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Activists speak out—the left’s hope lies outside Labour

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Keir Starmer’s suspension of Jeremy Corbyn and the war on the left has sparked arguments about whether the Labour Party is really a vehicle for change. Here members—and some of those who have left in response to the attacks—tell Nick Clark how the witch hunt has changed the party
Issue 2730
The history of Labour is a history of the left capitulating to the right
The history of Labour is a history of the left capitulating to the right

“That was the last straw,” said Liam, after Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour Party. “I thought it was possible to stay and fight until they suspended him.

“The membership card says Labour is a democratic socialist party. But under Keir Starmer it’s not.”

Liam is one of many Labour members and supporters who have realised the party isn’t for them thanks to Starmer’s leadership.

For Liam and many others, Corbyn’s suspension for—correctly—saying the scale of antisemitism in the party had been overstated was a turning point. It was also the culmination of an assault on the left that had grown, unchecked, for years.

A report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) gave the right “proof” that left wing, anti-war, pro-Palestine politics are to blame for antisemitism. They used it and Corbyn’s suspension to send the left a message—shut up or be thrown out.

“Anything you say against the report, you’ll be branded an antisemite when that’s probably not the case,” Liam told Socialist Worker. “You could just be speaking out about what Israel does—anti-Zionism isn’t the same as being antisemitic.

“There’s no point doing it in the Labour Party any more. For me the Labour Party is dead.”

Liam: For me the Labour Party is dead

Liam: ‘For me the Labour Party is dead’

Liam isn’t alone in thinking that, or in connecting it to much broader frustration at Labour’s shift rightwards under Starmer.

For Dijana, the sheer injustice of how the media and the right treated Corbyn contrasts with how they—and Starmer—treat Boris Johnson.

“I’m not excusing any antisemitism that exists,” she told Socialist Worker. “But everybody knows what Corbyn said and he’s not antisemitic. He was victimised—what the media did to him was horrendous.


“It’s ridiculous while a blind eye was turned to Boris Johnson and everything he’s been quoted as saying. He’s talked about ‘picaninnies with watermelon smiles’. He compared Muslim women who wear the burqa to letter boxes.”

Dijana said Starmer “leans more towards the Tories”.

“It doesn’t feel like Labour is bending over backwards for the people anymore,” she said.

“Look at what’s happening to people’s jobs and livelihoods—what’s happening to the teachers. Nobody’s backing them up as they struggle in schools that aren’t protecting them.”

Liam, who lost his oil refinery job in March, said Labour should demand much more from the Tories to support people during the pandemic. Instead, Labour accepts limited measures such as the furlough scheme.

“Labour should push for more support for mental health services,” he added. “Those services were already stretched. Now the pandemic and lockdowns will stretch those services even more.”

Like many people, Dijana and Liam say they weren’t really interested in politics before Corbyn became Labour leader. “When Grenfell happened it became very apparent what side I need to be on,” said Dijana.

“Corbyn’s views and what he was fighting for—everything that was in his manifesto—were things that were speaking to me.”

It’s damning of Starmer’s politics that his leadership is pushing them away.

Dylan, a student, said he joined Labour in October last year and canvassed for it in the general election. After Labour lost and Corbyn announced plans to stand down, Dylan backed the left’s candidate to replace him, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Starmer seems hell bent on waging civil war against the left in the party


But he was—at first—prepared to give Starmer a chance.

Dylan: Starmer has turned out to be one of the most factious Labour leaders

Dylan: ‘Starmer has turned out to be one of the most factious Labour leaders’

“He was talking about unifying the party and ending factionalism,” Dylan told Socialist Worker. “I agree with all that—I’m against factionalism.

“But he’s turned out to be one of the most factious Labour leaders. He seems hell bent on waging civil war against the left in the party.

“I don’t know how much longer this can go on before being a leftist in Labour becomes untenable. I’m attending a Labour Party meeting on Zoom where no doubt the Corbyn situation will be discussed. On the basis of that I’ll decide if I can in good conscience remain a member.”


For Labour activists arguing for people to stay in the party, leaving would give the right exactly what they want.

Some of them—including FBU union leader Matt Wrack—have launched a new campaign, “Don’t Leave, Organise.” At an online meeting last week, Labour councillor Matt Nathan told activists the suspension of Corbyn is “a calculated provocation to get you to leave the party of your own accord”.

“I don’t have all the answers but I think the right place to start might be doing the opposite of that,” he said.

But even those who argue for staying accept that the future inside Labour looks grim.

Sophie Wilson, another Labour councillor, warned that some activists expect the left to bounce back too quickly. She said it would be “another decade or so before the left’s in the same position as we were in the 2017 general election”.

