Moving On Again

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

Where next for the left after Starmidor?

In June, the fifth anniversary of the 2017 general election provided the occasion for much wistful reminiscing on the Labour (and ex-Labour) left. That election saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party come much closer to government than anyone had previously anticipated, depriving Theresa May’s Tories of their Commons majority on the back of a popular left-wing manifesto and a huge grassroots campaign. For a period, and despite the subsequent attempts to erase this from the record, the British establishment was genuinely rocked.

But these unexpected successes only made the subsequent downfall even more traumatic when it eventually came. Now, more than two years on from the final denouement of Corbynism, the British left remains in a dishevelled state. Keir Starmer’s counter-revolution in the Labour Party has soon seen the socialist left blitzed out of whatever positions of influence and power it briefly held. In the absence of any real leadership or a convincing defensive strategy, hundreds of thousands of those inspired to join Labour by Corbyn have since cancelled their direct debits and walked out, many lapsing back into political inactivity.

A cottage industry of Corbynite post-mortems has sprung up, providing varying explanations of how and why events transpired as they did. Andrew Murray’s book Is Socialism Possible in Britain? and James Schneider’s Our Bloc arrived in September, while more are coming: Alex Nunns’ Sabotage: The Inside Hit Job That Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, for example, will be published next year. Corbyn’s former chief of staff Seumas Milne (who, predictably, has not been welcomed back by The Guardian) is yet to break his own silence. Hitherto, though, there have been few detailed attempts to work out what to do next, and how an embattled Labour left might make itself politically effective in adverse circumstances.

In his new book, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, LabourHub editor Mike Phipps provides his own reflections on the demise of Corbynism, but doesn’t stop there. What is commendable about the book is that it moves the discussion on, making a constructive and pragmatic effort to map out a future strategy for what remains of the Labour left following the demise of Corbynism. But in doing so, Phipps inadvertently demonstrates just how limited the Labour left’s options now are, and how little socialists who remain in Labour can realistically do to make their presence felt within and through the party.

Phipps inadvertently demonstrates just how limited the Labour left’s options now are, and how little socialists who remain in Labour can realistically do to make their presence felt within and through the party.


Though it was seemingly dominant among the Labour membership at its peak, Corbynism’s gains were fragile and proved fairly easy to reverse. The party’s structures remained practically unchanged, as did the political composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party and most Labour councils. Even its numerical strength at the grassroots proved somewhat illusory, as most party members were never red in tooth and claw; rather, the Corbyn surge was driven more by revulsion towards austerity and frustration at Labour’s failure to fight it than a firm ideological commitment to socialism.1

All of this made it straightforward for the Labour right to capitalise on the demoralisation and despair ordinary party members felt after defeat in 2019. A key section of Corbyn’s base was peeled away by Keir Starmer, encouraged by endorsements from prominent Corbyn outriders and supporters, including Momentum’s former national coordinator Laura Parker, ex-Corbynite pundit turned renegade war hawk Paul Mason, and actor Ricky Tomlinson. A campaign video put Starmer, Forrest Gump-style, at the heart of seemingly every major industrial dispute of the 1980s. While Starmer was forced to pitch left to win, Labour’s basic structures were little altered during Corbyn’s tenure. As a result, his successor had free rein to shift the party back to the right and discard his own promises afterwards.

The Socialist Campaign Group, though larger than it was before Corbyn’s leadership, still accounts for only a modest minority of the PLP. Even this minority is badly divided; despite everything, some of its members remain on Starmer’s frontbench, including in his whips’ office. These left-wing frontbenchers have proven to be predictably impotent, and the recent sacking of Sam Tarry for supporting striking workers merely demonstrates the futility of them remaining there.2 Meanwhile, those MPs who acted as torch-bearers for the Labour left under New Labour are now coming to the end of their careers, while Corbyn himself remains excluded from the PLP with no prospect of being readmitted. Len McCluskey claims in his memoir that Starmer reneged on agreements to do so.3

Although some new MPs have been recruited to the Campaign Group in recent years, the more combative among them have been marginalised. Some MPs are fighting deselection, among them Apsana Begum and Sam Tarry, despite serious allegations of harassment towards the former and acknowledged fraud against the latter. Left-leaning candidates are being kept off shortlists; any ambitious left-of-centre candidate who wants to get on under Starmer will be expected to view the socialist left as personae non grata (some previously selected as supposedly left candidates have done so since getting elected). Labour MPs who offer anything less than grovelling support for Nato or Israel risk having the whip withdrawn; Starmer has already made thinly-veiled threats to this effect.

