Jonas Hombres, a socialist activist based in Leeds, says many on the left have to rapidly shed their focus on parliamentary politics and re-orientate on the current, historic crisis.
As the world hangs over the abyss, with the global system sliding into a biological, economic, and political crisis of previously unseen proportions, the Corbyn years have reached their conclusion. In a new era in which the economic propositions of Corbynism have never been more relevant, it’s protagonists are consigned to humiliating defeat.
Keir Starmer, the polished face of Labour’s traditional soft left, has been elected leader with an overwhelming majority. Angela Rayner, the soft left face of working-class authenticity, has won the deputy leadership. The left’s dominance on Labour’s National Executive Committee has been stymied, and Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet appointments hardly scream good news.
Like a desperately hungry person rooting around an empty biscuit jar for crumbs, many on the left have celebrated the retention of Rebecca Long-Bailey and Andy McDonald as evidence of Starmer’s commitment to a genuinely “broach church” leadership. Many more have celebrated the appointments of David Lammy and Ed Miliband as shadow justice secretary and shadow business secretary respectively.
By any measure it is the centre-left of British political life which now governs Her Majesty’s Opposition, with the connivance of the party right. What are the implications for the radical left?
For many on the left, there remains a confident assuredness that Starmer won’t be allowed to abandon Labour’s radicalism. Grace Blakeley clarifies these sentiments when she writes that “any backtracking on policy in the name of ‘electability’ or ‘feasibility’ will be rigorously resisted by Labour members”. Whilst Blakeley is right that only members and campaigns can ensure the staying power of Labour’s left-wing policy agenda, I’m not sure this scenario is likely to bear fruit. The Corbynist ecology was a fragile one: a contentious network of solidarity between a largely inactive membership, the leadership and left-friendly MPs, Momentum, high-profile journalists and intellectuals, left-wing trade union leaders, and an array of small activist infrastructures. This coalition no longer exists. The leadership is gone. The union leaders who haven’t backed Starmer already will naturally accommodate, either by seeking avenues to negotiate and compromise with him or creating a cautious distance between themselves and the party leadership. Momentum is in strategic disarray, itself subject to political reforms and factionalism, and the notion that activist campaigns will always have the leadership’s ear seems a dim prospect.
Most important, though, is the reality that a large majority of Labour members just voted for a candidate who prides himself on politically encapsulating the “broad church” logic. Five years of establishment assault, factional struggle, and eventual defeat have taken their toll. They might support left-wing policies, but it’s clear they don’t think socialist politicians are best placed to make the case for them. Amid the morass, it’s not at all obvious that members will have the energy, resources or institutional clout to prevent the party’s “slide back to the middle ground.”
In this context, the radical left needs to get to grips with what Starmer is rather than what they’d like him to be. Owen Jones highlights the “critical friendship” socialists could construct with this new leadership, arguing that Starmer’s commitments to Labour’s core policies are an “authentic expression of his own beliefs”. The reality is that his time as Director of Public Prosecutions – the welfare-baiting, cop-boot licking, protester-bashing – doesn’t inspire confidence. As I’ve said before, he typifies Stuart Hall’s “Little Caesars” of social democracy: their ingrained inclinations toward “compromise political solutions” and their “temporary staving off of deeper currents”. His nods towards leftism are designed precisely to pull the radical left into his orbit of influence, to change us more than we can change his leadership, to blunt our edge, and to strip us of influence and independence. It is in this context that Starmer’s leadership could create the conditions for Labour to be restored as a party-political option for British capitalism once again. Rather than the politics-by-consent that the new Labour leader projects, the radical left should be far more cautious of the consent-by-co-option that has perpetually hamstrung the ambitions of institutional leftism from MacDonald to Kinnock.
On top of this, the blood-dripping revanchism of the old Labour right continues to be underestimated in the Labour machine. Much has been made of the fact that Starmer didn’t appoint many members of the Labour right into his Shadow Cabinet (until Thursday when he appointed some of their hardliners like Liz Kendal, Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips to relatively junior roles), but this misunderstands their standing as a current. Out of ideas and relegated to the wilderness, there is no going back to their glory years. They might not have realised it yet, but it is by dint of their very marginality that they thrive. For the past five years, right-wing Labour MPs have found a home for themselves in the opinion columns, videolinks and studio seats of an establishment media diametrically opposed to a left social-democratic agenda. They have done so by routinely seeking to destabilise, disrupt and dismantle the Corbyn project. Even if one entertains the idea that Starmer intends to defend the right of Corbynists to exist within the Labour Party, it’s naive beyond belief to imagine that MPs and factions of the Labour right will waste a second in attempting to marginalise the radical left.
