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14 July 2023

Does Labour’s soft left have a future?

In the face of Starmer’s attacks, we can either slink off into political isolation or work together to reclaim our party.

By Jeremy Gilbert

Many members have been expelled from the Labour Party over the last three years, even if few threatened expulsions have provoked as much anger as Neal Lawson’s. Many more members have left Labour voluntarily. This is exactly what the people running the party wanted to happen, and want to keep happening. That may sound unlikely, but it shouldn’t.

Anyone with a shred of commitment to democratic norms, or basic principles of natural justice, will have been shocked by the treatment of Labour members since 2020. Keir Starmer’s behaviour in itself amounts to a grotesque insult to the people who elected him (he having broken almost every promise he made during the 2020 party leadership election). Members have been expelled for such absurd “crimes” as having made positive remarks about Green Party politicians on social media, or having attended events organised by groups that were not even proscribed at the time.

High-quality applicants to become parliamentary candidates, with strong local support, have been barred from shortlists on the most spurious of grounds: accused of incompetence, or of disloyalty, for such transgressions as attempting to cooperate with other parties to defeat the Tories in local government. Nobody takes these charges seriously. Everyone who follows these matters knows that the party bureaucracy has been using any excuse it can find, however absurd, to block candidates and expel any member they can who has political views that are marginally to the left of Yvette Cooper’s. 

Of course, the vast majority of Labour members and voters hold such views. This is a huge problem for the right-wing clique currently controlling the party. During the Corbyn years they experienced the terrifying prospect of being replaced in their jobs as party bureaucrats, councillors or even MPs by people who actually shared the politics of their party’s members and voters.

They are determined to ensure that no such threat emerges again. The only way they can achieve such security is effectively to return the party to its condition before Ed Miliband became leader in 2010: much smaller than it is now, with a tiny membership, by historical standards, but one that could be relied upon to be remain compliant, loyal and cooperative with the leadership, however little it offered to them or to the country.

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There’s no way these apparatchiks can go through the social media feeds of every single member, looking for evidence of thought-crime. Instead they have been doing everything they can to encourage left-leaning members to leave the party, precisely by behaving in this egregiously hostile, unjust and authoritarian manner. Members feeling so disgusted by the behaviour of the leadership, so sympathetic to the unjust treatment of its victims, that they no longer wish to associate themselves with Labour: this is exactly the response the leadership is looking for.

Having already used these methods to drive up to 150,000 members out of the party since 2020, there are still too many lefties in Labour for their liking. This is the context for the latest and most high-profile case: the threatened expulsion of Lawson, the director of the centre-left group Compass and a party member for 44 years, for the crime of praising a Liberal Democrat councillor’s tweet advocating support for a Green candidate in an Oxford local election. The charge is absurd: it’s clear that Lawson was not advocating a vote against Labour in that election – which would break party rules – but praising a general attitude of cooperation across the left and centre left.

[See also: Will Labour level up?]

But that really isn’t the point. The howls of outrage that have been issued by, among others, Guardian leader writers, have been entirely justified and appropriate. But they are exactly the reaction that this gesture is calculated to elicit. The aim of this measure, along with the routine blocking of “soft left” applicants to become parliamentary candidates, is to persuade members whose politics are close to Lawson’s to follow their Corbynite comrades out of the party.

Soft left” is a term that confuses many, and means different things to different people. Broadly speaking, it refers to a political position that aspires to see governments genuinely shift the balance of wealth and power towards those who currently hold neither, but which is willing to accept modest goals and a pragmatic strategy when political circumstances dictate. If this sounds like the basic common-sense position shared by most Labour members and supporters, that’s because it is.

Historically, the “soft left” has been associated with organisations such as the old Tribune newspaper, the Labour Coordinating Committee, Compass and Open Labour; Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband are regarded as having exemplified its politics. During the Corbyn years the more radical wing of the soft left backed Jeremy Corbyn and many became members and supporters of Momentum. But whether they back candidates from the left, the right or the dead centre of the Labour Party, the “soft left” usually represents the mainstream aspirations of the largest bloc of party members.

Every false promise that Starmer made when standing to be Labour leader was aimed at persuading this constituency to vote for him. He would not have won without them, and most of them are now repelled by him. His agents in the party bureaucracy know this, which is why they would prefer those members now to leave.

Starmer may seem impregnable for the moment, with a vast poll lead and complete control of the party apparatus. But we live in volatile times, and a group of MPs with little left to lose might eventually decide to provoke a leadership contest. Right now the members would probably vote for almost any candidate who promised to end the leadership’s control freakery. They would probably not be moved by appeals to Starmer’s “electability”: polls show that he is personally unpopular, and everyone can see that the Tories have destroyed their own credibility without any help from him. They also know how close Corbyn came to victory in 2017. Why, under these circumstances, should Labour members put up with the likes of Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, telling them that they should harbour no hopes for a better future? Starmer knows all this, as do his people, and that is why they would very much prefer that a large portion of the current membership simply leave. 

There are two possible outcomes to this scenario. One is that, as the leadership is hoping, tens of thousands of soft-left members tear up their party cards in the coming weeks, just as so many Corbyn loyalists have done. The other is that the progressive majority of Labour members treat this moment as a turning point, and begin to regroup.

Under the circumstances we now face, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” left that has persisted since the 1980s seems increasingly irrelevant and outdated. All those in Labour who are committed to any kind of progressive programme are under attack. In the face of this challenge, we could choose to slink off into political isolation, or we could start to work together to reclaim our party.

This would not be an easy task, or one that is likely to be achieved overnight. It would provoke media hostility and fierce resistance from Labour’s militant right. It would probably take years to achieve its goals, just as it took years for the left to recover from the splits and defeats of the 1980s. It would require organisation and campaigning within the trade unions as well as the party, and a complex relationship with activists and movements outside of it too. But until some viable alternative to Labour emerges on the political left, it’s hard to see what other strategy could bear electoral fruit. The potential support for a broad project to unite the left of the party is clearly significant, if groups such as Momentum, Compass and Open Labour could work together. Personally I’d like to see some new umbrella organisation – “Labour Democratic Socialists”? – bringing these tendencies together.

For now, Labour’s democratic socialists still constitute a majority of its membership. Some of us will no doubt continue to be forcibly ejected. But for most, whether or not we remain a majority is largely up to us. Of course, if we continue to exit the party in droves, we will find ourselves marginalised soon enough: which is exactly what Starmer and his allies are hoping for.

[See also: I would never have been selected in Starmer’s Labour]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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