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3 July 2023

Is there any hope for the Labour left?

Socialist MPs and affiliated trade unions will not stay quiet forever.

By Rachel Wearmouth

What remains of the Labour left? Since taking over as leader in 2020 Keir Starmer has banished his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn from the parliamentary party and squeezed out almost all those who shared his politics.

As Starmer prepares for power, his party has returned to the centre ground and appears the most united it has been in decades. This has been achieved with a ruthlessly focused party machine rooting out hard left members and candidates for parliamentary selections, and a slow evolution on policy. But how long will the factional truce hold, and do Starmer’s opponent stand any chance of gaining a foothold in the months and years ahead?

Broadly, Labour’s internal politics can be separated into four traditions: the socialist left, the soft left, centre-left social democrats (once upon a time known as Brownites) and New Labour moderates. Perhaps the genius of Starmer’s leadership is that, initially, all of these factions, to a greater or lesser extent, believed he could be their man. Today, all but the socialist left continue to hold faith.

Watch: Ben Walker predicts Labour’s election performance in rural constituencies.

Starmer’s late entry into politics after a long career as a barrister has protected him from being associated too strongly with any one faction. Or as one Labour MP put it: “There is no paper trail. No one truly knows what Keir believes or where he belongs in the party.”

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He has been helped too by a shift in public opinion on the state playing a larger role in the wake of Brexit and Covid. This has meant renewed popularity among the public for policies that may once have been dismissed as too radical, such as nationalising rail and spending £28bn-a-year on new infrastructure and tackling climate change – both causes championed by the left.

But over time, there has been an increasing sense that Labour’s left is being abandoned, both in terms of policy and personnel. Of the people who have been selected as Labour parliamentary candidates for the next election, there are just two who would have identified with the Corbynite left: Faiza Shaheen, who will contest Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Woodford Green, and Chris Webb in Blackpool South.

Some MPs from the Socialist Campaign Group, which Corbyn was a member of, will no longer have their seats after the next election. Sam Tarry, who ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign, was deselected in Ilford South. Beth Winter, whose seat has been abolished in boundary changes, lost out in the race for the new Merthyr Tydfil and Upper Cynon seat; while in Birkenhead Mick Whitley was defeated by Alison McGovern, the shadow employment minister.

Changes to leadership contest rules in 2020 mean candidates now require nominations from 20 per cent of MPs to make it on to the ballot. This means it will be virtually impossible for a Socialist Campaign Group to field a runner with enough support. “That battle is over for a generation,” remarked one Labour source.

A source in Momentum, the left-wing campaign group, said: “They have effective control via the NEC [Labour’s all powerful National Executive Committee] and via parliamentary selections, and the hefty polling lead means there is no disquiet around Starmer’s leadership. Socialist Campaign Group MPs at the moment are not willing or able to speak out.”

There are also rumblings that the Socialist Campaign Group is divided between those still frustrated that Corbyn lost the Labour whip in the wake of the anti-Semitism row and younger MPs, such as Olivia Blake and Nadia Whittome, who want to move on.

Many Socialist Campaign Group MPs are remaining silent this side of the election, as Labour HQ has shown no hesitation in acting in sidelining left-wingers. Jamie Driscoll, the sitting North of Tyne mayor, was ruled out of the race for the new, wider North East mayoralty, it is believed because he appeared on stage with the film-maker Ken Loach.

Instead, those on the left are turning their attention to organising in local government. Momentum says that left-wingers have a strong presence in Worthing, Preston and Broxtowe. They are also championing individual campaigns, notably on free school meals (via the National Education Union), public ownership of water companies, and the renationalisation of mail (a cause led by the Communication Workers Union).

Many within the Labour left also view Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, as the figurehead best placed to challenge Starmer, should he choose to return to parliament. “The pendulum is not going swing all the way about Corbyn in the short-term, so what is most important for Momentum and our members is more ambitious policymaking from the top of the party,” the Momentum source added.

There’s also the role of the affiliated trade unions to consider; they help to fund the party and have been able to wield considerable power over Labour’s leadership. “The unions have not been brought into the project like they were with Blair and Brown, but they are results-focused,” said one Labour source.

Starmer’s policy on workers’ rights is radical and has kept many unions in the camp, even Unite, despite Sharon Graham, its general secretary, having few qualms about publicly criticising the Labour leadership on occasion. Collective pay agreements by sector – something unions have been demanding for years – are on the agenda, as is the introduction of employment rights from the first day of starting a new job. Sources suggest, however, that should these policies be watered down or legislation delayed beyond the first 18 months of a Labour government, some unions may turn more hostile.

With the centre left and moderate wings of the party content with Starmer’s direction, that just leaves the soft left, a group that identifies with socialist values but believes in being pragmatic to win. The noises coming from this faction are mixed.

“Kinnock ran as relatively soft left in 1983 and then went to the right and we’ve seen the same with Keir,” said one party source. “He had Tom Kibasi [former director of the IPPR think tank], Paul Mason and Laura Parker [former national co-ordinator of Momentum] inside the tent in 2020 but rejected them pretty quickly.”

Open Labour, the activist group which speaks for the broader soft left, has been disappointed that Starmer has rolled back on policy around free university tuition, public ownership and the green investment plan championed by Ed Miliband.

They may choose to build alliances and assert themselves with amendments on these issues at National Policy Forum discussions this summer.

The potential expulsion of Neal Lawson, a long-standing activist and director of the think tank Compass, after he tweeted a pro-Green Party statement, is, for Open Labour, a sign that Starmer’s team is being too “heavy handed”.

“Open Labour wants a Labour government but there are genuine concerns with how the leadership is running the party,” said a campaign group source. “We need to portray our values of democracy and transparency.”

While concerns around selections and policy are felt by a growing number of activists, there is no vehicle which could unite a critical mass of activists to make a significant difference. Momentum, for example, is seen as toxic and to most within Open Labour.

In the shadow cabinet are a number of soft left MPs, including Angela Rayner and shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy. Soft left activists informally take their cues from such politicians, which may explain why Starmer is careful to balance the politics of his top team.

Rumours he is preparing a resuhffle have been circulating for months, but those on the soft left have so far maintained influence, both within the shadow cabinet and in the lower ranks. Even if sidelined, many within this faction at this time may view the chance to govern as too valuable to begin duelling with the leadership.

Other factors could change the dynamic. The question of whether Labour will back proportional representation may provoke internal rows because electoral reform is backed by a majority of members and several unions. Sources, however, feel the issue is unlikely to become significant before the next election. And that election will is likely to bring a new group of MPs, many of them cut from New Labour cloth, to Westminster.

For now Starmer enjoys near total control as the polls indicate Labour is on course for a landslide victory, after 13 years in the doldrums. “Everyone just really, really wants to win,” said one source.

Read more:

Labour’s Remainers are getting organised

Labour is getting bolder on Brexit

How will Labour make the green energy revolution happen?

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