Sunday 27 November 2022

The Left after Corbyn

Reading Mike Phipps's Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is an act of masochism for any left winger. Not because it's bad (it's not) or the arguments tendentious (they're not), but because it's a book about retreat. That is the retreat of the left from its position of strength in the Labour Party to where we are now, having gone through the experience of devastating election loss, the easy restitution of the right, the de facto expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn, and the barring of left wingers from constituency short lists. This all begs the question, where do we go now? Mike does offer some direction, but is it the right one?

Don't Stop is essential reading for anyone wanting a good tour of Labour's pains in the early 2020s. It's also useful for addressing some of the main arguments that have come from within the left to explain what happened. Mike is understandably coruscating of Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire's Left Out, which was the first book off the starting blocks. As the unofficial counterpart to Tim Shipman's Brexit duology, they explain matters entirely within the purview of he said/she said gossip mongery beloved of politics hacks. Owen Jones's This Land comes much better off because his offers a political critique of the Corbyn period: the leadership suffered because it lacked a coherent strategy and narrative, and Labour went high on policy instead of stooping low and attacking Boris Johnson's character. By way of a reply, Mike observes that had Corbyn gone for personal attacks it would have undermined his standing as an issues man, which had already suffered from the parliamentary manoeuvres over Brexit. Also, somewhat counter-intuitively to establishment and left arguments, Mike argues that Labour's adoption of the second referendum position had less of an impact than supposed. Quoting a contemporaneous poll of 2017 switchers from Labour, it found the Brexit position (17%) trailed leadership (43%). Brexit blaming also plays down the potentially greater losses to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens had the referendum position not been adopted. In my view, the immediate aftermath of the 2017 election was the time to cement Labour's position. That moment passed and by 2019 it was too late - what was adopted ensured a less worse outcome than what could have proven a complete catastrophe.

On Keir Starmer's leadership, Mike isn't likely to provoke much disagreement among his readers. He goes over the Labour leader's capitulation to the government on Covid (which was evident before he took office), which Starmer repeated time and again on undercover cop scandals, abstentionism on military offences, and what could only be described as reluctant opposition to the Tories' draconian sentencing bill. On trade union politics, such as the teachers' arguments against the government's reckless Covid strategy, there was studied silence. And on Starmer's campaign against the left, from sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey as soon as the opportunity presented itself to expelling Corbyn from the parliamentary party, all of Starmer's greatest hits are there. Curiously, Mike fits this into a theme of Starmer caving into right wing pressure. While there is always influence exerted from this direction, it does run the risk of letting Starmer off. For about 18 months, it's been clear that he has a project of his own that is simultaneously authoritarian and modernising, one centred on the restitution of state legitimacy and its efficacy. I think Mike's discussion would have benefited from reflecting a bit more on what Starmer's politics are about, because the idea he's uniquely scheming and Labour's faults stem from his legion of personal faults and habits has too much traction and speaks to a looking-out-for-a-hero politics the left would do well to avoid.

The what next prescription was always likely to be controversial. Mike observes that Labour still has a mass membership, despite the flood of resignations since Starmer won the leadership. As such, the party remains the biggest organised base of socialists and left wingers in this country. In fact, he registers his surprise that the exodus hasn't been bigger. Looking at arguments made by James Schneider and Jem Gilbert against those who've left the party, both have suggested these Labour leavers had a conditional attachment to the party. For as long as there was an accord between their views and the party's politics, they'd stay. Once that had disappeared, they did too. This typifies the "neoliberalisation" of political attitudes and engagement, of effectively getting into politics for a warm bath. Except this is not what Labour is. The party has always been a site of struggle, and therefore leaving is effectively ceding the field to the right. While Mike has some sympathy with the logic of this argument, he does point out that many of the new activists who joined the party in 2015 had previously gone through 13 years of Labour government and all the duplicity and right wing politics that entailed. Not wanting to be around for what many of them regard as more of the same is entirely understandable - but, as Mike says, still wrong. While not adopting the sharpness of the Schneider/Gilbert thesis, he does suggest too much of the left have adopted a defeatist mindset. Giving up struggling in the Labour Party typifies this.

