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Why the Labour left loses

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Keir Starmer is waging a war on the left in Labour. Nick Clark explains how the party’s structures and methods mean the left is always at the mercy of the right
Issue 2732
Corbyn will be allowed to stay in the party as long as he behaves
Corbyn will be allowed to stay in the party as long as he behaves (Pic: Jeremy Corbyn/flickr)

John McDonnell makes a point of always ending his speeches with the word “solidarity.”

“It’s a word upon which the Labour and trade union movement was founded,” he once said. “It taught us that unity is strength and an injury to one is an injury to all.”

In that spirit, what solidarity has McDonnell given to his old comrade Jeremy Corbyn?

Along with most of the other members of the Socialist Campaign Group he signed a disapproving statement asking Keir Starmer to restore Corbyn as a Labour MP.

In a tone more of sadness than of anger, the statement said the decision to withdraw the whip from Corbyn was “wrong and damaging to the Labour Party.” It “severely undermines efforts to unite” behind the report that blamed the left for antisemitism.

Not exactly fighting talk. Especially in the face of continued right wing assaults by Keir Starmer and the Labour right.

Labour first suspended Corbyn. Then when he made concessions he was restored to party membership.

But outrageously Starmer then barred him from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Corbyn may have the whip reinstated in three months’ time but only if he behaves himself.

And it can’t even be described as a victory if the price of being readmitted to Labour is to stay quiet except in support of Starmer.

The left MPs had other options. They could have rebelled and resigned the Labour whip, as some Corbyn supporters demanded. They could have sat with Corbyn as independents and been a constant thorn in Starmer’s side.

They could have put their words about solidarity into action by breaking from Labour and forming a separate party based on struggle.

Activists speak out—the left’s hope lies outside Labour
Activists speak out—the left’s hope lies outside Labour
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But as Richard Burgon—considered one of the left’s more outspoken MPs—cautioned activists, recently, “There’s talk today of a civil war in the Labour Party. I want to be absolutely clear—that serves no one but the Tory government.”


Instead he wanted to plead with Starmer not to pursue expulsions because a divided party loses elections.

Diane Abbott argued the same. For her and Burgon, the lesson of the US presidential election is that the left can play a crucial role in getting right wing party leaders elected.

So that’s their strategy. Instead of waging war on the right, they beg to be allowed to stay in the party.

If you joined Labour under Corbyn, you’ve got a right to be annoyed.

But it wouldn’t be the first time leaders of the Labour left have gathered their supporters, only to march them into line behind a banner of “unity”. Tony Benn did it too.

Benn and his supporters felt they were on the up after they won some victories at Labour conferences, and he came close to becoming deputy leader.

But after a group of right wing MPs quit the party—and some bad opinion polls for Labour—the left were tamed.

The party launched a witch hunt of left activists with a register of organisations allowed to operate inside its structures.

At first Benn stormed out of the national executive meeting where the witch hunt was launched, declaring himself “the real deputy leader.”

He soon apologised.

Within weeks, union leaders—and Benn’s adviser Jon Lansman—had convinced him not to stand again.

Now Benn argued that the left’s conference victories could be implemented without challenging the right, calling for “unity behind the existing leadership and the existing policies.”

Labour left groups that had pledged to defy the witch hunt and resist the register instead signed up to it and let expulsions go unopposed.

That’s not even the first time this happened. The Labour left’s leaders have been carrying on like this for as long as the party has existed.

Before Labour had even formed its first government, left wing activists complained that its MPs were selling them out in parliament.

Left opposition in the party came from the socialist Independent Labour Party (ILP) led by Ramsay MacDonald.

Against his own ILP members, MacDonald argued that MPs had to respect parliamentary procedures—and that’s why they couldn’t fight over unemployment. Instead he told them to accept “gradual” reforms towards socialism.

As prime minister he didn’t even do that.


Labour was elected in 1929 on promises to end a major unemployment crisis. Instead it did the opposite and cut benefit payments to the unemployed.

At the bidding of banks Britain owed money to, MacDonald booted his own party out of government and led a lash-up of Tories, Liberals and ex-Labour ministers.

It was a defining moment of betrayal and a huge crisis for Labour. But the left wing backlash lasted just a couple of years.

Left winger George Lansbury was elected leader in 1931.

The Socialist League, newly formed in 1932, won conference battles demanding far reaching nationalisation measures. Even the most moderate Labour politicians toyed with revolutionary language.

It didn’t last long—by 1934 the right and the union leaders decided they’d had enough socialism.

Lansbury was made to resign in 1935. Party members were later banned from membership of the Socialist League.

Rather than risk their membership of Labour, the League simply disbanded.

Its leader Stafford Cripps was expelled in 1939. When he was allowed back in he went on to implement austerity as Labour’s chancellor in 1947.

After tha t the l eft had one last big moment between then and Benn—the members’ support for Nye Bevan in the 1950s.

Bevan quit the Labour government over its decision to introduce prescription charges to the newly formed NHS. He led rebellions against Labour’s leadership—especially against its support for nuclear weapons.

He had huge support among members, but without the support of any union leaders, he got nowhere. Instead, to make what he saw as progress, he entered right winger Hugh Gaitskell’s shadow cabinet. 

This meant making peace with the right, and as shadow foreign secretary he turned on his supporters by speaking in favour of keeping nuclear weapons.

Between then and Benn’s leadership challenge, the left were clutching at straws.

The Labour Party played no part in the great social revolts of the late 1960s.

But throughout the 1970s members were able to pass radical conference resolutions—which the leaders were happy to tolerate and ignore.

These apparent policy gains allowed left Labour MPs to take part in the right-led governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and feel they had some influence. Union leaders—left and right—could also cooperate with those governments in holding down workers’ wages.


The point of all this isn’t to damn today’s left with the betrayals of those who went before. It’s not to sneer at them for failing to learn the lessons of the past either.

In each case, the left’s fatal problem was that their commitment to the Labour Party left them tied and submissive to the right.

It’s time to leave Labour
It’s time to leave Labour
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In a party whose aim is to govern through parliament and manage the state, the natural leaders and MPs are the ones who aim to do this “responsibly”—the right.

The left thinks they can do it differently—that they can use Labour and parliament to implement much more radical change.

But every attempt meets opposition from the rich, the media—and their own MPs.

MPs’ position in Labour gives them the power to really sabotage the whole thing.

They threaten to do what the left always shy away from—rebel, resign and undermine at every turn, as they did to Corbyn.

It works because control of Labour is central to how the left aim to bring change. So they make all sorts of accommodations and retreats just to cling on.

They always recoil from any confrontation that might end in a decisive break from the right. They remain the right’s willing prisoners.

Diane Abbott said the left’s jo b now is to defend the gains they made under the Corbyn years.

If you’re an activist this means years of drudgery and a siege mentality.

It means scrapping to win committee positions while Starmer marginalises you and uses you as election campaign fodder, passing conference motions for him to ignore.

For Corbyn and his allies that means staying quiet and going along with Starmer’s leadership—or worse.

McDonnell’s main regret from his time at the top of Labour is that the left wasn’t “ruthless enough and fast enough”.

Not in taking on the right, but in implementing the punishments of members they demanded under the guise of tackling antisemitism.

“Maybe we should have been harder. Maybe we should have been more ruthless,” he told a recent meeting.


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