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We Still Need the Party

For anyone serious about socialist politics or building community power, the Labour Party remains a vital field of struggle – whether we like it or not.

Labour Party Poster from November 1922. Credit: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

This year, the Labour Party has haemorrhaged members in numbers so great that it has put real financial strain on its day-to-day operations. This should come as no surprise; most of those leaving are the people who were once filled with hope and enthusiasm by the election of Jeremy Corbyn and his offer of real social and political change. They now leave in droves, disenchanted (and often infuriated) by Keir Starmer’s rightward direction. Some leave with an attitude that they may return if things were ever to improve; others believe they never will, so why prolong the inevitable?

After a five-year renaissance in the engagement, organisation, and collective strength of the broad left within Labour, those who remain committed to socialist advance within the party find themselves in increasingly smaller numbers. We are struggling to hold onto many internal positions that we fought hard to win in recent times, and the more internal elections we lose, the more hopeless things seem to become.

Many of us have returned to familiar territory, arguing over whether the Left should give up on Labour and do something else. Tony Benn once remarked that ‘every generation fights more or less the same battles,’ and in this case, it feels depressingly accurate. On the one hand, advocates for a ‘stay and fight’ strategy become exasperated with socialists essentially purging themselves, or express irritation at erstwhile comrades treating party membership as a private consumer choice. But on the other, many left-wing former members consider these people to be politically directionless, deluded, and perhaps even complicit with the right-wing lurch of a business-as-usual leadership.

The question of commitment is important to consider. Many of those leaving put hundreds, if not thousands of hours into campaigning for an organisation that regularly attacked them, even when Corbynism was at its height. Now, its leadership has made clear that it holds socialist members in outright contempt. Why would anyone continue to subject themselves to this? Why organise canvasses and do long delivery rounds for people who, in reality, hate you and everything you stand for?

The simple answer, of course, is that you don’t have to. The overwhelming majority of Labour members are inactive, and the party seems to be doing everything it can to reverse the gains made in terms of getting its membership more involved. In fact, the recent moves by the leadership to restructure the party—from the scrapping of the Community Organising Unit to the proposed replacement of up to ninety staff with effectively temporary contract workers—has all been geared towards turning the party back into the kind of narrow Westminster vehicle that has little use for an activist base. Of course, the results of this strategy in terms of electoral outcomes have been relatively clear in recent months.

So, why stay in a party that doesn’t want you? It’s a fair question. But if you’re leaving because you can’t face putting your precious time to the service of Starmer and his project, it’s worth remembering that the Labour Party is about more than just the leadership. The past five years have seen people who share our politics grow in number throughout its elected positions – from local councils to MPs.

In fact, there is a greater concentration of socialists in the party than anywhere else in society, and a greater number of socialists in elected positions in Labour than at any time in recent memory. The leadership might not want socialists, but the members can still support those comrades who are trying to build collective power for the Left in the organisation. And given the reality that the Labour left is one of the only avenues into mainstream discourse that socialist ideas have in this country, it’s likely to be very important that they do.

Where We’ve Come From

Many of those reading this issue of Tribune will have become socialists through Corbynism. If you didn’t become a socialist through it, it probably reignited your radical politics – imbuing it with a sense of possibility that had been missing for many years. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the past five years transformed the landscape for socialism in Britain, bringing our ideas to millions of people and converting thousands to left-wing solutions to the problems they faced in their lives. This is particularly the case with a younger generation, but not exclusively so – it was also an important period for many disillusioned working-class and minority ethnic communities who had felt ignored by the political establishment for decades.

So, what made Corbynism distinctive? It wasn’t the policies, almost all of those were around for years before 2015. Left-wing economists like Larry Elliott and Ann Pettifor were publishing papers about the Green New Deal back in 2008. Renationalising utilities, increasing the minimum wage, worker ownership, and many other policies have been around even longer. Nor was it the broader anti-austerity or anti-war narrative. Movements with these aims were formative for Corbynism – Stop the War and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign held mass demonstrations in the years preceding his leadership, so too did the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

They were and remain important initiatives. But they did not, on their own, change the national conversation, convince so many people of our arguments, or create a new generation of activists. That process reached fruition after 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader – and for good reason.