With the right keeping a tight grip on candidate selections, it is unlikely that there will be many, if any additions to the Campaign Group’s ranks for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it may be that the last new recruit to the Campaign Group has already been elected. The rule book has been changed to keep left-wing candidates off future leadership ballots, leaving those left-wingers who remain with (at best) uninspiring choices.4 The parliamentary threshold for leadership nominations has been raised to put it beyond the reach of the Campaign Group, which would struggle to agree on a single candidate anyway. A six-month cut-off for voting rights has been imposed to ward off another Corbyn-style influx of new members.

It may be that the last new recruit to the Campaign Group has already been elected.

There has been an exodus of left-wingers, about 200,000 of whom have left Labour. (In the recent elections to Momentum’s National Coordinating Group, only 3,380 voted – about 1% of the number who voted for Corbyn in 2016.) This has blown a hole in Labour’s finances, with left-led unions, including Unite, also reducing their donations. The party leadership hopes to recoup this money by going cap in hand to rich donors and the City of London. As he who pays the piper calls the tune, the quid pro quo is self-explanatory: Labour abandons any challenge to capitalist power and toes the ‘pro-business’ line, in exchange for some crumbs from the table. Not too gut-wrenching a sacrifice, evidently, for Keir Starmer.

Little, if anything, remains of the Labour manifestos of 2017 and 2019. The key policies of those manifestos were and remain generally popular, but after the party’s win in June’s Wakefield by-election – where the previous Tory incumbent was forced to resign in disgrace after being convicted of sexually assaulting a child – Starmer was quick to claim it as an endorsement of dropping the “unworkable or unaffordable policies” of previous years; policies which Starmer claimed to support when he needed to hoodwink disorientated Labour members into electing him as party leader.

From Despair to Where?

The outlook appears grim, but Mike Phipps is insistent that, for the Labour left, all hope is not lost. To his credit, he does not entertain fantasies of the left roaring back to reclaim the party leadership. Instead, he says, it should concentrate on building influence and strength where it still can: at the grassroots, in local government and in the battle of ideas (a battlefield the Labour right has studiously avoided in recent years). Recognising the “exceptional” nature of Corbyn’s rise to the party leadership, he argues that the left must now “focus on what is achievable” if it is to use its remaining capacities productively.

Phipps is right that whatever intellectual energies still exist in Labour are coming exclusively from the left, even now. The 2021 party conference – recounted in some detail in the book – is a case in point, with only the Labour left providing any substance on policy: motions on the Green New Deal, industrial strategy, housing, the renationalisation of Royal Mail and Palestine solidarity were passed by delegates, despite various efforts on the part of the leadership and its underlings to force them off the conference agenda. Phipps expresses some puzzlement that the party leadership didn’t do more to stop these motions from passing, but the reason is plain: it can just ignore them, as it has done.

This “intellectual ferment” on the Labour left contrasts with the void of ideas on the party’s right. In fact, since assuming the Labour leadership, Starmer has made a virtue of retreating from big ideas or demands – simply not being Jeremy Corbyn has been a strategy in itself – while playing up his patriotism and making socially conservative noises. But this has already proven inadequate in a time of worsening crisis, and before Labour’s recent poll bounce, the lack of concrete policies was causing disquiet even among right-wing Labour MPs and centrist media pundits, some touting Wes Streeting as a successor.

