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Keir Starmer needs to end Labour’s civil war

Staff redundancies and the ban on far-left groups are sapping enthusiasm and goodwill. 

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Shortly after Labour’s general election defeat in December 2019, I was invited to speak at a large joint meeting of the two Norwich Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). There were at least 500 members crammed into the hall, mostly from the party’s left. Most were committed opponents of Brexit and keen supporters of the city’s only Labour MP, Clive Lewis. 

In the middle sat a very grumpy group of people belonging to Socialist Appeal, a Trotskyist group that can trace its genealogy back to the Militant Tendency. While others riffed and vented spontaneously, and with good humour, the Socialist Appeal comrades buried their noses in notebooks, from which they read out prepared, near-identical statements. 

The theme was, from memory, that “bourgeois collaborationists Mason and Lewis, by supporting calls for a second referendum, have objectively aided the Tory victory and crossed class lines”. It was the first time I’d heard this kind of zombie Marxist rhetoric since the days of the Labour Party Young Socialists. 

But the Norwich members had heard it all before. Again and again. Many I spoke to afterwards thought these “organised interventions” were designed to drive new people away, so that – as in the 1980s – the “son of Militant” group could colonise effectively defunct branches and affiliates.

Yesterday (20 July), Socialist Appeal was proscribed by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). Anyone identified as belonging to it will be “auto-expelled” from the party. But despite the group publishing numerous articles accusing me of being a “postmodernist”, “renegade”, “pro-bourgeois Blairite” and “in the camp of the enemy” – and boring the pants off me in Norwich – I will defend its right to exist within the party.

The NEC proscriptions were unnecessary, unjust and, above all, bad politics. The Labour rulebook allows for auto-expulsion on two grounds: supporting an anti-Labour candidate in an election, or joining “a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the party”.

Socialist Appeal cannot be guilty of the first offence: their entire raison d’etre since the 1950s has been the belief that Labour, despite its social-democratic appearance, is the rough-hewn tool of a revolutionary process. They have always slavishly supported Labour.

As for “joining a political organisation”, this whole issue has been played out once before. In 2015-16, when Labour HQ was at war with the Corbyn leadership, and trying to purge Corbyn's supporters, members of Socialist Appeal were expelled on the same grounds but then readmitted – in two cases following a disciplinary interview with then deputy leader Tom Watson.

The case against Resist – the group led by former Labour MP Chris Williamson, in collaboration with a leading member of the Socialist Party – seems obvious: they intend to form a rival political party to Labour. The position of the Labour in Exile Network (LIEN), whose central demand is that the party should ignore the legal obligations imposed by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission over anti-Semitism, appears to be both distasteful and legally suicidal – but thousands of party members beyond LIEN believe the same thing. Labour Against the Witch Hunt, meanwhile, is a group campaigning against the very rule that has been used against it (automatic expulsion). 

But the rules are not the problem. The problem is the determination of a section of the Labour right to drive out the entire social-democratic and radical left, including the generation of young activists who pushed the party close to victory in the 2017 general election. As a result, as it careers towards financial bankruptcy, Labour is ceasing to function effectively as an umbrella party for socialist, social-democratic, cooperative and trade union politics. Despite all the best efforts of frontbenchers to attack the Tories, reconnect with voters and formulate policy, the purge leaves the party resembling a warzone.

Southwark MP Neil Coyle has called, in addition, for the expulsion of Jewish Voice for Labour – a group composed entirely (and indeed strictly) of Jewish members who oppose Zionism. The unspoken but clear subtext is the Labour right’s desire to proscribe Momentum, the organisation set up to promote Corbyn’s agenda (of which I am a member). 

If that drives idealistic people away from active membership, that’s all well and good for Labour’s right. Many of them have given up on the possibility of winning the next general election: they intend Keir Starmer to be the fall guy, after which – through a series of purges and rule changes – they will return the party to its Blairite status: as a mouthpiece for financial capital and the security state. The more fearful the atmosphere and the smaller the meetings become, the easier that project is to achieve.

We are, in short, a long way from where the Labour Together inquiry into the 2019 election defeat envisioned – and indeed where Starmer wanted it to be. And that’s before considering the financial meltdown.

Labour’s finances are in trouble not (as parts of the left claim) because people are leaving. The official membership total remains close to half a million. The trouble stems from major donors – both individuals and trade unions – not wishing to give money to an organisation that pours it away on legal settlements and looks set to be fined millions by the Information Commissioner’s Office for the data breach involved in the Labour leaks report. In addition, with the right waging organisational war against the left at every level, why would a left-led union stump up anything more than its basic affiliation fee?  

Starmer’s leadership campaign – which I took part in – was pitched as a solution to this problem. His chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney, had pioneered the Labour Together project, building bridges between the different wings and political cultures inside the party. Starmer’s initial shadow cabinet selection was a team of all the talents – including leadership rivals from both the right and left, with significant numbers of frontbenchers from the Socialist Campaign Group.

A series of pointless whipping decisions, requiring front-bench resignations, limited the shadow cabinet to the right and centre; the reshuffle after Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election was a missed opportunity to reset the balance. Add in the unjust decision to suspend the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, even though he was reinstated as a party member, and you’ve got a recipe for permanent discontent.

As Labour found, both in Hartlepool and in the Batley and Spen by-elections, the party cannot function without its left. In a period of social crisis, facing a Tory party transformed into a right-wing populist formation, and the challenge of Scottish nationalism and the Green Party, people discontented with everything from low pay to climate change to Israel’s war against the Palestinians need to know they have a place and a voice inside the historic mass party of the British left.

I've always thought that, if it failed, the Starmer project would do so politically – by failing to convince voters, or by failing to revitalise Labour’s campaign structures, or by spurning the inevitable non-aggression pact with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens needed to win a majority. This summer’s combination of purges, branch shutdowns, staff redundancies and financial crisis shows that, in the end, it might be possible for Labour simply to fail organisationally: to go bankrupt amid a welter of legal claims and counterclaims. 

Much, of course, depends on the outcome of the Unite general secretary election. If the right’s candidate Gerard Coyne wins, backed by Rupert Murdoch’s soaraway Sun, the balance of power on Labour’s NEC, and within the TULO group that has influence over the manifesto, will tilt towards the right. 

In a networked era, all hierarchies are fragile. That’s why the Tories don't really utilise one: the real work of planning and winning elections, and then governing, is – as Dominic Cummings revealed to the BBC – done by shadowy networks of self-interested activists.

Building a mass social-democratic party – at a time when many of its European counterparts were suffering political and organisational collapse – was a big achievement for Labour in the post-Blair/Brown era. I don’t think, even now, that most people at the top understand how much of it was achieved by activism and the goodwill of ordinary people.

The purges, and the continued exclusion of Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), are sapping people’s activism and draining their goodwill. To a wider public, with sensitive antennae for unfairness, the whole thing looks hypocritical and unjust.

Anti-capitalism is a legitimate part of the Labour tradition. It has never been the dominant part – even under Corbyn, whose programme was recognisably social-democratic. But without it, given the level of support for anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist ideas in society, Labour would face a rival political party capable of lopping 5-10 per cent off its vote almost everywhere. 

So the purges need to stop. Corbyn – whose presence and charisma are worth hundreds of thousands of votes – should be readmitted to the PLP. The coming conference needs to be a platform for unity – not the political equivalent of Fortnite Battle Royale.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.