We Need a Left Leadership Candidate On Any Ballot

If Left MPs decide to lock members out of a genuine choice of Labour leader by falling in behind Rayner they will be showing a craven weakness and condemning themselves to irrelevance.

9 min read

With Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party seemingly on its last legs already, plotting is underway for who challenges him and when. Angela Rayner’s is the name most regularly touted, unsurprisingly since Starmer demoted her, and rumour has it that pressure is being applied behind the scenes on socialist MPs to nominate her rather than one of their own. Despite the Campaign Group having over 30 Labour MPs (even excluding those with the whip suspended), this is argued on the basis that a Campaign Group candidate could have no chance of reaching the nominations threshold: 20 MPs in the event of a vacancy, 40 for a challenge to a sitting leader.

New Socialist predicted last year that divides between the two were likely to feature large in the coming years, though few anticipated how quickly Starmer would flop. The question remains: why socialists in the Labour Party should resign the ambition of controlling it in favour of backing one non-socialist candidate against another? Nothing about Rayner’s career so far indicates either a commitment to the left or any greater degree of personal popularity or political nous than Starmer had before becoming leader, so her left supporters are reduced to instead arguing that she at least represents someone who will ‘do business’ with the left, presumably represented by its wannabe Big Man power-brokers around the union bureaucracies.

The question remains: why socialists in the Labour Party should resign the ambition of controlling it in favour of backing one non-socialist candidate against another.

Before the increasing political bifurcation of Labour which began in the 1970s, Labour’s top table often had a handful of MPs from the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party sitting around it, always outnumbered. Most obviously, Clement Attlee is widely seen as having cleverly managed right and left (principally represented by the figure of Aneurin Bevan). But with no accountability to the membership, the PLP was largely a law unto itself: its members alone elected the leader. With Conference votes controlled entirely by the trade unions, there were few if any opportunities for constituency members to influence the direction of the Party. The likes of Bevan, seeking to represent those members’ views, were tolerated for fear of a significant minority of MPs in the Tribune Group, who could make their presence felt in annual elections to the Shadow Cabinet.

The polarisation of the Party since then has been variously ascribed to the collapse of the post-war Keynesian welfare state consensus, the neoliberalisation of the right of the PLP and its takeover by the professional classes, or the infiltration of quasi-Marxists on the left; it is nonetheless something real, which cannot be hand-waved away with meaningless talk about ‘unity’. One of the goals of the Bennite movement, beginning in the 1970s, was to crack open the cosy arrangement which had effectively insulated the PLP from accountability. After the 1981 Deputy Leadership Contest, for the first time, socialist MPs – organised in the Socialist Campaign Group which split from the broad Tribune Group – explicitly considered themselves representatives of the wider grassroots movement which put them into Parliament and sustained them once there. Until 2015, membership of the Campaign Group effectively barred MPs from frontbench duties; being a former member (like Kevin Barron, Paul Boateng and Margaret Beckett) was often a smart career move.

The nature and purpose of such a group was also different to those of the purely parliamentary Labour left which preceded it. With Kinnock and Blair increasingly expelling, marginalising and bypassing the left, with the support of the Soft Left, it was clearly neither sufficient nor realistic to get a socialist voice into a right-dominated team. Even if promises were made, they would be broken at a later date or in government: witness the treatment of Michael Meacher. Bennism suffered as many defeats as it achieved victories, but left-wing activists from a number of traditions (including extra-parliamentary) rallied to the idea, candidates from the left continue to dominate NEC elections, and even the limited control we members still have over Labour MPs came about as a result of a clear analysis that we had to maintain an independent presence and base external to the PLP power bases if we wanted anything, not sue for peace or beg and do deals for crumbs.

It seems there are now some former Corbyn allies who now want to turn back the clock and restore the parliamentary left to its previous form, maximising its presence in a shadow cabinet inevitably dominated by the right. This is what underlies the efforts of those currently furiously lobbying Socialist Campaign Group MPs not to nominate their own candidate in the event of a leadership challenge.

A preview of the basis for some of the arguments that will be made to hegemonise at least parts of the left behind Rayner can by found in former Corbyn and Starmer aide Simon Fletcher’s recent New Statesman article. Strikingly, it was rumoured, although he denied it, that Fletcher had been lined up to run a Rayner leadership campaign. Fletcher argues that the failure of Starmer thus far is a question of a lack of vision, and by implication that the left have a role in supplying this vision.

Readers of New Socialist will note the sharp contrast between Fletcher’s critique and ours: Starmer has “made his positions clear—the problem is that they’re shit and unpopular.” It is easy to see how this argument, slightly transformed, could become: Starmer lacks vision, but Rayner’s greater openness to the left could allow us to shape a new centrist vision. However, Fletcher’s analysis (and this is not a quirk of Fletcher’s, the accommodationist argument relies upon it) rests on a conception of the centre of gravity in Labour, defined by broad agreement around being “internationalist in outlook, pro-public services, anti-privatisation, for equality and increasingly focused on climate change.” The recent history of the Labour Party suggests this centre – which the argument for accommodation relies on – has collapsed. A similar centre may have been plausible, sustained by the postwar consensus, but now, absent its economic foundations, the nice things of this centre of gravity require a degree of confrontation with capital. The right, not wanting to confront capital, give up on the nice things, the left understand that the nice things require that confrontation. Struggles over party democracy become a part of that argument on either side – an undemocratic Labour Party allows for smoother integration into the purposes of capital. Ultimately, a choice must be made.