In his own very thorough review of Don't Stop, Tom Blackburn argues that Mike does not get to grips with the book's great unsaid: Labourism. Rightly observing the party is a party of struggle and a party of state, with the Labour right putting loyalty to the latter above all, it can only ever be a compromised political location and one that stymies radical politics. Yet Labourism in its left manifestations cannot and will not face up to its own reality. Appealing to stay in the party, to fight rearguard actions against the right and sponsoring (and winning) progressive policies at conference rests on a fiction that change can come through the party. The experience of Corbynism, which at its best and most radical moments pushed at Labourism's limits have tested the Labour left's assumptions to destruction. Mike does shadow box with some aspects of the critique of Labourism by noting the historically poor performance of left wing parties that run in elections, but doesn't stop to ask whether this should be the criterion of political efficacy. To be fair, Mike does note the axis of struggle is now taking place outside the party, what with the street movements of recent years and the ramping up of serious trade union disputes. But a section of the Labour left have always engaged with extra-parliamentary struggles without offering a theory of political change that challenges Labourism's tenets.

There are no easy or ready answers. Tom, also acknowledging how the extra-Labour left have well-travelled the road to lost deposits, says that an alternative party remains essential for breaking with Labourism. Obviously, Mike thinks differently. Looking at the programme taking shape under the return to right wing Labourism, Starmer's prescriptions are an advance on what is offered by the Tories. Though obviously this comes with certain caveats. It means no change for those crossing the Channel in dinghies, for example. Whether his offering of a rejuvenated state is worth remaining in Labour for is another matter. A modest suggestion, then. As opposed to the defeatist mindset Mike warns against, perhaps instead we should come at matters with an organisers' mindset. That is maintaining the relationships built up during the course of the struggles we are embedded in, while looking to forge new connections and building new solidarities. It's obvious what this means for street movements and industrial action - build support, participate where directly involved, and push their politics on the cost of living crisis, on environmental degradation, police violence, and anti-racism. But doing this in Labour means asking searching questions and the action taken varies depending on where one is, the character of the local constituency party, if membership is a boon or hindrance to participating in wider struggles, and where the party runs councils if the power of local government can make a difference. Such a position does not have the advantage of a mapped out strategy apart from trying to cohere the left, wherever it is engaged, around and in service of current struggles. I haven't got a ready made answer, but perhaps one might come about through more collective action in the situations we find ourselves in.

Don't Stop therefore comes highly recommended. Mike provides an accurate summation of where the left are in the Labour Party, and while not a cheery read it is a necessary one. Changing the concrete situation is only possible if we're equipped with a sober analysis of it.

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Robert Dyson said...

I'm with John McDonnell, hang in there. As you put it, "That is maintaining the relationships built up during the course of the struggles we are embedded in, while looking to forge new connections and building new solidarities". We are not alone.

Blissex said...

«poll of 2017 switchers from Labour, it found the Brexit position (17%) trailed leadership (43%). Brexit blaming also plays down the potentially greater losses to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens had the referendum position not been adopted»

It matters where those switchers were, if the "leadership" switchers were for example liberals in urban areas, not much impact would have happened.

However, there are two pretty big deals about the Brexit position:

* Why did the LibDems miss winning the landslide predicted by all neoliberals, and why didn't the 30-35% of "Remainer" Conservative voters switch to the LibDems if not "trot" Labour?

* Why did Starmer switch to hard brexiteering as soon as he became leader, given his apparent focus on pandering to voters?

Labour wants to get Brexit done. We want the government to succeed in securing a deal in the national interest and to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Like the rest of the country, we want to move on from Brexit and see the UK making future trade deals across the world.

Labour Brexit chief urges party’s Remainers to ‘get over it and move on’ in conference speech [...] “It sounds a little bit harsh to get over it and move on, but that’s what the public have said to us in 2019, and how we move on and where we move on to I think is up for grabs.”

simon reynell said...

For me the decider on whether it's worth sticking with Labour is how serious their commitment to some sort of Green New Deal is or isn't. Reeves's £28 billion is not as strong as Corbyn-era GND, but is substantial nonetheless. But if they start to retreat from that commitment once in power, and adopt Ed Balls's terrible position that we just can't afford it, then I feel my energy would be better spent working with the Greens. That's likely to be a long march in terms of parliamentary politics, but for me climate change has to be the number 1 priority & touchstone for determining strategy.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am wrong but based on your review it seems that this grim-sounding account of the Labour left’s collapse, like those that came before, breeze past the vexing issue of how on earth they could go from ascendant, almost triumphant, under Corbyn in 2017, to a humiliated rump in 2020 - while the right essentially went on a mirror image trajectory. Grasping for vague formulations about a lack of convincing narrative or rerunning the nastiest right wing campaigns in all their horrible details - antisemitism smears above all - tells nothing about what is in the character of the Labour left - old school as with Corbyn or newer as in the thousands that coallesced around early incarnation Momentum - that made it incapable of capitalising politically on its position or, after losing that position, disintegrating so rapidly.

