The Labour party is being buffeted left and right by the economic crisis. Michael Doyle surveys the trajectory of the party, and the dilemmas facing its leftwing MPs.
After months of mounting economic hardship, symbolised above all by the spike in energy prices, Keir Starmer’s Labour party has finally indicated it supports capping energy prices at current levels. The announcement seems like a panicked move, as it comes just a couple of days after their initial, much punier offer: bringing pre-payment prices in line with direct debit with the costs to energy companies covered by the tax payer.
The economic storm is now so harsh that it has briefly overcome Labour quietism – but in a way that reveals how rudderless Starmer’s entire project is. It remains to be seen how seriously he will press this position, and whether his deep conservatism will reassert itself at different turns in the crisis. Starmer might not have broken cover at all were it not for Gordon Brown once again rushing to “save the world” with a proposal to convene daily COBRA meetings and an “emergency budget”. Brown’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was to bail out the financial sector – socialising losses and proposing austerity to repair the damage – at the cost, naturally, of a public not responsible for the crash. In Brown’s article outlining his proposals, he once again advocates a form of ‘temporary nationalisation’ to protect the energy oligarchy and its profits from their own failure. Still, the timing of Brown’s intervention might be another indication of growing frustration, even in the Labour machine itself, at Starmer’s limp performance.
Recent strike actions have dented Starmer’s credibility. The diktat from the Labour leadership that frontbenchers should not be on picket lines has been unevenly enforced. The sacking of Sam Tarry, a shadow minister for rail, for appearing on a picket line was not followed by similar action against figures like Lisa Nandy, widely seen as preparing for a leadership election at some point in the future.
A Labour leadership taking a dim view of industrial action is not a new phenomenon. It would be well beyond the scope of this article to detail every instance of Labour’s leaders either breaking strikes or offering no support – or in the case of Falkirk in 2013, Ed Miliband calling on Police Scotland to launch a criminal investigation into Unite – then a new nadir in the party’s relationship with its biggest funder. New depths have since been discovered, and leading trade unionists in affiliated unions have questioned the future of the payments to the party.
With strikes by various groups of workers likely to continue for the rest of the year, the Labour left and unions affiliated with the party will express anger at Starmer’s refusal to give wholehearted support for strikes and his timid and paltry economic offer. Yet as we have seen since Starmer became leader, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs has adopted a quietist ‘sit and wait’ policy of its own approach. This has included some left MPs abandoning their former leader Jeremy Corbyn, and others removing their signatures from a Stop the War letter calling for an end to war in Ukraine. Leading members of the SCG have since vowed obedience on questions concerning NATO.
The retreat on the left of the party can also be symbolised by what should have been a moment of triumph: the release of the Forde report and its vindication of the claims made by the left of internal sabotage.
The Forde report was commissioned by Keir Starmer after the leaking of a report entitled ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019’. The leaked document was to be the party’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry, the party’s defence against accusations that under Corbyn’s leadership, antisemitism was endemic in the Labour Party. It contained appalling evidence of misconduct by top party bureaucrats, including racism, obnoxious abuse, internal sabotage of the general election campaign in 2017 and deliberate hindering of attempts to tackle antisemitism. All this was revealed because of the stupidity of senior party management in uploading their Whatsapp chats using their Labour Party email addresses.
Both the leaked report and the Forde report confirmed what many on the left had long suspected about the conduct of right-wing officials at party HQ. The Forde report was expected by the left to be a whitewash, yet it vindicates the central claims of the left over the past seven years: that a hierarchy of racism exists in the Labour Party, antisemitism was weaponised by the right for factional reasons, and that money was diverted during the general election in 2017 to safe Labour seats to protect factional allies. It was no surprise that Forde found a hierarchy of racism exists in the Labour Party. It was the last Labour government that instituted the ‘hostile environment’, set up a security state to monitor Muslims, and it was Tony Blair who claimed that knife crime was inherent to black culture.
According to Forde, the diversion of funds to right-wingers in safe seats was not enough to make any tangible difference to the outcome of the general election. Yet we know from Steve Howell, who was in charge of budgeting and targeting in the leader’s office, that the £135,000 earmarked for the Ergon House operation could have been used for crucial additional campaigning in 30-40 constituencies. Whether this would have made a difference to the electoral outcome is immaterial now. Yet for all the charges of ‘entryism’ levelled at the left, what the Forde report shows is that there were saboteurs who preferred to have a Tory government than a Labour government led by someone from the left.
The report also exposes contradictions on the left, however. It vindicates Corbyn in his belief that the antisemitism accusation was weaponised against his project. But it was precisely this claim in response to the EHRC investigation that led many on the parliamentary party left to distance themselves from him. This leaves it all rather too late to protest that he is now vindicated by an internal investigation fanatically ignored by the mainstream press.
The industrial action taking place now and likely for the rest of the year is a fork in the road for the Labour left. Either continue down the ‘stay quiet and hope for the best’ path with the hope of capturing the party leadership and repeating the concessionary approach to the right of the party; or fight as though the disorders of British capitalism were as severe as they really are.