Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

The fight is outside Labour

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Keir Starmer has been elected to lead the Labour party. Jonathon Shafi says that continuing a fight inside the party is not the priority in the present crisis.

The victory of the Labour establishment in the this weekend’s party leadership election was substantial to say the least. Keir Starmer easily won with 56% of the vote, compared to 27.6% for the Corbynite candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who in truth ran a lacklustre and conservative campaign.

Far from a compromise candidate between Corbynites and the old Blairite right, Starmer should be understood as the instrument to return full control of the party to its pro-system apparatus. This can only be achieved with rhetorical sops to the left, which have in fact been very muted. The appointment of Long-Bailey to the education brief is about the smallest scrap that could have been issued to her base.

So it is very sad to see many I respect on the left in England succumb to the idea that Starmer is going to challenge the status quo if only the left ‘keep a hold of the policy agenda’. That’s just not how politics or power works. The establishment have regained full control of party politics.

Accordingly there is no need for Starmer to ‘purge the left’. The left of the party have been badly disorientated since Brexit, and still are. Leading Labourite figures and publications are likewise wrong to say ‘the fight remains in labour’ – it doesn’t.

The fight now is to rebuild and develop new struggles outside of parliamentary politics. The parliament is ‘locked down’ with the Tories. Openings don’t exist in the parliament at this time. But they are in abundance in the building of broader movements of opposition to the system.

The influential columnist Owen Jones has said it would be a gift to the “Blairites” if left-wingers leave the party. But the emphasis should not be on ‘stay in Labour’, it should be on ‘build the movement outside the Labour Party’. Both can be done, but right now one is far more important: the latter. Indeed, for those on the Labour left (since I don’t intend to tell people what party they should or should not be in) a much stronger perspective would be that the best way to repair the vitality of the party’s left would be to focus on movement activity, rather than join the extended court around a leader who is trenchantly opposed to its influence.

Ash Sarkar of Novara Media says the “Lexit-Remain” culture war should be forgotten. First it’s not a culture war, it’s a major strategic question for the left. The contours of that debate are not a flash in the pan. They are fundamental to how the left related to the general crises of capitalist relations we see breaking out. Real and substantial disagreements cannot be patched-over.

Ronan Burtenshaw, the editor of Tribune magazine says if you are disheartened “join a union and take energies to the workplace.” It may not be wrong in itself. But this feels too detached from a national political project, for example from a major united front intervention that might combine extra-parliamentary struggles into a national fight.

Amid strong arguments about the wider political situation and Covid-19, he argues: “Now is not the time for the socialist movement to fracture and fragment. After today’s defeat, we need to organise and rebuild – and the best place to do that is in the Labour Party.”

It must be remembered what the Labour party is, and what it is not. It is not the left. It is not even so hegemonic a force on the parliamentary left as it was only years ago (having, by all appearances, definitively lost Scotland and retreated from whole expanses of its traditional voting base). It is not ‘the labour movement’. And it most certainly is not the working class.

The best place to rebuild is not in the Labour party but outside of it: where workers, communities, students, the unemployed actually are. Focusing energies in either a truncated battle of ideas that only relates to Labour policy, or indeed in demoralising factional warfare, will only distract from more useful initiatives with a potentially mass audience.

This is a question not only relevant to Labour (and of course post-Labour) England. It exists in a different context in Scotland. In each case the premium is on building movements of resistance (involving thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions), to elevate people power above Osborne backed Labour leaders, or a neoliberal SNP.

There has been a noticeable drift on the left since 2016. Syriza failed due to attitudes that could not see beyond quite a shallow electoralism. Now that drift is to fold behind Starmer (even if as “critical friends”).

The internal conditions of these parliamentary parties is not transposable to a wider country, that now faces a massive crisis of class relations in the era of Coronavirus and all its consequences. Far beyond the sleepy confines of the British establishment, history is already being made.

Now is a time to drive hard into building movements outside of the parties. We will need them.

Picture courtesy of Jeremy Corbyn

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