Before Corbynism there were movements, mass demonstrations, socialist parties, and left-wing solutions to the crisis of capitalism, but there wasn’t a meaningful sense of progress. In fact, looking on at the rise of Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, many on the British left felt that politics here was years behind. Corbynism changed that in two ways. First, it catapulted the Left out of the marginal position it had occupied since the days of Tony Benn and into the mainstream political conversation. Over the period from 2015 to 2019, the arguments we had been making about the need to transform society in the interests of the working class finally reached the audience they were intended for: not small groups of activists, but the working class itself.

The second major way that Corbynism changed the landscape from the one which had preceded it was by providing a pole of attraction for all of those discontented with the status quo. Before Corbyn’s rise to party leader, Labour was an anaemic party with a paper-thin activist base. And the majority of socialists in Britain weren’t a part of it. If you were a young radical aspiring to change the world in 2015, there was every chance you would be supporting the Greens, in a small grouplet, or simply holding your nose to vote for the only party that could beat the Tories, but for all intents and purposes avoiding party politics. To put it simply: before Corbyn, the Left was not only far smaller, what existed of it was atomised and scattered across a litany of organisations, movements, and parties to the extent that it was almost impossible to collaborate effectively.

Uncomfortable as this reality is today, it would not have been possible to bring our arguments to such a wide audience or to concentrate our activists behind a single project like Corbynism without the Labour Party. Despite its right-wing bureaucracy, which was barely reformed; despite its parliamentary wing, which opposed us at every turn; despite its deep institutional conservatism, it was the Labour Party that made Corbynism possible. And which of course eventually crushed it. But the fact remains that British politics is circumscribed by two parties which contend for government, and a socialist bloc within one of these parties provides a far better basis for advance than any of those we tried in the years before 2015. We can acknowledge this even as we also consider the limits exposed by the defeat of 2019 and the rout we have suffered in its wake.

For all of its immense flaws, Labour remains a more viable vehicle for socialism than any of the marginal left parties who count their memberships in single digit percentages of what Corbynism amassed. It remains the only party with a substantial link to the organised working-class movement through the trade unions, something which most of its centre-left equivalents across the West have dropped. And it remains the only party providing examples of socialist policies in local government—particularly in places such as Salford, Preston, North Ayrshire, and here in Hull—which can offer those frustrated by Britain’s inequities a model for a different kind of society. The Labour Party must be criticised, but it cannot be discarded.

The Party and the Movement

But what is the purpose of remaining as a member? Just to support socialists in the party, to vote in AGMs, to run as councillors, or attend conferences, even as the party’s structures are turned against you? There is more to it than that. If, after Corbynism, your new hope for change is to build in organisations such as renters’ unions, anti-racist campaigns, or the climate movement, then relationships within an organisation such as Labour will be a benefit. Anyone who does the hard graft of organising knows relationships are one of the most powerful things we can build, and having access to an established membership organisation comprised of people who will support your actions, circulate your petitions, and perhaps even grant you access to the state through local government is undoubtedly valuable.

The political fracture between those who wish to shift the balance of forces in British society and those who don’t—essentially between socialists and our opponents—is a division that runs directly through Labour. But it runs through society, too. If you ever try to organise outside of party politics, you’ll soon encounter the same kind of opposition from the same kind of forces. Business interests will push back against reforms to housing or healthcare, allies of imperialism will still want to bomb Yemen and Palestine, racists will still oppose the rights of refugees. Two major differences will be that there are fewer socialists on your side to fight back, and fewer avenues for you to reach broad audiences with your message. This fault line runs through every level of Labour from the ward meeting to the Parliamentary Labour Party, and it can be an attritional battle; but you will lose nothing from adding your weight to the socialist side of the line. And the 2017 election suggested how much might be gained.