For Phipps, there is an opportunity in this. Despite the “highly polarised” nature of the present-day Labour Party, he believes that there is “more pragmatism and flexibility across the Party on policy in these unprecedented times, in contrast to the factional rigidity evident in the battle for organisational control”. It is possible, he says, that the Labour leadership – for want of other options – may “feel the pressure to borrow [the left’s] ideas if they are to mount a serious political challenge to the government”. In short, there is such little thinking on the Labour right that Starmer may be forced to appropriate some from the left.

Starmer has already publicly renounced the more ambitious Corbyn-era policies as a way of proving his pro-market bona fides. As Phipps himself discusses, the very morning after the 2021 Labour conference voted to renationalise energy, Rachel Reeves took to the airwaves to insist that a Starmer-led government would do nothing of the sort. (This is despite the fact that Starmer himself, during the preceding leadership contest, had claimed to support the policy.) With Labour’s ultimate fidelity to big business now firmly re-established, however, Starmer is belatedly tossing a few scraps to the left.

At this year’s Labour conference, the party announced several leftish policies, most notably rail nationalisation and the establishment of a state-owned green energy firm, to be named GB Energy. Railways, of course, have long been a shambles in private hands, and – as Starmer has noted – large sections of the network have already had to be taken back into public ownership as a result. The objectives of GB Energy are much more limited. It will, Labour says, provide “additional capacity” alongside a “rapidly expanding private sector”; in other words, it will not challenge or provide an alternative to private energy firms (despite public support for renationalisation) but instead pick up the slack on their behalf.

This points to the limitations of simply leaving policy ideas lying around in the hope that Starmer will eventually pick some of them up. Even if he does, they will be stripped of any transformative potential they might have had and will instead be used to patch up a flagging British capitalism. Furthermore, there is a danger that, by cherry-picking its ideas, Starmer lulls the Labour left into overestimating its own influence and leverage. A demoralised left casting around for consolation expects so little from Starmer that any apparent concessions can easily be blown up well beyond their actual significance, as the excitable reception to the recent policy announcements on some sections of the left indicated.

There is a danger that, by cherry-picking its ideas, Starmer lulls the Labour left into overestimating its own influence and leverage.

Phipps sees another outlet in local government. This is, he points out, “one of the few places people in England will see a Labour administration… over the next few years” and hence an opportunity for the left: “a chance to show what Labour can do and an opportunity to prove competence and probity”, and “an opportunity to make lives better”. The importance of local government as a laboratory for socialist policy has undoubtedly been underappreciated over the years.5 While Phipps is conscious of the limitations of local power – undermined as it has been by both Tory and Labour governments6 – recent successes such as Preston’s experiments with community wealth building give some cause for optimism.7

The Labour left’s prospects of advance in local government are limited, however. Already, the party machine and regional offices – little changed from the pre-Corbyn years – are taking control of council candidate selections. Even if the neoliberal zeal of the New Labour years has been curbed somewhat, the Corbynite left made only limited inroads: some of Starmer’s strongest supporters during his leadership campaign were council leaders. The clear majority of Labour councils remain firmly in the hands of the party’s right and centre, broadly continuing in a tradition of “nervous municipal Labourism”, and it is worth noting that Starmer has barely mentioned Preston since becoming party leader.

While the autonomy of local government was always partial, recent decades have seen it radically whittled away, with legal limitations tightened to the point where a more confrontational approach akin to Poplarism, Militant-era Liverpool or the GLC would not be possible today. Without a supportive national party leadership, the Labour left’s ability to test the boundaries of those powers or to challenge a hostile central government is impeded even more.8 Ultimately, then, Phipps’ hopes are based on an overly optimistic assessment of what the Starmer leadership will permit.

Parliamentary Anti-Socialism

It is absolutely true, as Phipps recognises, that an institutionally hidebound Labour Party – especially one hollowed out under successive party leaders – was always going to be an unwieldy vehicle for Jeremy Corbyn’s movement-focused ‘new politics’, which inspired great horror among its elected representatives and bureaucrats alike. Labour is, after all, “an essentially electoralist party notorious for its routinism and institutional conservatism”. The party has never been counter-hegemonic; instead, it merely “offers a retail package which voters can buy into, rather than mass empowerment”. Its constituency parties, with only the odd exception, function strictly as get-out-the-vote machines.