Encouraging activists to be “prepared”, leading Momentum member Sonali Bhattacharyya promised, “We know this is just the beginning. Things will get worse.”

People in the meeting had ideas about what they could do to fight back.

One Labour member wanted to “reform the stinking and rotten bureaucracy of our party”. Another wanted to demand a “moratorium” on the disciplinary procedures and “a review of the decisions made”.

Yet members are struggling even to be allowed to pass motions in local groups.

Norman, chair of South Thanet Constituency Labour Party, said members there passed a motion in support for Corbyn “by an overwhelming majority”.

He sent the motion to Labour’s general secretary. The very next day he got an email from a local official saying the motion was “out of order”.

For those who are going to carry on in the Labour Party, I can tell you it’s not easy


“For those who are going to carry on in the Labour Party, I can tell you it’s not easy,” he said.

If that wasn’t enough, many were also frustrated at left wing politicians’ and officials’ failure to lead a fight. Wilson said the Socialist Campaign Group of left wing MPs had been “weak” in not threatening to rebel against Starmer.

She also said calls for “unity” by the left “frankly just piss members off”.

Dijana: Why should we call for unity with members of a faction which has made endless attacks on us?

Dijana: ‘Why should we call for unity with members of a faction which has made endless attacks on us?’

“Why should we call for unity with members of a faction which has made endless attacks on us?” she asked.

For her and many others in the meeting, the way the Corbyn leadership approached the accusations that brought him down has been catastrophic.

Prominent activist Salma Yaqoob said “good comrades have been thrown under the bus” because of the leadership’s refusal to defend the right to criticise Israel.


“For a long time we had to have a hierarchy of priorities,” she said. “And for whatever reason the people around Jeremy took the view that this battle line need not be made.”

This has always defeated the left inside Labour. As Wilson and Wrack both acknowledged, the left has been in the minority in the party, making the same mistakes, for decades.

The power of MPs—and their threats of sabotage, disunity and expulsion—always whip the left into compromise and submission. Even at the height of Corbyn’s leadership, he and his allies backed away from anything even close to the sort of sweeping party reforms activists demand now.

Now, with the right’s attack in full swing, left MP John McDonnell still insists on apologising to them. Another, Ian Lavery, urges members to be “cautious” in what they say in meetings to avoid being suspended themselves.

For Dijana, this is one reason not to be in Labour. “I think to have the ability to fight in Labour you would have to give up on a few of your own views, especially when it comes to Palestine,” she said.

“A lot of people in the Labour Party see support for Palestine as antisemitic. That in itself is a compromise, and I don’t want to compromise my views.

“We have to be open to other people’s views. But there are certain things you can’t justify, you can’t talk away.”

I don’t want to compromise my views on Palestine


Dylan said the party machine is a big obstacle facing people who stay in Labour. He said the mostly left wing membership in his local organisation keep running up against right wing officials.

“The membership in my party are firmly socialist and Corbynist,” he said. “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with Starmer. But there are people firmly to the centre who will strongly denounce anyone who says they don’t like the direction of the party.”

He said the “very firmly Starmerite” local leadership backed Starmer’s “lukewarm support” of the Tories. “Our local newsletter basically parroted what the Tories said over lockdown,” said Dylan.

“There was no sense that Labour was going to seriously oppose anything the Conservatives did over coronavirus, and the local party toed the line over it. The rank and file membership are still very much supporting Corbyn, but the machine is behind Starmer.”

It’s telling that Liam, Dijana and Dylan all seem to have a greater sense of optimism than those who don’t see a future outside Labour.

All three joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the days following Corbyn’s suspension because they believe there can be an alternative.

Liam is hopeful that, despite Corbyn’s defeat, the millions of people who were inspired by him could still be organised.


“Corbynism is the first introduction to socialism lots of people have had,” he said. “We could get leaflets out to people and entice them to know more about it.

“There are a lot of young people out there who could become good active members of their community.”

Dylan thinks the left can find a different approach to parliament. “The best thing for the left is to work not through parliament but through the trade unions,” he said.

“At the same time as I joined the SWP I joined the IWW union because the best thing to do is work through organised labour.”

But he added that Labour’s link to trade unions is important.

“It will be interesting to see what the Unite union’s Len McCluskey says in the following days,” he said.

“If Starmer keeps the ties with the left wing element of the unions I think there’s still a case for staying in Labour.

“But if he attempts to repress the unions and moves the party in a Blairite direction, seeking corporate money rather than union support, that’s when you have to break.”

Dijana said that moment has already come. “People have to rise up and form their own party,” she said. “I think there’s a big change coming and the Labour Party isn’t up to it.”

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