Recently, the Kill the Bill and Black Lives Matter movements have been raised as examples by those who argue for abandoning Labour and focusing only on social movements as a means to confront power. But in the case of Kill the Bill, you have an almost perfect snapshot of the political dynamics at play: the violent murder of a young woman by a police officer leads to public anger; this anger is then co-opted by the liberal feminism of the Labour right, who launch the Reclaim these Streets organisation, but who immediately back down when told that a candle-lit vigil on Clapham Common would be met with police action.

It is left to the extra-parliamentary force Sisters Uncut to organise the vigil, which is then violently assaulted by the police. The imagery and media coverage of this drastically shifts the political terrain. Popular mobilisations begin across the country, including mass civil unrest in Bristol for several weeks. The Parliamentary Labour Party, which abstained on the Spy Cops Bill and would have most likely abstained on this too, is forced to come out against the Bill as public pressure mounts and the government pauses. Socialist MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Zarah Sultana, Apsana Begum, and Bell Ribeiro-Addy become tribunes for the movement, bringing its arguments to millions who may otherwise not have seen them.

While many saw the Kill the Bill movement as the beginning of an era of extra-parliamentary struggle thwarted by years of difficult slog inside of Labour, this was not to be. National demonstrations over the Bill did continue, but slowly petered out over the coming months. This is not the fault of the organisers; it merely reflects the reality that it is difficult to sustain movements over the longer term. They tend to develop quickly around an issue, mobilise mass demonstrations, and then dissipate. It is only when their demands are embedded in political organisations—like Stop the War and People’s Assembly’s demands were under Corbynism—that they have staying power. Contrary to popular wisdom, the party and the movement are not antagonistic, they are symbiotic.

The Path Forward

Unfortunately, when you consider the Labour left’s fundamental failure to develop anything resembling an extra-parliamentary movement strategy, it is not surprising that a kind of zero-sum political nihilism has emerged. It is certainly true that during the years of Corbynism, too much emphasis was placed on winning the game in Westminster to the detriment of building lasting power in working-class communities across the country. The 2017 election, much as it offered a sign that a socialist programme could win nationally in Britain, was probably culpable here. The ‘government in waiting’ line the leadership took in the election’s wake focused far too much on parliamentary politics and far too little on the work needed to build a resilient movement outside of Parliament that might make a socialist programme possible to implement.

This weakness has, regrettably, continued after Corbynism ended – in large part because the right lessons were not learned. Take the huge Black Lives Matter mobilisations which have put fire in the hearts of so many young people looking to fight the deep injustices in our society. A high-participation, better functioning Labour left should have been able to open spaces to develop young BLM activists, introduce them to the institutional rules, and pass on knowledge about the processes that decide political power in their neighbourhoods.

This is not to say that all the energies of BLM should be channelled through the Labour Party, far from it. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the movement would have benefitted from its goals being embedded in broader structures and organisations which might have given them greater staying power. Would we not now be in a better place if a string of young black radicals were running for office in Labour councils? Those same decades-old bastions of the most right-wing elements of Labour which are so often guilty of socially cleansing predominantly black neighbourhoods?

A burgeoning social movement can build relationships with those who possess institutional knowledge, who in turn can fight their corner inside the party and state. That process could collectively capture space and build strength for a politics they both share. It is a long way from where we are today, of course, but it remains our best shot at achieving transformative change. It is possible that this year’s conference will make it very difficult to elect a socialist leader in the future. But it’s not only at the leadership level where things matter. When you consider the margins usually needed to win a local internal battle—a few dozen new people showing up, in many cases—the opportunity is clear. And enough local battles can change a party.

If your theory of change is for the social movement and the community to build organised power and challenge the establishment, you will eventually have to confront party politics. At that point, it will make a difference whether you are dealing with Labour or the Tories. And it will make a difference how left-wing that Labour Party is and how connected to it your movement is. Corbynism had such a profound impact because it arose within the Labour Party, but it was defeated because it failed to build sufficiently outside of it too. Next time, let’s do both. They can’t kick us all out, but they won’t even have to try if we’ve already left.