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Time to leave the Labour Party and fight for change outside it

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The Labour Party’s structures have always privileged its MPs and the right wing who hold members in contempt. The left shouldn’t be their willing hostages again, writes Nick Clark
Issue 2701
The left should publish an exit strategy from Keir Starmer’s Labour
The left should publish an exit strategy from Keir Starmer’s Labour (Pic: Chatham House)

Stay and fight is the conclusion many Labour activists have drawn in the aftermath of a leaked report exposing sabotage by right wing party bureaucrats.

Just as left wing members were despairing at Keir Starmer’s election as leader—many even considering quitting—something emerged to say the battle isn’t over. 

Labour could have won the general election in 2017 if it wasn’t for a small band of officials working dead-set against Corbyn, the report suggests. 

Quit, and you give them what they wanted all along. Stay, and they could yet face a reckoning.

It’s certainly shocking just how viciously Labour’s full time staff were opposed to their own leader, let alone their members. 

But what is it that could make Labour Party staff hope for a Tory victory? How do such people end up working so high up in the party? 

And why do they feel entitled to control it?

The set-up that Corbyn clashed with was a legacy of the days of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. 

Blair’s attempt to transform Labour into a purely pro-business party involved trying to deny the members any sort of democratic process whatsoever.


Certainly that contempt for the members, and disdain for anything to the left of Blair and Brown, shines through in the report.

Yet that tension has been a feature of Labour ever since it was founded. 

Labour’s first significant tranche of MPs began defying the wishes of supporters almost as soon as they were elected in 1906. 

When supporters complained, Labour agreed that the Parliamentary Labour Party was entitled to ignore conference. 

And because for Labour what MPs do in parliament is the most important thing, they got away with it. It’s been that way ever since. 

There have been attempts to “reclaim” Labour for the members throughout its history. 

Each one has made some gains—and faced purges. Socialist League members—led by Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps—were expelled in the 1930s. 

Left wing groups were hunted out of the party in the 1980s and 90s.

Importantly, each purge followed a confrontation that ended in a retreat by the left, and a refusal to break from the right entirely. 

Bevan and Cripps made their peace with austerity and nuclear weapons for the sake of a Labour government and the national interest. 

Tony Benn ended his battle when the right told him he threatened Labour with electoral defeat.

Each defeat restored the right’s power at the top of the party, enforced by purges and attacks on members. 

And each time left activists argued for members to bunker down and fight another day.

In practice they were willing hostages of a party machinery that holds them in contempt.

Union leaders are conservative force within Labour 

Many of the officials named in the report were closely connected to Labour’s trade union backers.

Labour’s then general secretary Iain McNicol, who oversaw attempts to exclude members from leadership elections, had been a GMB union political officer. 

Another, Emilie Oldknow, is now assistant general secretary in the Unison union. 

She apparently sent abusive messages about Corbyn supporters, and tried to get left wing MP Rebecca Long-Bailey removed from a panel to select Labour’s candidate in a by-election.

While leaders of the GMB and Unison were claiming to support Corbyn’s leadership, officials linked to them were working to undermine them.

And now those same leaders are offering the plotters their protection.

In an open letter to Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, elected union officials and members condemned the behaviour exposed in the report. 

Labour—a party of  conflict
Labour—a party of conflict
  Read More

They said the union must “identify if any individuals employed by Unison, or those which held Labour Party positions by virtue of their membership of Unison, in the period of the report were aware of these actions”. 

Yet Prentis reportedly told senior Labour staff named in the report that he’ll back them.

Meanwhile, Labour staff in the GMB union passed a motion condemning Labour’s current general secretary Jennie Formby for the leak of the report.

Formby was herself a senior Unite union official. 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey backed Corbyn—but even he would only go so far. 

He condemned the behaviour described in the leak, but ultimately called on members to unite behind right wing leader Keir Starmer.

Unions are there to defend workers’ interests. 

But the union bureaucracy sees electing a Labour government as the way to get social change—and that ultimately means maintaining unity with the right. Socialist polices are—wrongly—seen as obstacles to success.

Left set for futile faction fights

The reality of what “stay and fight” will mean in the Labour Party seems a pretty dispiriting prospect.

In the wake of Keir Starmer’s election as leader, every wing of the party is organising for what looks like some gruelling internal battles ahead.

The right, organised by the Labour First and Progress factions, have joined forces.

Under Corbyn they tried to rally their supporters to block left wing members getting anywhere in their Constituency Labour Parties.

Now their umbrella organisation, Labour to Win, is going to provide “information, arguments and organisational support” to marginalise the left.

Left wing groups are also uniting. 

The Labour Representation Committee, Red Labour and Jewish Voice for Labour want to oppose the Tories. The focus is “reconstruction” of the left inside Labour. 

Meanwhile, Momentum is trying to regroup. 

It’s main aim in all this is to get back to winning positions on committees and pushing motions at conference that end up being ignored.

It would be a disaster if left wing  activists were encouraged to stay in Labour only to pour their time and energy into hours of internal, bureaucratic wrangling.

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