Socialist Worker

As Labour draws closer to office—beware the soft left

Issue No. 2585

Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Pic: Steve Bowbrick/Flickr)

The Labour right would love to thrust a knife in Jeremy Corbyn’s back. But when the time comes, they’ll leave it to the “soft left” to strike the first blow.

Corbyn and the left in Labour have some untrustworthy allies.

Soft left Labour MPs such as Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry have given Corbyn some crucial support. They were among the few Labour politicians who supported Corbyn when most other MPs were trying to force him out.

Yet the soft left is also responsible for delivering many of the Labour leadership’s most significant recent concessions to the right.

For instance Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, recently said Britain’s relationship with Israel would “remain strong” under a Labour government.

She even said that selling arms to Israel was “entirely in line” with Labour’s policy.


In September Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said Labour couldn’t give public sector workers a

5 percent pay increase to make up for years of cuts.

And soft left MP Clive Lewis was responsible for ensuring Labour kept its support for Trident nuclear weapons despite Corbyn’s lifetime opposition.

The Labour leadership will come under increasing pressure to make such concessions as the party gets closer to being elected to government.

Top civil servants, bankers and bosses want to know Labour will govern “responsibly”.

In other words they want the party to drop plans for nationalisations and higher taxes on businesses and to keep support for Britain’s military alliances.

Meanwhile the Labour right wants Corbyn to prove Labour is “electable” by chasing after right wing votes on issues such as immigration.

It may suit Corbyn to allow the soft left to make those concessions publicly rather than be seen to do it himself.

But the soft left can also be a danger to him and his supporters.

For instance before the general election Lewis—encouraged by soft left columnist Owen Jones—looked set to challenge Corbyn’s leadership.

More recently Rayner took a veiled swipe at Labour activists campaigning to defend council housing in Haringey, north London.

She echoed right wing accusations of “factionalism” made against the left.

Her attack pointed to the major contradiction at the heart of the Labour Party, which the soft left is a product of.

Labour aims to represent working class people in parliament, and push through left wing, social democratic reforms.

But getting elected and governing through parliament comes with the pressure to govern “responsibly”.

The soft left, seeing parliament as the only way to make such changes, accepts those limitations—and are ultimately guided by them.

So when it comes down to it, they’ll always side with the right against the left when they start to run up against those limitations.


There’s precedent for this in Labour’s history. In the early to mid-1980s the soft left joined forces with the right to stop the rise of Bennism.

Left wing MP Tony Benn had huge support from party members when he challenged right wing Denis Healey for deputy leader.

But the soft left split over whether to back him. Two of the most influential soft left MPs, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, led the charge against Benn.

Benn eventually lost by a tiny margin.

Electoral defeats for Labour strengthened the pull on left wing activists.

Benn’s focus on parliament meant he had no effective alternative to the pressures that eventually convinced many of his supporters they had to move rightwards.

These pressures give the right and the soft left control of Labour.

Resisting them means breaking free of the focus on parliament.

The Labour left, and Corbyn, are strongest when looking to the workplaces and the streets for their strength.

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