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10 January 2022

Paul Mason

Why a new left party led by Jeremy Corbyn is a bad idea

A new left party would be a distraction – the most important struggle is still within Labour itself.

The report by the Telegraph that Jeremy Corbyn is considering turning his Peace and Justice Project (PJP) into a new left party is not as crazy as it sounds. 

Throughout much of the 20th century, Britain had an effective, high-profile Communist Party. In other European countries – for example Spain and Finland – parties of the radical left govern in coalition with social democrats at the national level and exert leverage on centre-left governments even where they are excluded from office. 

A PJP party would bomb electorally but it might provide a home for tens of thousands of activists fed up with Keir Starmer. Launching it now, however, with Corbyn and his closest collaborators as the organisational hub, would be a very bad idea. Here are five reasons why.

1. The unwanted periphery. The people who wander around Labour conference, surreptitiously shoving leaflets into your hand saying the anti-Semitism scandal was a “scam”; who believe that the uprising in Kazakhstan is an intelligence operation by the CIA; and that the 2013 chemical weapons attack on opposition-held Eastern Ghouta was staged by the Syrian rebels themselves. 

This small but loud minority were drawn to Corbynism at its height, and it took a lot of work by grassroots activists in constituency Labour Parties to stop them tainting the brand. They would flock to a Corbyn-led party, and – being small at birth – it would have to erect bureaucratic structures just as stringent as Labour has to keep them out, or end up in a reputational morass.

2. The Green Party. The Greens in England and Wales reportedly have 53,000 members and are currently polling in high single figures. Their single MP, Caroline Lucas, collaborates actively with the pro-Remain, pro-constitutional reform (ie, distinctly non-Corbynite) wing of the Labour left. Their voters, many of them young, have a firmly un-Labourite vision of the world and what’s wrong with it. 

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They’re supporting the Greens because they have a green, not a social democratic, critique of capitalism. The best Labour can hope for at the next general election is to persuade them to vote tactically to kick the Conservatives out – but the party itself is here to stay as a left pole of attraction outside Labour, and impossible to ignore.

3. The policies. I know what Jeremy Corbyn stands for. What’s remarkable, however, about the Peace and Justice Project is the absence of policy work in the two years since it was formed.

There are numerous left think tanks – Autonomy, the New Economics Foundation, Common Wealth – and a lot of policy work coming out of the big trade unions that could shape the programme of a radical left party. But the PJP has shown scant interest in them. 

Any left party worth founding would need a critique of capitalism, a position on geopolitics, a strategy to defend democracy against the far right, and a clear vision of its path to power – including the alliances it wants to make and the tactics it wants to adopt. Even if I wanted a new party, I wouldn’t want its policies decided by the people around Corbyn who brought us “Red Brexit”.

4. Labour remains a mass party of the working class. Yes it’s currently controlled by a mixture of the centre and the right. But it is a mass, active party of working people, supported by the trade unions – and it has a clear policy platform distinct from the Tories: a £28bn-a-year green transformation programme; workplace rights from day one; and redistributive tax and spending policies to address the fuel crisis, for example. 

The beauty of a party that exists to represent organised workers is that it’s never simply defined by its ideology – but by the interplay of forces acting upon and within it. These (as the Blairites found out) can change.

5. A Labour government is vital, and time is short. Only a Labour-led government can decarbonise the economy fast enough to avoid climate chaos; only a Labour-led government can prevent Britain’s democratic decay into a corrupt “Frankenstate” under the Tories. 

I was part of the left split that created the Socialist Alliance in 2001 with Labour in office, with the rebel London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone victorious and the Tories buried for a decade. But reality now is very different.

That being said, it is clear that “labourism” as a political phenomenon is dying: progressive Britain is already fragmented into nationalism and ecopolitics (via the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens). 

If the Labour machine was to purge the whole Socialist Campaign Group, shut down democracy and betray its voters by supporting another round of wars and privatisations, I could see the logic of a new party – though I shudder at the ideological battles that would engulf it.

But for now the struggle continues. An important part of that struggle is to force Keir Starmer to reinstate Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party and to persuade Islington Labour’s members to confirm him as their candidate for the next general election.

[See also: The cost-of-living crisis will define 2022 – Labour needs answers now]

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