pronounced Corbyn’s speech a “nonsensical and ill-judged turd”. Labour members were described as ‘crazy’ and ‘vile, opportunistic morons".
The report lifted the lid on a culture of contempt for members and left MPs in which misogynist and racist abuse could go unchallenged. During the 2017 election campaign, Diane Abbott was a particular hate figure and target of racist stereotypes by officials. This despite an Amnesty report which found that Abbott received half of all abusive tweets directed at female MPs, and ten times more than any other MP.
The GLU’s investigations into allegations of antisemitism were marked by incompetence, persistent obstruction and a failure to progress investigations despite repeated requests from Corbyn’s office. One task that Labour officials did apply themselves to assiduously, however, was the witch hunting and suspension of Corbyn supporters. Long hours were spent trawling through years of social media postings.
The report’s revelations were met with calls for an inquiry and disciplinary proceedings. The Campaign Group of MPs issued a statement demanding it be published in full, that a transparent investigation be conducted and an emergency National Executive Committee (NEC) convened.
John McDonnell called for the immediate suspension of key staff named in the document, and demanded the document be provided to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation.
Others on the Labour left, such as Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), went further, demanding disciplinary action and expulsion. JVL also criticised a core premise of the report: the acceptance that there was “a serious problem of antisemitism” in Labour, and condemned the authors’ support for summary suspensions and fast-tracked expulsions.
The report provided significant impetus to a call from the left for members to “stay and fight”. Momentum’s post leadership election statement, The Future of the Movement, concluded: “One thing is certain — if we stick at it and stick together, our time will come”. The Campaign Group’s statement concluded: “We believe people must stay and fight for a Labour government, organise to defend our manifesto and push for action”.
MPs Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, writing in Tribune, drew a “final lesson”: “Stay in the party and seek justice. As this document makes clear, the very worst elements of our party would be only too happy for you to leave”. JVL, the Labour Representation Committee and Red Labour formed a Broad Left Network under the slogan “Don’t Leave, Organise!”
However, the Labour leadership and the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party hardly blinked. Starmer’s initial response was to focus on the leaking of the report rather than the content, and there is little prospect of a genuinely independent inquiry. There have been no suspensions, despite the evidence of malpractice. Crucially, the report will be submitted as evidence to the EHRC.
The witch-hunt against the left continues unabated. After Abbott and Bell RibeiroAddy spoke at the first public online Don’t Leave, Organise meeting — Labour leaks: lessons for the left — the Starmer leadership reprimanded them following demands by the Board of Deputies of British Jews that they be suspended.
This was on the absurd pretext that two former members, expelled as part of the witch-hunt were among the 600 who attended the online meeting. As Socialist Review goes to press, a new raft of suspensions of left-wing members is under way.
The question this raises is what the leaked report reveals about the structure of the party and the prospects for a left project of seizing control of Labour as an instrument for radical social change. In practice, this issue has been sidestepped by the Labour left. Yet the report points to a much deeper problem than one of a left versus right contest.
The response of Len McCluskey, leftwing leader of the country’s second-biggest trade union Unite, and a key Corbyn union backer, is instructive: “I know there are tens of thousands of Labour Party members, many of them also in my union, whose dismay at these revelations may lead them to wonder why they should stay in a party where such things can happen. Let me urge them to remain with the party and get behind our newly-elected leadership as they handle this crisis.”
This should sound a warning bell to the left. In many ways the report was the end note of the four-year crisis over antisemitism so critical in undermining the Corbyn leadership and the confidence of Corbyn’s base. The mobilisation of the party machine against the left is far from unique in Labour’s history; however, this is the first time it has been mobilised against the leadership itself.
This is not simply a question of “rogue officials”. The entire PLP opposed Corbyn, and despite the astounding growth in membership, the right remained in control of much of the regional apparatus, councils and in the constituencies.
The re-selection/open selection of parliamentary candidates remained a dead letter. Even the left trade union leadership remained intent on avoiding an all-out confrontation with the PLP.
The Labour right were the key driving force and enabler of the onslaught on Corbyn rather than the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Labour Movement. Its dominance rests on the premise of party unity that is the bedrock of
electoral politics. This has always been a one-way street benefitting the right.
At root it was the imperative of avoiding a split and all-out confrontation with the right that propelled Corbyn’s and the left leadership’s retreats and concessions, amid pressure from key figures such as Momentum leader Jon Lansman and Owen Jones. Behind the Labour right’s onslaught was the determination of the state, the media and the British ruling class to break the Corbyn project.
Principled anti-racists were abandoned and a left-dominated NEC voted to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Corbyn and the leadership repeatedly failed to call out their opponents over Palestine, although this would have been relatively simple. Nor did they expose the wider cynical political motives behind the claims of antisemitism. The left found itself hemmed in and trapped within party procedure and structure.
As early as June 2016, Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry could have provided a principled way forward in dealing with allegations of antisemitism and prejudice. Chakrabarti put a strong emphasis on political education, due process and natural justice, with discipline invoked only as a final resort.
Specifically, she insisted that administrative or ‘interim’ suspensions should ony be invoked in extreme cases. Her recommendations were sabotaged at the inquiry’s press launch in a manufactured furore against a long-standing black anti-racist activist, Marc Wadsworth. The party’s then general secretary, Iain McNichol, shelved the report and
disappeared from its website.
However, the Labour leadership failed to conduct an open fight to implement the inquiry’s recommendations. The witch-hunt continued under McNichol, but then also under the left-led NEC, and a new general secretary, Jennie Formby, a Unite official and a Corbyn supporter.
The injunction to ‘stay and fight’ fails to address the structural dominance of the PLP, the trade union machine and the inbuilt marginalisation of the active membership of the party. Even the most radical sections of the left found themselves trapped into justifying a political retreat over the post-Corbyn leadership election.
They called for a vote for Rebecca LongBailey, despite her lack of roots in the mass movements with which Corbyn was identified. She quickly made an abject pledge to sign up to the Board of Deputies’ ten demands, and has proved entirely uncritical of the Starmer leadership.
In the event, this electoral logic led to an overwhelming victory for Starmer in every membership category as many of those who joined Labour to support Corbyn felt compelled to vote for a candidate perceived as electable. Ultimately the left found itself outmanoeuvred and trapped by the very structures of Labour itself. The conduct of the GLU is ultimately a symptom of Labourism, not an aberration.
Paradoxically it has always been the prospect of mass struggle outside parliament and the emergence of a radical political challenge independent of Labour that the right has feared most. The left will not disappear and is unlikely to be witch-hunted out of the party en masse. It remains an important component in the ‘broad church’ upon which Labour’s electoral fortunes depend.
Under Corbyn, a unique window opened for the left. This was premised on the unforeseen consequences of one member one vote, originally conceived as a means of undermining the left, and MPs’ miscalculation in nominating Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest. This window has now closed.
Huge challenges face the entire left. It would be a major mistake to pretend that the task of building a revolutionary alternative to Labour does not face massive obstacles.Nonetheless, there are key lessons to be drawn from left’s the attempt to seize the party machine and Corbyn’s eventual defeat.
The response across wide sections of the working class to the Covid-19 pandemic signposts the mass force of resistance that can challenge the oppression and exploitation of disaster capitalism.
We cannot wait for another election in five years’ time in the hope that a left-led Labour party might re-emerge. More importantly, the defeat of the Corbyn project and the paralysis of Labour in the face of the pandemic shows why an alternative to Labour is urgent