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2 December 2020updated 03 Dec 2020 9:39am

Labour’s mutually destructive civil war should end now

I supported Keir Starmer for the leadership, and would do so again. But this cannot go on.

By Paul Mason

Parts of the Labour left seem intent on insurrection against the leadership over Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension. Parts of the Labour right seem intent on using that insurrection to purge the left. Keir Starmer is marooned on an island of his own making, stuck between two factions at war with one another, with little chance of escape. Let’s start by saying the obvious: this is a bad position to be in.

You don’t need to be a chess grandmaster to work out the potential endgames. Either Corbyn apologises for the breaches of equality law identified by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and is given back the Labour whip. Or he wins a court case and is given back the whip. Or he remains excluded, provoking legitimate anger among a membership whose left-wing majority are trying to work with the leadership, but are being provoked into one confrontation after another. 

In all eventualities, since the independent disciplinary body proposed by the EHRC can deal with cases retrospectively, Corbyn and others may face yet another “due process” once it is set up. If so, whether that process constitutes double jeopardy will be decided in court, not by the Labour leadership or party HQ.

In the meantime, one Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meeting after another is descending into acrimony, with walkouts and suspensions, as local branches refuse orders that ban discussion of Corbyn’s suspension.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer a strategic mastermind or an opportunist driven by events?]

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I supported Starmer for the leadership, and would do so again, but this cannot go on.

Starmer’s plans for dealing with the EHRC report were well laid. Calls were made to all stakeholders encouraging them to make the day itself constructive. Corbyn’s ill-advised intervention, refusing to accept the findings and describing the scale of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem as “dramatically overstated”, blew those plans apart. Corbyn has since issued a statement in an attempt to clarify his position, but as a result of his original comments Labour’s internal dialogue for the past five weeks has been about Corbyn.

If he fully apologises now, there is no principled reason to exclude him from the Parliamentary Labour Party – only realpolitik, which would effectively mean handing the Labour right a veto over who is allowed to sit on the party’s benches. That’s why I think Starmer should readmit Corbyn unconditionally. But I also think the latter should apologise. There should be a non-sequential de-escalation for the good of the party. Either way, the political battle may not subside.

It’s a standing joke inside the Labour Party that the “soft left” don’t have any principles or ideas. But that’s not Starmer’s problem. During his leadership campaign he was clear about his objectives: a majority Labour government that can deliver social, climate and economic justice.

Starmer’s politics effectively embody late Rawlsian justice theory, in which democratic socialism is seen as a better route to social justice than a regulated market economy. That is the principle underlying his Ten Pledges, which should be the basis for a focused, radical programme for government centred on green investment and redistribution.  

The problem remains that Starmer’s principles and pledges are not yet embedded, either in a vision statement, a programme, or an organisational support base. There is Starmer, there is a team around him, but there is no Starmerism.

Unfortunately, however, there is “Corbynism” – and I don’t mean the political ideology. Corbyn repeatedly used to say: “There is no Corbynism, only socialism.” Now, however, too much has become about the man. Those of us who want to say that the suspension of the whip is wrong, but that Corbyn’s original comments were also wrong, and that kamikaze rebellions against HQ rulings are pointless are now facing a barrage of abuse from the left.

In the current row, the Labour membership is having to juggle four principles: obeying rules you don’t agree with, ensuring disciplinary fairness, allowing freedom of speech and maintaining an atmosphere that safeguards Jewish members when discussing anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, some people cannot see that the last of these principles must over-ride all others. Labour was found guilty of breaking the law and perpetrating anti-Semitism. That is not some minor misdemeanour. It will pursue the party’s activists to the doorstep in 2024 unless it is thoroughly atoned for, and unless the political culture demonstrably changes.

But instead of atonement, a small section of the Labour left are toying with a split. Unite’s choice to disaffiliate 10 per cent of its members, plus the decision of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union to consult on disaffiliation, are smoke signals for a wider agenda.

A neo-Stalinist sect, funded by a trade union, would be a minor irritant for Labour electorally. It would suit the Blairites, it would suit the Tories. It might even suit the large numbers of union members who vote Tory or SNP. It would, in short, be a bad idea. 

[See also: Andy Burnham spoke the language of class struggle – Labour must follow

It is clear that the left has neither the numbers on the National Executive Committee, nor in the PLP, nor among the membership, to stage a successful defiance of Labour HQ. In that case there is no outcome to mass defiance other than mass suspensions. Thinking logically, rather than emotionally, the way to ensure the whip is returned to Corbyn is to de-escalate the situation – and I hope that happens soon.

A brighter development is the launch of the Love Socialism group by an alliance of anti-Brexit MPs from the Socialist Campaign Group and the smaller Open Labour group. It is focused on political principles, not factional rebellion, a transformative political agenda, party democracy, the fight against structural racism inside the movement, and radical constitutional reform. And though these are only bullet points, they are positive. Because what’s missing from Labour’s internal war is politics.

We are approaching the first anniversary of Labour’s 2019 election defeat. The old leadership gave no serious account of why we lost. The new leadership decided – wrongly in my view – to prioritise rebuilding trust over commitment to vision and concrete policies.

But with a Covid-19 vaccine achieved, it is possible to see a route back to real meetings, real conferences and real activism. The next time I go on a doorstep I do not want to be talking about Jeremy Corbyn. I want to be equipped with a concrete political offer. Nor do I want the next physical meeting of my ward to end in rage and walkouts. Nor do I want to waste time at conference on factional manoeuvres. Nor do I want the first post-lockdown demo I attend to be outside Labour HQ. All sides need to de-escalate.

The Labour Party is the only vehicle the British working class owns that can form a UK-wide government and deliver social justice. The task of the left within it is to mobilise people to fight capitalism, resist the fossil-fuel lobby, expose the Tory deportation scandals, support the Grenfell victims and much else. 

The art of doing so is learning how to coexist with people who like capitalism better than we do, and want gradual change. They’re called social democrats, and as we found on the doorstep, there’s a lot of them. 

[See also: Labour’s warring factions need to work out what their endgame is]