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'Reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated': What's next for the Labour left?

Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow Cabinet

15 min read

Keir Starmer’s first 100 days as Labour leader have been something of a disappointment to those on the left of the party. Concerned about backtracking on the environment, the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, and being outflanked on economic policy, what is the future for those who were firmly Team Corbyn? Sebastian Whale reports

The left of the Labour party is torn.

Having called on disgruntled moderates to respect the mandate earned by Jeremy Corbyn, they are cognisant they must follow suit with Keir Starmer to avoid charges of hypocrisy. And bruised by the factional disputes that raged within the party, they strain to be measured in their criticism of the Labour leader.

But gnawing in the background is a perception that Starmer could be drifting from his policy platform outlined in the Labour leadership election. Further entrenching this scepticism was his decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey – thereby depriving the shadow cabinet of a major left-wing voice – for tweeting (and, until recently, failing to delete) an interview that contained an anti-Semitic trope.

“There is a feeling on the left that he has not only broken the only olive branch in the form of sacking Rebecca, but the extent to which he’s going to stick to that policy platform has been cast into doubt,” says a former member of Corbyn’s team. “I think he wants to marginalise the left. There are a lot of people who supported Keir Starmer that should have known better, frankly."

But with high poll ratings, a broadly positive reception in the media, and a handful of government U-turns under his belt, just how concerned should Starmer be? And can the left, which was unified by Corbyn’s leadership, still carry influence within the party?

Fatigued after years of relentless work, former members of Jeremy Corbyn’s team have been taking a breather from frontline politics. “I have been quite checked out,” says one. “I’ve been recovering,” says another.

Though a degree of wound licking is taking place – brought about by Labour’s drubbing in December – and the coronavirus crisis prohibits or severely curtails rallies or normal grassroots campaigning, those on the left have also been keeping a close eye on proceedings in Westminster.

Earlier in July, Starmer passed the milestone of 100 days in office. His personal approval ratings have been noticeably strong, outweighing those of the prime minister and for that matter, those of his predecessor. But campaigners, noting the party currently trails the Tories in some surveys, argue that only tells half the story.

If Labour starts to get outflanked on the left economically, then the Conservatives will start to solidify the support that they have in the former red wall. That is a real danger

Crucial for the left are the 10 pledges based on the “moral case for socialism” Starmer promoted before becoming Labour leader, which they believe largely entrench Corbyn’s and John McDonnell's policy platform. Among them was a commitment to increase income tax for the top 5% of earners, placing a Green New Deal “at the heart of everything we do”, support for common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, and abolishing tuition fees.

“These are all very important pledges and of course they’re the reason why he was elected into leadership. Therefore, I’m watching that very closely,” says Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite the Union.

Starmer has trod a careful line in holding the Government to account on its own commitments as opposed to setting out a series of alternatives. In doing so, he wants to keep the focus on ministers and not pre-empt Labour’s as yet unformulated 2024 election manifesto. This approach, while often successful in not taking sides, has caused uncertainties over Labour’s position on areas such as taxation, the environment and its response to coronavirus.

“One of the reasons that he doesn’t want to commit to policies is he realises that he will alienate members if he commits to things, because they won’t be in the direction that’s anticipated," argues a former member of Corbyn's team.

McCluskey, a key power broker in Labour circles who was an unabashed supporter of Corbyn – and an outspoken critic of his opponents – is one of those in something of a bind. He recognises the challenge Starmer faces and his strengths as a disciplined and competent leader.

“I’m trying to express through you my support for Keir on the one hand,” McCluskey stresses, seemingly at pains not to take his criticisms too far. “But that support is very much based on the pledges that he made to get him into leadership and also something that he has repeated quite a number of times, and that is his striving for unity within the party.”

McCluskey says Starmer is unlikely to win a majority at the next election but could form a coalition with Labour as the largest party. However, that can only happen, he contends, “if he has the support of the left” (he also describes Long-Bailey's sacking as "wrong").

“If he moves away from the left, if he doesn’t get the balance correct, then all that will happen is we will find ourselves into internal wrangling again on policy issues that have been decided,” he says.

Pressed a bit further and it is clear that McCluskey does have deeper reservations about the approach of the leadership. As Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, obfuscates over Labour’s position on a wealth tax, he says: “What I see coming out of the Treasury team and those that are in powerful positions, seems to me a view that the best way not to be controversial is to say nothing. That would be a huge, huge mistake.”

Getting into his rhythm, McCluskey cools on Starmer’s ‘constructive opposition’ to the Government over the coronavirus, arguing the Labour leader must put forward what his party would do if in power. “Currently, we are facing a tsunami of redundancies,” he warns. “I’m genuinely not trying to scaremonger, that’s the last thing I’d want to do, but this could be the type of recession that would be even worse than the 30s.”

He continues: “Just like the economic arguments, it seems to me there’s an element of timidity among some of the leadership team to come out and say what is needed for fear that they then get attacked about, ‘Well okay, where’s the money coming from’ and ‘how are you going to do this’ or ‘how are you going to do that’.

