Labour Members aren't the Problem.

A spate of recent interventions aimed at Labour members risks deflecting attention from the rightward shift of the Parliamentary party.

6 min read

The publication of Maguire & Pogrund’s Left Out and the accompanying interview with Karie Murphy have reignited rows about who was to blame for December’s defeat. While on Twitter this has manifested as yet another round of debates about Brexit, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that we have also been treated to self-exculpations from Owen Jones and Andrew Fisher, both pre-2015 advisors to John McDonnell who were subsequently associated with the People’s Vote turn.

Jones admits he didn’t want McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor or even—initially—Jeremy Corbyn as the left candidate for leader. Nor is it any great secret that months before the 2017 election he was actively trying to replace Corbyn with Clive Lewis. Now, in the Guardian, Jones addresses himself to the left, exhorting us to find hope in the fact that Starmer “owes” his victory to left-wing members, while cautioning us not to criticise him. The leader owes his victory to the left, but the left shouldn’t say anything if he doesn’t repay that trust.

Patronisingly telling us how to talk to “the members”—as if we weren’t members!—Jones warns that the “real danger” for socialists is that we risk alienating Labour voters and those in the centre of the Party, whether because key swing voters will be put off a future left candidate because @CorbynLover95 made a meme about “twenty points ahead”, or for some nebulous influence in the here and now: the delusion that ‘Starmerism’ is somehow ‘up for grabs’.

To discourage dissent in the ranks, Jones points to the gains of the last few years: the ‘Ten Pledges’ of Starmer’s leadership campaign, frontbench opposition to the benefit cap, and the fact that former Progress vice-chair Jonathan Reynolds is, like Milton Friedman and former Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach, a supporter of universal basic income. He concludes—correctly but, in light of the above, confusingly—that the left’s “ideas have not died: it just needs to fight for them”.

Optimism of the Shill?

Meanwhile, in a piece for OpenDemocracy, Fisher claims that “structural factors, not individual failings, defeated us”; it’s hard not to agree with Mandy Rice Davies that he would say that, wouldn’t he? Corbyn’s last Conference being overshadowed by Fisher’s histrionic leaked resignation sticks in the memory, as do the preceding two years of Starmer leading certain elements in the Leader’s Office down the People’s Vote cul-de-sac. But, personal shortcomings aside, Fisher’s arguments for optimism are similar to Jones’s—and similarly complacent:

Labour is now a party committed to public ownership and opposed to privatisation, for stronger rights at work, and the global financial crash has buried that failed model of unsustainable growth.

These former comrades seem delighted that the collective efforts of arguably Labour’s most left-wing leadership ever have been sufficient to return the Party to its pre-Blair historical norm at a time when that old order is utterly insufficient for the challenges that face the world.

the Party is now firmly back in the hands of those who have devoted their political careers to our political annihilation

Like Jones, Fisher scolds members for

retreating to the pre-2015 ‘heckling from the sidelines’ discourse, as if a switch has been flipped and the circumstances reset … [despite the fact that the] core policies of Corbynism are not only supported by the membership, but are the standard to which the new leader has attached himself.

In fact, as Fisher himself notes, earlier in his article, the first of these supposedly differing circumstances was also true pre-2015—Labour members never enthusiastically adopted New Labour’s privatisation and social authoritarianism—and the second couldn’t be worth less if it was scribbled on a cigarette paper and dropped in the gutter. The circumstances may not have been reset, but the Party is now firmly back in the hands of those who have devoted their political careers to our political annihilation.

Conversations with Labour Party members make it clear that they are smarter than either of these two, and that they know what has happened. At every fork in the road so far, Starmer has gone right. Among rumours of consensus candidates, Starmer selected the most right-wing option for the post of General Secretary. The new GS wasted no time at all in spending thousands of pounds on paying off wreckers, booting the leaks report into the long grass, and emailing CLPs to warn them off discussing contentious topics. ‘Constructive’ opposition to Johnson’s government has meant keeping quiet even as the Tories have overseen the worst COVID-19 response in Europe. Replacing Rebecca Long-Bailey with a Starmer loyalist rather than another Campaign Grouper enabled the frontbench to ‘take on’ the teaching unions—hardly a left strategy. The party’s upper echelons are now dominated by Labour First veterans and some of the most obstinate factionalists in the history of the Labour Right.

Aside from the policy pledges, evidence for hope seems pretty thin on the ground. Even the right-wing pivots of Kinnock and Blair didn’t happen overnight. Does anyone really think Starmer, a far less committed politician than they, will feel bound by his pledges in two or three years’ time, under pressure from the right, and with frontbenchers like Streeting and McFadden (not to mention his staff) agitating for a sacrificial bonfire of socialist shibboleths? There is, as Jones notes, widespread internal support for Labour leaders and giving them a chance to fight elections on their own terms: admirable, perhaps, but completely inconsistent with the view that Starmer will face difficulties if he ditches or waters down his pledges. There are, in fact, no levers at all for “holding him” to those commitments as they are slowly chipped away.

disengagement will not be combatted by telling those who feel the political terrain slowly but surely shifting below their feet that this isn’t happening at all, and that everything will be OK

What all this is really about is preparing the ground for blaming the left for marginalising itself. If you stand up for yourself, you have only yourself to blame when you get hurt.

On the contrary, the best way to force Labour left is, and always has been, to build a large, loud movement for socialist policies, with a plan to one day take control of the Party and implement them. This is not the same as pointless oppositionalism, a straw man beloved of the soft left. Nobody is talking about leadership challenges, or even saying that the left should give up on trying to get the current leadership to maintain left policies—but the reason Labour leaders ever move left, and the reason they stay left, is not that influence has been exerted in Shadow Cabinet or in the corridors of power, but that they fear the alternative: a left leadership challenge backed by a strong movement from below.

the best way to force Labour left is, and always has been, to build a large, loud movement for socialist policies

The actual existential danger to Labour’s left is resignation and disengagement. Thousands are drifting away from membership or activity: disillusioned activists who see the way things are going but so far perceive in the Parliamentary left little appetite for the fight and few potential future leadership challengers, and who wonder whether it’s worth being attacked, belittled and marginalised in exchange for their subs. This disengagement will not be combatted by telling those who feel the political terrain slowly but surely shifting below their feet that this isn’t happening at all, and that everything will be OK.

This deceptive optimism may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The left might drift away in large numbers, and Labour could move to the right without their influence; if this comes to pass, it will be the fault of those who told us to demobilise, to shut up and hope to ‘influence’. All the gains that Jones and Fisher point to—the number of socialist members and the pressure which forced Starmer’s Ten Pledges—will melt away, while those responsible, in their newspaper columns or post-Westminster careers, will point to their handiwork and say, “I told you so”.


Nicky Hutchinson