What would the new Labour opposition look like in practice? Owen Jones for example, writes that “Labour’s radicalism remains undimmed: the party recognises that revolutionary times require revolutionary answers.” Does Sir Keir agree?
Since his victory, the new leader has declared his leadership as one not of “opposition for opposition’s sake”, but “constructive opposition”. Designed as a rhetorical repudiation of Corbyn’s leadership and affirming reassurances towards power, socialists should take these words as a guiding principle far more than any vague policy commitments Starmer might have made. Contrary to much left-wing projection, what is implicit in Starmer’s approach to opposition is its restriction to picking over the particulars of government action rather than laying claim to a grander narrative about austerity, neoliberalism, or dare I say it, capitalism.
For all the sighs of relief proclaiming how much worse the situation could be, this style of leadership revives what Gramsci calls the conjunctural – “political criticism of a minor, day-to-day character, which has as its subject top political leaders and personalities with direct governmental responsibilities” – at precisely the moment when his notion of the organic – “socio-historical criticism, whose subject is wider social groupings–beyond the top figures and beyond top leaders” – which Corbynism at least tentatively represented, is more necessary than ever.
That’s why holding up Starmer’s opposition to austerity or his tired proclamations that “another future is possible” as a positive is next to meaningless when we’re living through a haphazard and magnitudinous shift in the capitalist system, the relationship between economy and state, and the temporalities and techniques of life and governance. The world Corbynism constructed its strategy and programme against – the very same rudiments Starmer fleetingly repurposes for reasons of containment – is over. When the Financial Times is littered with editorials and comment pieces urgently arguing for the end of neoliberalism and a virally-debilitated Tory government is presiding over historic levels of investment and state intervention, the election of a Labour leader whose political aesthetic embodies a timeless cardboard cut-out of a nineties social democrat should fill us with nothing but dread.
Unlike many of my comrades and friends, I didn’t join the Labour Party until after the 2017 election. Although I was optimistic about the capacity of Corbynism to facilitate mass electoral politics, I wasn’t at all convinced that being in the Labour Party provided activists with the room to convert electoral success into mass organising. The 2017 campaign, the counter-cultural movement it encapsulated and the early signs of an emergent class subject it provoked, changed my mind. That moment is long gone, however. Whether you think it was scuppered or stolen is a different debate, but the drive I and thousands had then for mass left-wing politics still remains; it’s just that the sources and material for mass politcs have likely shifted, or are at least shifting.
In the midst of this pandemic, we are witnessing online dole queues inflate into the millions; previously degraded workers discovering a potentially inordinate amount of industrial leverage; mutual aid groups and forms of social solidarity springing up against the faux universality of Covid-19; and a looming economic crash of historic proportions. Certainty is out of the window, but none of these developments will automatically benefit the politics of the radical left.
In this context, the truth is, I don’t care much who remains a Labour Party member or not. I don’t think it’s something the left should obsess about, morally bludgeon or patronisingly berate each other for.
The dilemma for socialists is twofold: firstly, can we collectively orient our energies towards the struggles beginning to take place in this new world? Secondly, can we avoid the trappings of a brutal factional battle over the ‘soul’ of Labourism, sacrificing initiative, independence and identity?
Of utmost importance is developing a network of socialist activists and writers who can collectively think and organise in a rapidly changing world where the stakes are high. Of course, aspects of this exist inside and outside the Labour Party.
The urgency of the moment however, makes it imperative that socialists committed to a rupture with capitalism begin a prolonged and open ‘constitutive process’ assembling together all of the activist and intellectual elements that can renew and revive a genuinely emancipatory left project. This can only be done through a process of mutual organising and collective debate. Its proximity to Labourism need not be a sticking point as long as it is committed to both working with and including Labour members, maintaining its autonomy from Labour Party procedure and bureaucracy, and ruthlessly criticising the Labour leadership when it inevitably falters . A failure to spark this process of approximation but rather submerge all left energies underneath the banner of Starmer’s leadership will leave the space for radicalism and anti-capitalism vacated, open to the predatory clutches of the far-right.
These questions remain of central importance, and how bound up they are with each other determines precisely whether a socialist politics beyond Corbynism can stake out a place for itself in this new world, or whether Corbynism’s discontents will be lost, consigned to history as the irritants to Starmer’s “loyal” and “constructive” opposition. If the left cannot forge for itself a combative, emancipatory identity now, when can it do so?