Moreover, Labour is not merely a reformist party – a reformism growing ever more timid since the 1945 Attlee government, still the apogee of Labourism – but particularly dogmatic in its attachment to parliamentarism.9 The Parliamentary Labour Party, having driven out the Corbynite hordes, remains Labour’s dominant force. Most Labour MPs are drawn from its right wing and centre, both united (whatever other marginal differences they might have) by an ingrained hostility to the kind of movementist, grassroots politics Jeremy Corbyn aspired to, and both so thoroughly absorbed into the state that they function, as Tom Gann has observed, as “the state within the party”.

Phipps is right that the “long-absent, unglamorous work at the grassroots” needed to develop popular, working-class counterpower is absolutely essential for any socialist renewal, as is a prolonged ideological struggle; as he correctly observes, “the establishment of an alternative understanding can only be a long-term project”. But the question that needs to be answered is this: is this actually possible through the Labour Party? The odds were always against it, but with the right having now regained a seemingly unassailable stranglehold over Labour, we must surely answer in the negative.

The swift closure of Labour’s Community Organising Unit (COU) is a clear indication that the party has decisively turned its back on local base-building politics of any kind. No doubt the COU had its shortcomings, but it was only given two years to establish itself; its presence was always resented by party bureaucrats, right-wing MPs and councillors, who first stifled its creation and then lobbied to get it shut down. Its abolition speaks volumes about the Labour leadership’s conception of politics: entirely top-down and run from the centre, with ordinary members as obedient, door-knocking grunts at most.

Labour’s membership remains larger than it was before the initial Corbyn surge in 2015, though it is much more right-wing than it was. That membership has been disempowered; now, constituency parties can’t get a left-wing leadership candidate on to any ballot, can’t deselect MPs (trigger ballot thresholds having also been raised) and, even when they do get policy motions passed, have no effective method of holding the party leadership to them. Even winning a left-wing majority on the party’s National Executive Committee is implausible, as the introduction of single transferable vote for electing its constituency seats all but ensures the right will win at least some of them.10

Phipps is not completely unsympathetic to those who have left Labour, but he argues that those who advocate doing so “seldom treat the issue in terms of how it affects the needs of people the Party should represent, and instead frame it almost as an individual lifestyle choice”. Yet the mass exodus from Labour cannot be written off as an emotional spasm, to borrow Aneurin Bevan’s infamous phrase. While concrete alternatives are as yet notable by their absence, the conclusion that Labour is no longer a potential vehicle for socialist advance, if it ever was, is a sober one. It is unfortunate, and perhaps telling, that the book doesn’t take these arguments on at length and at least offer a rejoinder.

Calls for socialists to “stay and fight” in the Labour Party have long since become a running joke; the fatal flaw being that if you stay, you can’t fight, and if you fight, you can’t stay. Many of those who might have dug their heels in have quit Labour out of despair and disgust at Starmer’s counter-revolution. The dispiriting sight of Labour conference delegates meekly acquiescing to their own calculated ritual humiliation by singing the national anthem – a wretched paean to hereditary privilege with nothing to say about the country itself – while an enormous portrait of the late Elizabeth Windsor loomed over them underlines Starmer’s success in kicking any fighting spirit out of the party’s remaining rank and file.

Calls for socialists to “stay and fight” in the Labour Party have long since become a running joke; the fatal flaw being that if you stay, you can’t fight, and if you fight, you can’t stay.

Unsealing the Tomb

Labour has always been, in effect, two parties in one: a stunted socialist party and a (mildly) reformist, pro-capitalist party firmly tied both to the existing British state and to US imperialism.11 The pro-capitalist right has been the dominant force in Labour for all but the blink of an eye in its 122-year history, but has (hitherto, at least) tolerated the presence of socialists so long as they remained subordinate. Labour governments have undeniably delivered real welfarist gains for workers, but always in a patrician, top-down manner; building autonomous working-class power has never been Labour’s aim – quite the opposite, in fact – nor has it concerned itself with ideological struggle.

