Paul O'Connell

Paul O'Connell

Labouring Under Illusions

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Paul O’Connell argues that labourism, rather than Keir Starmer, is the problem in the official opposition. We need to build a socialist movement beyond its narrow and conformist conception of politics.

A Tory MP crossing the floor of Parliament to join his colleagues in the Labour Party has provoked another round of fury and memes about the evils of “Starmer’s Labour”. Those on the left of the Labour Party responded with well-practiced incredulity, and performative social media demands that the party whip should be restored to Jeremy Corbyn. This episode of course sparked another round of exchanges about whether socialists should work within the Labour Party in an attempt to advance socialist politics, or if, instead, it is a dead end and barrier to socialism.

There are a range of well-worn arguments for why socialists (using that term expansively) should stay in the Labour Party, but at heart they all boil down to a variation on Thatcher’s well-known adage, re-worked for the orphaned children of social democracy, that there is no alternative. This approach generally imagines itself to be rooted in hard-nosed realism – we are all socialists and want radical change, but if you really want it, you must get a Labour government elected, any Labour government.

But rather than being insightful realpolitik, this is merely a variation on the old standard bearer of labourism in Britain, and reformist social democracy around the world, that politics is about winning elections. As Ralph Miliband put it, ever since the Labour Party was founded: “Labour leaders have taken the view – and have persuaded many of their followers to take the view – that government was all; and that politics is about elections: on one side, there is power, on the other, paralysis”. But this, Miliband goes on to note, is “a very narrow view of the political process”.

Narrow, because while elections are undoubtedly important, an overemphasis on them, and on electoralism as such, rests on a range of mistaken premises intrinsic to the labourist tradition. What we find, then, when we scratch the surface of contemporary arguments and debates is that the prefix in “Starmer’s Labour” is deployed to cover a multitude of sins and failings that are central to the politics of labourism itself, rather than an aberration ushered in by the current leader of the party.

All of this is well known – or at least it should be. Debates about the nature and fundamental limitations of labourism and the Labour Party have been standard fare amongst socialists in Britain for the best part of a century, but it is necessary (due to the myopia and selective memory endemic on the Labour left) to restate here some of the key elements of labourism, how it shapes politics in and around the Labour Party, and why it is fundamental to break with both in order to develop any meaningful socialist politics in Britain today.

There are three key elements that define labourism: (i) an emphasis on elections and electoralism; (ii) an understanding of the state/state power as neutral; and (iii) a top-down conception of social reform, which pays lip service to workers and trade unions, but ultimately sees social change (or even a variant of “socialism”) as something benevolently delivered by a Labour government. This is most evident in the Fabian tradition, and since the Fabians were the intellectual core of Labour at its inception, it is a view that permeates all versions of Labour, and Labour left, politics up to the present.

It needs to be stressed that even during the Corbyn era, the last hurrah of the Labour left, the key tenets of labourism remained broadly untouched. The focus was on elections, internal and external, to the detriment of any meaningful community or trade union organising, or serious political education. The economic and social programs, progressive in the context of the last 30 years, but timid in the long history of social democracy, were premised on pulling the levers of a neutral state apparatus. And finally, the entire project, evidenced by the arrogance of the second referendum position, was founded on an understanding of the decent few delivering for the ground-down many.

Corbynism was roundly defeated within the Labour Party long before the General Election of 2019. The commitment of the Labour left to the mantra of party unity (a unity the right has never had any compunction discarding), along with the general narrow labourist orientation and focus on elections and electability of the project, meant the left balked in the face of internal reform, in the face of a confected anti-semitism crisis, and on the crucial issue of the Brexit vote.

Since the demise of the Corbyn moment the left within Labour has shown, time and time again, that it has learned nothing from either the recent past, or the long history of the Labour Party. The need to be electable and maintain party unity led at best to a wait and see approach to the new leader – a man whose credentials and likely trajectory were well known to anyone with even a modest degree of curiosity – and in too many cases an embrace of the delusion that he would be a leader that would advance Corbynism without Corbyn.

Since he took power, the great moving right show that Starmer is the figurehead for has been met time and again by vocal incredulity (feigned or genuine, neither is a winning strategy) and unthinking calls to “stay and fight”, where fighting often amounts to no more than the issuing of tepid open letters or tragi-comic calls for unity. The calls, then, amount to an insistence that people stay, stay because there is no alternative. This is a politics of resignation and defeat that springs straight from the deep code of the labourist tradition. It has nothing to do with socialism, nothing to do with seriously tackling climate breakdown, rising authoritarianism, falling wages, and living standards, and everything to do with sustaining the electoral vehicle (along with the various personal and professional ties that bind its champions to it) that is the Labour Party.