How could veteran politicians and advisers, including many who cut their teeth in various communist party groups or radical union organising in the much more militant 1980s, have been so blind to the enduring threat of the right, and so pusillanimous in pursuing their political goals by any means? Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Corbyn’s LOTO Office directly intervene to block a conference motion that would have established mandatory deselection? Didn’t they likewise concoct the preposterous trigger ballot system that protected the positions of ghouls like Jess Phillips before getting finnagled to oust those perceived ‘on the left’ like Sam Tarry?

Anonymous’ First Rule of Politics: Never attribute to personality or incompetence that which can be explained according to material conditions or interests.

So what’s going on with the Labour left? Why is the established group centred on parliament continuing to prostrate themselves before Starmer’s authority - why have they done exactly nothing with years of media appearances and exposure that has made them recognizable figures? After Corbyn’s defenestration they all went on radio silence. Almost as if signaling to satellite groups orbiting them that post Corbyn was a time for demobilization and passivity rather than struggle.

While in authority and having power in the party after fighting you achieve NEC majorities and all the rest, the institutional Labour left did absolutely nothing to secure a position they knew was under threat the moment the balance of power tipped remotely in favour of the party’s right. They purposefully did nothing to achieve long term change within the party and therefore in the country. Why?

Because of the above, once the balance tipped towards the right, their entire ‘project’ was swept away like a sandcastle. At a time of political reaction and capitalist crisis the main British voice for socialist politics appear to have accepted their own consignment to irrelevance - and in doing so precipitated the disillusionment/demobilization of those very social forces they so loudly embraced a mere 2 year earlier. Again - why?

And on top of this total collapse, the same groups appear determined to learn nothing from the experience. We see this in the persistent appeals to the Labour right and their fabled better nature - hunted at above when Phil speaks of how the book describes Starmer as if being pushed by forces from the right (as if a push was required). We see it when the dreary new left media congratulate itself on clipping the latest video showing Starmer abandoning one of the 10 Pledges he lyingly adopted to get himself elected leader, as if any of that matters or is remotely surprising. This kind of non-critical criticism does nothing but play along with the mummery that suits Starmer and the bourgeois state well - of an out in the open struggle for political expression in the confines of the bourgeois democratic system, rather than sublimated forms of class struggle and oppression, dark arts, pathological dishonesty, and authoritarian use of power to serve the main goals of war (NATO, no ifs or buts) and reaction (anything that comes out of Rachel Reeves mouth)...

Anonymous said...

So we have the hip young political thinkers of Novara media or wherever else seemingly having turned in unison to tedious, repetitive critiques of Tory corruption - or pedantic, legalistic critique of Labour leadership hypocrisy, as if these are glitches in the system rather than desired features. They are not such dupes, are they? They surely do understand the forces at work and why things are as they are. So - last time - why?

Anonymous said...

The Greens may be performing better in electoral politics around Europe and the UK but that is merely expediting their exposure as a reactionary instrument of class rule - if you’ll come forgive the old fashioned (but still useful) formulation. To be clear, that doesn’t mean its supporters are supporting such politics but that the origins of the Greens in the fragmentation of post 68 radicalism and the counterrevolution that began in the 1980s against social democracy and tocwhich they have thoroughly accommodated themselves make it inevitable on the official, elected level. Vote for the environment and get war, deindustrialism and austerity is in prwctice what the Greens represent.

You see this most clearly in Germany where the Greens are by some distance at their most successful. Annalena Baerbock is the Green foreign minister and predictably her 'human rights based foreign policy' has translated to a passionate human rights imperialism right from the playbook of the Democrats in America - and even more dogmatic than the form it takes in their more union-affiliated SPD coalition partners. On the state level meanwhile, they have suavely presided over every kind of austerity demanded by German capital. I see no reason why this would not also be the case in England, or Scotland where the Greens are already more prominent and already following the same path.

In environmental terms this fidelity to Western imperialism means the abandonment of even their thin pledges to green reform. At COP27, the German delegation - prominently featuring Green officials - used the gathering to sign agreements with African nations to enable fossil fuel exploration. At home they justify every similar act in terms of 'energy independence' from Russia.

And so to the Green New Deal. It is, at best, a corporatist investment strategy that does nothing to address the fact that capitalism is both root and obstacle to runaway climate disaster. Without confronting the problem's essence, substantive change even on a reformist basis is impossible.

And that's the best case. At worst - meaning most likely - any such 'deal' will be watered down to a series of pork barrel bungs directed at favoured capitalist constituencies, endless bungs to supoortive NGOs, and a general free for all of corruption, bungs and lobbying. And in the meantime the clock keeps running down...