The strategy of accommodation with the centre did not emerge overnight. There was an influx to the Socialist Campaign Group after the 2017 and 2019 elections, often of MPs selected or imposed by the left, many of whom hardly fit the image of the rebellious left-wing backbenchers of before the Corbyn era. Marsha de Cordova, Kim Johnson, Nav Mishra and Sam Tarry were immediately appointed to Rayner’s Deputy Leader team. Olivia Blake, Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Cat Smith, who all also nominated Rayner, were given other roles. Many of the MPs selected in recent years thanks to Momentum, Unite and others on the left have gone straight onto Starmer’s front bench and remained there quietly ever since without rebelling once. Between them these make up a good proportion of the Campaign Group and it would be hardly surprising if they were persuaded that their loyalty to those above them outweighed their responsibility to us ordinary members. Nor is pressure the other way likely to come from the left organisations outside Parliament: the previous leadership of Momentum pulled every trick in the book to get official support for Rayner, and it remains to be seen how differently the new leadership behaves.

If there is any lingering hope to be put in the legacy of Corbynism within the Labour Party – something which is far from certain – it has to be on the basis that this newly enlarged group of socialist MPs are not there for themselves or even their own opinions but as representatives of us, the members, whose hard work and commitment to socialist politics put them there, in some cases against enormous obstacles. At the very least we expect them to try and ensure a left representative is on the ballots which are sent out.

If Starmer resigns, the threshold of 10% is easily achievable. If not, the threshold of 20% ought not to be beyond the grasp of the largest Campaign Group in many years. If a campaign to get a socialist MP on the ballot does fall short, the choice will be limited to Rayner, Stamer (if he hasn’t resigned) and potentially others unambiguously from the right, and MPs will have the choice of which is least bad; this must only ever be a fall-back position in the case that the left tries but is unable to secure nominations for a candidate who represents the views of the largest bloc of Labour CLP members. If there are not enough socialists to get a socialist candidate on the ballot, or if that candidate does not win, it will mark a major setback for the faction which controlled much of the Party machinery a little over a year ago. We will, at least, know the scale of the challenge facing us.

Of course the left may not win: this much we know. John McDonnell fell short in 2007 and 2010, but nonetheless brought a new generation of activists into the Labour left in the process. Diane Abbott came last in 2010 but, in the process, put left-wing ideas onto the ballot and into the hustings events for the first time in decades. Staking out a position and insisting on the validity of the left as part of Labour is in itself part of why the Campaign Group exists. Five years after Abbott got 7% in the CLP section of the electoral college, seemingly at the left’s weakest point, Jeremy Corbyn won.That defeat is not guaranteed ought to be etched on our collective political consciousness by now, even when things may seem hopeless. Starmer had to pretend to be left-wing to woo a membership which repeatedly elects a majority of left candidates to constituency NEC positions and which swept the board in elections to the National Women’s Committee this week.

There is a separate conversation which clearly needs to take place about the right time to challenge Starmer, and whether the left ought to be the faction to make the first move, but, as things stand, we risk the worst of both worlds: getting the blame for disloyalty while not even getting a left candidate onto the ensuing ballot. The long-term consequences of the Campaign Group being used as a tool to dislodge one right-winger in favour of another are likely to outweigh any short-term benefit. There is an argument, notably from some of the same people who pushed Starmer as a potential unifier, that Rayner might give the left some breathing space. Such arguments have little basis in the history or reality of Labour and the nature of the factions who will control Rayner should she win; they would, however, result in a backbench left even less willing to speak and act against the leadership than the one we have now.

If there does turn out to be a leadership contest with no socialist candidate, not because the left didn’t have enough MPs but because those supposedly left MPs chose to arrogate to themselves the decision to limit the leadership debate excluding the left, it is hard to see that the Campaign Group has any future. It may also become impossible for many of those who still remain to continue believing and arguing that there is any point in membership of the Labour Party. Socialist MPs’ role as supportive enablers of activism will have come to an end in favour of a return to the days of Labour’s political space being entirely circumscribed by the PLP closed shop.

If there does turn out to be a leadership contest with no socialist candidate because supposedly left MPs chose to arrogate to themselves the decision to limit the leadership debate excluding the left, it is hard to see that the SCG has any future.

The limited gains of the past four decades are under threat by stealth, thanks to the phantasm of influence in a Rayner-led Labour Party. A promise of jobs for MPs which can be taken away as easily, and which – if granted – would lead to the hilarious farce of Labour’s left and right pretending that they have things in common and could form a functioning government together.

Those who might gain from such an unholy lash-up would be ambitious MPs, staffers and hangers-on looking for jobs, and those on Labour’s right who can continue being all things to all people. The losers would be the members, locked out once again from decision-making, not because of the weakness of our movement or commitment, but the craven weakness of our representatives.


Nicky Hutchinson