Despite all this, Labour remains the major party of social reform, and the possibility of nudging it into more radical positions – thus winning tangible concessions for people who urgently need them – continues to exert a pull on socialists. By the time of Jeremy Corbyn’s shock rise to the party leadership in 2015, however, the Labour left had been in a parlous state for years. It was, to a large extent, Blairite miscalculation and hubris that allowed the left to win the leadership; Corbyn only secured a spot on the ballot because of nominations from right-wing MPs who assumed he stood no chance of winning.12 Come the demise of Corbynism, the left bequeathed a virtually unreformed party apparatus to Starmer and his acolytes, who have shown no compunction in using it to seal their factional adversaries back in their “tomb”, as Peter Mandelson put it.

It should have been clear to the Labour left all along that if it missed its chance to refound Labour as a socialist party, the right would be unforgiving whenever it regained the upper hand. What explains its failure to face up to this and act accordingly? In large part, it is because the left feels a deep obligation to get a Labour government – left or right – elected so that at least some reforms can be made. This continually leads it to back down under pressure from the right. The mantra is endlessly and sincerely repeated: “any Labour government is better than a Tory government”. But the Labour right’s primary loyalty is to the state (not Labour, still less the class it was founded to represent) and it will willingly sink its own party, as it did only semi-covertly under Corbyn, to keep the socialist left out of power.13

There remain powerful disincentives to breaking away and forming a new socialist party, however. Phipps highlights the key difficulties facing any left-wing split, namely that in the absence of electoral reform – which, despite a Labour conference resolution passed this year, a Starmer-led government would be loath to concede – and a solid grounding in the trade unions, a new left-wing party would risk ending up in the political graveyard alongside the Socialist Labour Party, Respect, TUSC and countless others. It would also be vulnerable to sectarian intrigues, with rival sects jockeying for influence and recruits. (We might also add that the left populist parties elsewhere in Europe are facing crises of their own.)

But it is becoming increasingly difficult to articulate basic socialist – and, moreover, anti-imperialist – positions while retaining Labour membership, or the party whip. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 11 left-wing Labour MPs who signed Stop the War Campaign’s statement14 (which, while calling for unilateral Russian withdrawal, reiterated its long-held criticisms of Nato expansion in eastern Europe) were forced to renounce it, any suggestion that Nato has its own objectives rather than acting out of pure altruism now apparently verboten.15 They were also ordered to avoid Stop the War platforms or lose the whip; meanwhile, Labour’s benches remain crowded with MPs who unquestioningly backed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israeli apartheid and the Saudi war on Yemen.16

Al-Jazeera’s recent series, The Labour Files, laid bare the maliciousness of the wrecking campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, to predictable silence from the rest of the media. The broad outline had already been provided by the Labour Leaks and the subsequent Forde Report (despite the latter’s contorted attempts at factional even-handedness). Hundreds of thousands of people were inspired by Corbyn to join Labour, seeing, for the first time in years – if not the first time ever – a chance to decisively better their lives, and those of others, through a party they had previously had no hope in. For that, they were (and still are) caricatured, smeared and belittled, often by people nominally on their own side. Some were even attacked in the street while canvassing in 2019.

Those who took it upon themselves to crush these hopes are now back in control of the Labour Party. Viciously anti-socialist, they are some of the most vindictive and spiteful people in British public life; this is no exaggeration.

Those who took it upon themselves to crush these hopes are now back in control of the Labour Party. Viciously anti-socialist, they are some of the most vindictive and spiteful people in British public life; this is no exaggeration. Nor is there now any realistic prospect of wresting the party out of their grip (they will not repeat the errors that first gave Corbyn a look-in). But Phipps nevertheless presents a subordinate position in the Labour Party, forlornly lobbying a reactionary leadership to do the decent thing, as the horizon of the possible. This risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, hindering the necessary break not just from the Labour Party itself but, more importantly, from the baggage of Labourism.