Phil said...

Contra the Schneider/Gilbert thesis (as you represent it), I don't think there's anything neoliberal or consumerist about joining an organisation when it looks as if being a member will enable you to contribute to a struggle for change, and leaving when it looks as if that's not the case any more. There's something very abstract about this kind of "stay and fight" argument. I asked Jem Gilbert once directly (albeit on Twitter), what he thought left-wing members of a LP branch sewn up by the Right should actually do by way of 'fighting'; answer came there none.

Should we have moved early on Brexit after 2017, so as to have a position that was both stable and more acceptable to the membership (and less likely to leak votes to the Lib Dems)? I have my doubts. Firstly, stability wasn't on the table: the ease with which PV moved from demanding Labour back a second referendum to demanding Labour back a second referendum with a Remain option (without any let-up in the level of hostility) tells us what we would have been dealing with. Secondly, IME the issue on the doorstep wasn't Brexit in the sense of "let's trade with the world", or even Brexit in the sense of "let's give the NHS £350 million a week" - what Brexit meant was "we told you what you want, you didn't do it, and that was three years ago - and for the last six months you've been sitting around doing nothing at all because none of you can agree on how to do it". Labour took the blame - quite unjustly - for parliamentary deadlock and the failure of those indicative votes; unless a more explicitly Remain-friendly position would have altered that, I don't think it would have helped.

Blissex said...

«Anonymous’ First Rule of Politics: Never attribute to personality or incompetence that which can be explained according to material conditions or interests.
So what’s going on with the Labour left? [...] They purposefully did nothing to achieve long term change within the party and therefore in the country. Why?

It can be also narrow minded material conditions or interests, but there are different types of left, for example soft and corbynite, and I can imagine two answers among many others:

* The ferocity with which "Le Pouvoir" have shafted Corbyn and then got rid of Johnson (and in very different conditions Sanders and Trump in the USA) tells "the left" that the margins for fighting back are pretty small, and therefore they keep head down (and keep their positions) waiting for less repressive times.

* Because of how "Le Pouvoir" have purposefully structured the system, just about the only vehicle for the interests of workers, unemployed, renters, buyers/upgraders can be "Labour", so the left is sort of forced to play, as Corbyn did to excess, for party unity, but this is not true for the sponsors of the Mandelson Tendency for whom even New Labour is disposable: there are two other thatcherite parties furthering the same class interests, so if New Labour gets PASOKified and shrinks by getting rid of "trot" MPs, members, voters, well, too bad for the careers of those like Umunna and Streeting, but there are alternative thatcherite parties ready made.

In an ideal world for the "Le Pouvoir" classes the english political system should revert as close as possible to the pre-1918 situation, with a competition between whiggy tories (Sunak, Davey) and toryish whigs (Starmer), with voting restricted to the propertied and affluent. Which reminds me of this scary quote:

Jason Cooper, "The New Statesman", 2014-11: “Miliband [...] might have to accept before long – or the electorate will force him to – that Europe’s social-democratic moment, if it ever existed, is fading into the past.

Blissex said...

«as if these are glitches in the system rather than desired features. They are not such dupes, are they?»

Perhaps they are using the parliamentary convention (which has some merit even outside parliament) of never impugning the good faith of their opponents, however transparent the malice appears to be. Fortunately it is a convention easy to work around: instead of saying "the proposed rule changes are maliciously intended to exclude corbynists" you can say "the consequence of the proposed rule change will be the exclusion of corbynists" :-).

Blissex said...

«they keep head down (and keep their positions) waiting for less repressive times»

Like post-WW2 when there were millions of demobbed workers and renters trained to kill using war weapons.

Anyhow our present circumstances remind me of one of many George Orwell's wise points:
"Review of The Civilization of France by Ernst Robert Curtius" (1932)
“In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency.
But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution - meaning the next revolution, not the last one.
The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed - at least not yet.”

Starmer (like Sunak and Davey) is an apostle of that "composite god".

Jim Denham said...

Let's be clear about what you're saying re Brexit, Phil: what you mean (like Andrew Murray) is that the PLP should have supported May's proposed deal in 2017 ... or have I misunderstood you?

Karl Greenall said...

Annalena Baerbock's known links with Washington think-tanks and her actions and comments on the Ukraine conflict mark her as as much of a US asset as Peter Mandelson and his New Labour cronies.
It is all part of the NeoCon's scheme to weaken the EU and make it totally dependent on the US. We are that bit further down that road.