Michael Doyle argues that Labour’s left MPs have rendered themselves irrelevant by their final capitulation to Starmer, at just the time when anti-war voices are badly needed.
Even those of us who have been critical of the ideas and record of the Labour left, or expressed doubt in its viability as a project for change, wouldn’t question the commendable principles some of its MPs and activists once played in resisting the ‘War on Terror’.
Some performed a pivotal role in establishing the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) which organised the biggest anti-war demonstration in British history on the eve of the disastrous second Iraq war, and correctly predicted that the Nato war and occupation in Afghanistan would end in failure. Jeremy Corbyn was propelled to the Labour leadership in large part for his opposition to attacks on civil liberties, Islamophobia, and military interventions – all stances vindicated by history. Indeed, you could even say that had there been to StWC, there would likely have been no Corbyn leadership.
There’s no point trying to polish the situation today. Corbyn has maintained his dignified stance on foreign policy, but he has been deposed and is out of the Labour fold, apparently forever.
The Labour left MPs, represented by the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) have emerged out of the wreckage of the Corbyn interregnum a timid and pathetic rump that cannot even hold the line on the most fundamental of principles. This comes at a time when a cast-iron commitment to anti-war politics is more necessary than ever.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine deserves treatment in depth, and other articles on the website will provide that. But the domestic national context also matters for immediate events, and for the future. My focus in this article is the hysterical and dangerous framing of the conflict by the Tory and liberal media and how the Labour left have responded to it by outright political collapse.
The media and leading politicians from various parties have revived all the old tropes: anyone opposed to the war must be a stooge for Putin (a grotesque act of mass projection given their own ambivalence for Putin’s war in Chechnya as a prelude to Russian ‘westernisation’ under then darling Vladimir Putin, and the Tory party’s relationship with Russian business figures), peace advocates are the Neville Chamberlains of our age, a negotiated settlement is tantamount to appeasement and more egregiously, any criticism of Nato and its expansion eastwards is taboo. The SCG’s response to this familiar establishment playbook of insults has not been resistance, but feebleness and capitulation.
This has to be viewed as a regression. While it’s true that the circumstances of the Iraq War were different to today, there has been somewhat more grit on the Labour benches before now. Even before the Corbyn leadership, in 2013 Labour (and Tory) MPs defeated David Cameron’s drive to war in Syria. During the 2017 General Election campaign, in the wake of the atrocious Manchester bombing, Corbyn made the argument that western intervention had destabilised Libya and had created a blowback effect. Rather than being punished for articulating this principled anti-war view, Corbyn’s poll numbers continued to surge, and polls showed that the majority of the public agreed with his analysis. Corbyn broke with precedent for a Labour leader and took a position contrary to the British state on the question of imperialism.
This should have been built on as a basis for a re-examination of Labour’s foreign policy. Instead, from that moment onward, the Labour left – led by senior figures like John McDonnell – have sought accommodation with the establishment line. According to the accounts of the Corbyn leadership, McDonnell believed that foreign policy and supporting the oppressed internationally was not ‘the hill to die on’. That meant capitulation on Nato and signing up to the IHRA antisemitism definition, which bans effective advocacy of the Palestinian cause, and which every Palestinian civil society group in the UK opposes. It also meant burying the hatchet (a very one-way exchange) with Labour’s arch warmongers, with McDonnell arguing Blair was not a war criminal, under questioning from Iraq War propagandist Alastair Campbell.
After withdrawing their signatures from an StWC statement (which condemned Putin’s aggression) because of fear of losing the Labour whip, McDonnell and other SCG members are backing the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign group as an alternative anti-war movement, alongside increasingly hysterical hawk Paul Mason who supports Nato escalation, and who has been in the pay of the Labour shadow defence secretary. This is controlled opposition which seeks to neuter the anti-war movement.
McDonnell later declined to appear at a StWC rally in Conway Hall in London, addressed by his former leader Corbyn. The establishment is attacking StWC with increased ferocity because of the success it has had in shifting public opinion. The ruling elite of our society despise any belief in the public that they have a right to debate, let alone criticise the foreign policy of their state.
If the Labour left can capitulate so easily to Sir Keir Starmer’s petulant attack and prohibition of criticising Nato, there is no chance of them being able to take on the forces of capital and the pro-war lobby in any meaningful way. What is at stake here is not just the delegitimization of the anti-war movement, but the achievement of changing public opinion over the past twenty years on the question of western intervention.
Out of the wreckage of the Corbyn project, two strands have emerged: the path of least resistance and endless concessions to right-wing forces; and Corbyn’s admirable consistency (he refused to rescind his signature on the basis that to do so would undermine the anti-war movement) and refusal to do the establishment’s bidding and marginalise anti-imperialism.
In the Labour party, the latter principled stance is in decline. The former, grovelling collapse, is in the ascendancy. But it has no future as a meaningful political stance. The only way to be relevant now is to resist the escalation and re-armament taking place across Europe.