By Nick Clark
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2788

Will a new left party challenge Keir Starmer?

Reports of a new Peace and Justice party, with Jeremy Corbyn leading it are a welcome step. But a break from Labour must also be a break from Labourism and its limitations, argues Nick Clark
Issue 2788
Jeremy Corbyn launches the Peace and Justice project in December, 2020. (Photo, Peace and Justice Project)

Jeremy Corbyn launches the Peace and Justice project in December, 2020. (Photo, Peace and Justice Project)

 

For the first time since Jeremy Corbyn was booted out of Labour last year, there is now at least some talk about the idea of setting up some sort of alternative.

Reports in the Telegraph newspaper said Corbyn was considering turning his think tank and charity, the Peace and Justice Project, into a party.  

There was a lot of ­excitement from some of Corbyn’s supporters—and a lot of anxiety from the left still in Labour.

Those hoping for ­something new recognise Labour is rotten. Many of them learned this as Labour members. Now they want to try something different.

In contrast, those ­determined to remain inside are still trapped by its ­thinking. For them parliament is the only place to win fundamental change, and Labour is the vehicle to do it.

 So, Labour left group Momentum warned its supporters that “our broken electoral system means that ­setting up a new party won’t work”. 

This reasoning is why it’s unlikely that left wing MPs such as John McDonnell or Zarah Sultana would leave Labour to join Corbyn. 

It’s also why they’re unlikely to support Corbyn to be re-elected as an independent if he hasn’t been reinstated. If supporting Corbyn against a Labour candidate means risking expulsion, will the left abandon him?

 If Corbyn beat Labour’s ­candidate, it would be a blow to Starmer and the right—and cheer up every socialist.

 But the Labour left are tied to the party—and so also tied to the right wing politicians who dominate it.

That’s what makes leaving Labour in search of an ­alternative a positive step. It doesn’t just mean breaking from the right. 

It also cuts against the idea that the demands of ­parliament and winning elections should determine how socialists organise.

 And it inevitably throws up a whole raft of questions. What was wrong with Labour? Was it, or could it ever have been, socialist in the first place? How would a new party avoid the same problems?

Those are all vital questions. But simply asking them doesn’t make a new organisation a good alternative to Labour. How it answers them matters a great deal.  

For instance, George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain ate into some of Labour’s vote in the Batley and Spen by‑election last year. 

But its critique of Labour is that it’s too “woke”, and goes on to attack LGBT+ rights and anti-racism. This offers nothing for working class people.

So how would a Peace and Justice Party answer these ­questions instead?

For many of Corbyn’s ­supporters, it would be a sort of re-founded version of the Labour Party. They want to try Corbynism without the right wing MPs to sabotage him.

Yet in the short term at least, this would still mean dependence on Labour due to the limitations and necessities that the focus on parliament demands.

Presumably a Peace and Justice party would try to put pressure on Labour by ­standing candidates in elections. But it would come under pressure to stand aside for Labour’s left candidates, or in places the Tories might win. 

Then its MPs, if it wins any, would have to decide their attitude to Labour in parliament.

Is their aim to join Labour as a junior partner in some sort of coalition? Or would they try to stay independent?

In either case, they would feel enormous pressure to vote with Labour to stop a Tory victory.

 

They could end up tailing Labour in parliament—even if the aim is to ultimately replace it.

 Ditching Labour means ditching Labourism. That means breaking from the idea that working class demands can best be won through parliament.

Labourism fails because it means trying to fit those demands into a parliamentary system designed to thwart them. 

For a start, even getting elected means appealing for votes from all sections of society—left and right—and all classes. Not only that, any party that wants to govern has to prove itself “responsible” enough to keep the system profitable for big business. 

This produces in Labour a majority of right wing MPs eager to do just that, and a minority of left wing MPs who reluctantly make concessions.

The history of Labour is littered with leaders who’ve turned on their working class supporters and left wing challenges that surrender in the name of party unity.

Yet despite this history of betrayal, Labourism has largely been resilient.

It owes its survival to the strength in society of what revolutionary socialists usually call reformist consciousness. 

For most working class people, the experience of life under capitalism means we constantly need improvements to our lives and working ­conditions, or have to ­protect them.

We work in jobs where our bosses always try to squeeze more out of us. And we always carry the weight of any number of crushing pressures—from the rocketing cost of living, to oppression, to the looming threat of climate catastrophe.

All of this pushes us to want to transform society, and yet at the same time can also leave us feeling isolated, weak or powerless.

So for most people most of the time, it only seems realistic to hope for changes within the limits of the system. For just over a century, Labour has been the main organised expression of this. 

This is down to its claims to represent workers and its real connection to them through the trade union leaders that formed and sustain the party.

 Yet it’s true that for the past three decades, Labour’s support among working class people has eroded. 

The more Labour committed itself to push unrestrained free market policies, the less it could claim to represent ­working class interests.

Boris Johnson’s Tories have been the most recent beneficiaries of this. But the ­connection between Labour and the ­working class is far from severed.

Many may return to Labour as revulsion grows over Johnson’s lies. But some could also look further rightwards.

For the left to gain it must prove itself as a real ­alternative to both Labour and Labourism that can deliver the ­transformation that people need.

The best way it can do this is by championing struggle—the demonstrations, strikes and occupations that show ordinary people they have the power to win change themselves.

Labour was founded as an alternative to that struggle—and has often acted as an obstacle to it. It’s always been riddled with MPs who detest the “illegitimacy” of any attempt to win change outside parliament.

And at crucial moments, its union leader supporters have reined in workers’ struggles in the interests of securing a Labour government.

An alternative to Labour would have to do the opposite. Rather than denouncing struggle, its MPs would have to denounce the corrupt parliamentary machine that serves the rule of the rich.

Everything they do would be geared towards supporting, amplifying and building the movements outside.

And rather than be ­contained by union leaders, its ­connection to the ­working class should be through a movement of struggle prepared to defy them.

The crucial thing is that struggle—not ­parliament—comes first.

Even alternative parties that grew out of workers’ struggle and social movements—such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain—crashed because they put parliament first.

Various attempts at ­similar projects in Britain and France also ran into difficulties, essentially arising out of the tensions in the ­relationship between parliament and struggle.

But without struggle, any parliamentary alternative to Labour is doomed to fail. And yet—despite a great crisis for the Tories and the system—there’s very little struggle.

The left can’t intervene through Labour. But, along with the trade union leaders, it has failed to call a significant demonstration to make sure ordinary people force Johnson out.

Without that, the left is nowhere to be seen or heard. Building struggle is a more urgent dilemma for the left than building a new parliamentary party.

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