Phipps nevertheless presents a subordinate position in the Labour Party, forlornly lobbying a reactionary leadership to do the decent thing, as the horizon of the possible.

There is mounting popular anger; the revival of trade unionism, though starting from a low base, could snowball. But, worryingly, there is no party that is able or willing to provide this largely inchoate anger with a progressive political outlet. This is why there is still a pressing need – as great now as ever – for a counter-hegemonic socialist party to act as organiser and articulator, uniting diverse struggles in a common cause and striving not to humanise capitalism, or to soften its sharper edges, but to mobilise the social forces capable of dismantling it. The Labour Party has never been this party, and the thesis that it someday could be has surely now been tested to destruction.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party After Jeremy Corbyn is published by OR Books.


  1. Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2nd ed.), Verso 2017. 

  2. Tarry, we should note, has not yet broken the Labour whip since becoming an MP, including when the party leadership whipped Labour MPs to abstain on deeply regressive legislation like the Spycops Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill. 

  3. Len McCluskey, Always Red, OR Books 2021. 

  4. Future ‘left’ leadership candidates are likely to include Angela Rayner (who, far from doing anything to stop Starmer’s purges, has publicly endorsed them) and Andy Burnham. 

  5. See, for instance, John Gyford, The Politics of Local Socialism, HarperCollins 1985, Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright, A Taste of Power: The Politics of Local Economics, Verso 1987, Owen Hatherley, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, Repeater 2020, and Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, Verso 2018. 

  6. For detailed histories of the attacks on local government in recent decades, see David E. Lowes, Cuts, Privatization & Resistance: Neoliberalism and the Local State 1974 to 1987, Merlin Press 2013, Peter Latham, The State and Local Government: Towards a New Basis for Local Democracy and the End of Big Business Control, Manifesto Press 2011, and Latham’s Who Stole the Town Hall?: The End of Local Government as We Know It, Policy Press 2017. 

  7. Rhian E. Jones and Matthew Brown, Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too, Repeater 2021. 

  8. See Stewart Lansley, Sue Goss and Christian Wolmar, Councils in Conflict: Rise and Fall of the Municipal Left, Palgrave Macmillan 1989, and Diane Frost and Peter North, Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge, Liverpool University Press 2013. 

  9. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, Merlin Press 2009. 

  10. The demand for STV in elections to the CLP section of the NEC in fact originated on the soft left, promoted by groups including Open Labour and backed by the Electoral Reform Society. While presented by its advocates as a democratising measure, the introduction of STV has, in the absence of wider reform to the NEC, only strengthened the hand of Labour’s most anti-democratic elements; in 2020, the first such elections to take place under the new system, three of the nine CLP seats went to candidates on the right-wing Labour to Win slate. 

  11. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press 1987. 

  12. For an authoritative account of how Corbyn won the Labour leadership, see Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Path to Power, OR Books 2016. 

  13. For a candid insider’s account of the methods used to crush the Bennites in the 1980s, see John Golding, Hammer of the Left: The Battle for the Soul of the Labour Party, Biteback 2016. Golding’s latter-day equivalents are, if anything, more cynical and unscrupulous than he was. 

  14. The small number of signatories is itself noteworthy, given that the Socialist Campaign Group is supposed to have a membership of 33 Labour MPs. 

  15. Diane Abbott later told the BBC that the Stop the War statement had been “superseded by events and we were happy to take our names off”, and appeared to suggest that any fundamental criticism of Nato was out of bounds in the Labour Party: “Nobody wants to attack Nato. Having a debate around Nato strategy is one thing, attacking Nato is another… Everybody in the Labour Party supports a defensive alliance.” 

  16. Having actively opposed the Iraq war is now considered a black mark against prospective Labour candidates. Maya Evans, deputy leader of Hastings borough council, was recently excluded from the longlist for Labour’s nomination in the Hastings and Rye constituency; one factor in the decision cited by unnamed “Labour sources” was her arrest during an anti-war protest in 2005. She had been arrested after refusing to stop reading aloud the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.