Remaining in the Labour Party now means, as it almost always has, wasting energy on the internal machinations of party votes and manoeuvring, winning paper victories which do nothing to shift the balance of power in a party dominated by its parliamentarians, and by a conception of politics that is anathema to socialism. It means devoting time and energy to propping up an institution that is central to the maintenance of the social and political status quo, while maintaining illusions about advancing socialism – a dead end politics that demoralises, undermines more radical projects, and discredits the idea of socialism as serious, transformative politics.

In the face of the multiple crises we face today (spiralling inequality, collapsing living standards, deepening authoritarianism and climate breakdown) the dead hand of labourism and the Labour Party is not only insufficient for advancing a socialist politics adequate to the challenges we face, it is an immediate and central obstacle to it. In contrast to the straitjacket of labourism, a renewed socialist politics today must place an emphasis on empowering and supporting workers and oppressed communities to build power to fight and win their own struggles. Emphasise that electoralism is a form of politics that misunderstands the nature of power in capitalist society, and that the existing state apparatus is not a neutral tool to be picked up and re-worked for progressive ends, but a fundamental set of mechanisms for protecting and reproducing the status quo.

As such, and without needing to peddle any illusions or trite caricatures about the state of the extra-parliamentary left in Britain today, the focus for socialists must be on building and defending independent and explicitly socialist organisations, movements, and networks. This is the hard, but necessary, work that needs to be done. Some of the green shoots of this already exist: with the increased militancy of some trade unions and workplaces, the emergence of mutual aid projects (community food banks, gardens, cultural centres and more), tenants unions, and the vibrant movements for Black Lives and against the Police Crime, Security and Courts Bill.

All these movements, and others, in different ways recognise that, to borrow from István Mészáros, capitalism is the “extra-parliamentary force par excellence” and organise to confront the power of capital and its state at myriad discrete points. In the process empowering and building the confidence of working class and marginalised people – reinforcing the old idea that nobody is coming to save us, but us. Going forward it will be necessary to build on and go beyond these sporadic and disparate manifestations of opposition to the status quo, to forge, in Marta Harnecker’s words, a “political instrument” that can bring the movements and sentiments together into a more coherent and effective whole.

But this is where, for socialists, the focus must be. This does not mean discarding or ignoring the existing state institutions, and elections, but it means reversing the order of priority – instead of seeking to sustain an electoral vehicle that is inimical to socialist politics, it means developing a social base from which new political forms can spring. Political forms and organisations that arise from and are responsible to a mass of engaged, organised, protagonistic workers and communities. A social movement and base that understands, as James Connolly once put it, that the fight for control of the political state is not the real battle but the echo of the battle.

No act of Parliament will be adequate to the unfolding crises before us. Only organised movements of workers, along with marginalised and oppressed communities, can muster the social power necessary to mitigate the calamities produced by this system, and begin to build an alternative. Developing and building these movements is the only realistic focus for socialists today – indeed, it is a pressing obligation on all socialists to do just that. This will not be done within the Labour Party, nor will it be done as a side-line while you maintain a passive, “stay and fight” membership within Labour, waiting for the serendipitous moment when the machine might allow another “left” leader, only for the cycle of Benn, Foot, Corbyn to be repeated.

With the reality of the crises we face today, the Labour Party is a dangerous, destructive distraction for socialists and socialist politics. It’s worth restating here a crucial insight from John Saville, communist and historian of the British Labour Movement, who noted: “Labourism has nothing to do with Socialism: that the Labour Party has never been, nor is it capable of becoming, a vehicle for socialist advance; and…destruction of the illusions of Labourism is a necessary step before the emergence of a socialist movement of any size and influence becomes practicable”.

A Tory MP crossing the floor to join his colleagues in the Labour Party is not a brutal aberration produced by the betrayals of a duplicitous leader (though Keir Starmer is undoubtedly duplicitous), instead it is part of the post-Corbyn reset to form within the Labour Party. For socialists the reality is that rather than staying within the Labour Party, performing the endless rituals of self-delusion and self-flagellation, there are alternatives. The alternative is to prioritise a commitment to political principles over institutions and to engage in the politics of genuinely advancing socialism – this can be done in any number of ways, and any number of places, but it cannot, and will not be done in the Labour Party.

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