“There is an element of I think fear rather than caution. I can understand people being cautious, but you can be cautious and confident. Labour needs the politics of ideals and ideas. Otherwise, you just look like middle management, a middle management team. That won’t inspire anybody.”

The world is going to change quite a lot over the next year or two. So, if you’re not active in shaping that, then the world gets shaped around you.

On the left, McCluskey is not a lone voice. “I do feel that a big opportunity is being missed to shift or shape public attitudes to the response to coronavirus and what a post-coronavirus world would look like,” says James Schneider, director of strategic communications under Corbyn, citing areas around ownership, taxing wealth and funding public services. “The world is going to change quite a lot over the next year or two. So, if you’re not active in shaping that, then the world gets shaped around you.”

Labour MP Clive Lewis says: “I think it’s clear that Keir needs to start to define what he stands for and what Starmerism or Keirism is going to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be policy commitments, but he needs to start articulating the broad vision. Without that people begin to fill in the blanks and define him themselves.”

Richard Burgon, the former shadow justice secretary who ran for the deputy leadership, wants to ensure Labour also put forward policies that are “sufficiently radical to do the job in the tumultuous times ahead”. The secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs adds: “We don’t think when we’re going into an economic crisis of the severity that is predicted, that managerialism or tinkering around the edges will suffice.”

A former member of Corbyn’s team says staying silent could see Labour outmanoeuvred by the Tories, with Boris Johnson talking up a Rooseveltian plan for economic recovery based around infrastructure spending. “This government is likely to introduce a wealth tax. If so, where does that leave Labour? If Labour starts to get outflanked on the left economically, then the Conservatives will start to solidify the support that they have in the former red wall. That is a real danger,” they warn. 

Keir is always going to be known as the guy who was really derogatory about Black Lives Matter

Alongside fears over Starmer’s policy positions – or lack thereof – members of the left have been perturbed by the Labour leader’s handling of the Black Lives Matter movement, citing his response to the fall of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol; his description of BLM as a “moment”; and his dismissal of calls to “defund the police”. “He has apologised but it has set up a situation now where Keir is always going to be known as the guy who was really derogatory about Black Lives Matter,” claims an ex-Corbyn staffer, who also laments a lack of diversity in the leader’s office.

Starmer has mandated unconcious bias training for Labour staff as part of his response.

“Do I think Keir Starmer is oblivious to anti-Black racism and doesn’t give a damn about it? No, I don’t,” says Clive Lewis. “I think he’s genuinely shocked and hurt at the fact that he may have caused hurt to many black members and the black community with some of the things that he has said or hasn’t said. And yet, he said them.”

He adds: “I have advised him that he needs to set out that he understands what structural racism is, and how the Labour party’s history on this is mixed.”

Left-wing activists have also been perturbed by Labour’s position on reaching net zero emissions by 2030, after Starmer’s spokesperson appeared to hint at rowing back on the target, and what they deem to be a lack of commitment to the Green New Deal agenda. “We believe that the party shouldn’t be reneging on its ambitions at all, in fact, it should be accelerating them,” says Angus Satow, a spokesperson for campaign group, Labour for a Green New Deal.

A good indicator of the health of the left will be at the upcoming elections to Labour’s National Executive Committee. There are also significant posts up for grabs in union circles, with both Unison and GMB seeking new general secretaries. One of the early runners to replace Dave Prentis at Unison is assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.

They come off the back of internal elections at Momentum, the grassroots organisation originally formed to support Corbyn’s leadership. The left put forward two slates – Forward Momentum (who won all member representative seats) and Momentum Renewal – which some interpreted as a wider sign of growing disunity on the left. Gaya Sriskanthan and Andrew Scattergood took over as chair from the outgoing Jon Lansman.

Without the glue of Corbyn holding these factions together – the old vanguard Bennite left and their ‘Trotskyist’ counterparts (as a source described them to me) – the fragile coalition of traditional socialists with their often-younger associates is at risk. “In terms of it being a credible opposition to the organised Labour party, I don’t think Keir Starmer has to worry so much about,” says a Labour insider.

We are not oppositional; we intend to be propositional

There is some concern that left-wing supporters will let their Labour memberships lapse or leave the party altogether. “In the Labour party, things are a bit of a hot mess,” says a left-wing insider. “People are going back to their original community organising fronts that aren’t the Labour party’s community organising units. They are just not interested in the Labour party anymore.”

Ash Sarkar, contributing editor at Novara Media, argues the left must learn lessons from the 1980s. “The upcoming NEC elections – even though saying ‘NEC elections’ makes me want to gouge out my own eyes – are important to be able to construct an internal obstacle to Keir Starmer or people around him being able to do Kinnock 2.0,” she says. “Once you block off avenues to Kinnock 2.0, the next thing is pushing Starmer to be Attlee 2.0: a soft left figure who’s got people around him who are willing to implement transformative policies.”

Aware of disillusionment, Len McCluskey calls for an “appropriate gathering” of the left to take place soon. “It is absolutely essential that the left and the various strands of the left come together. There is no doubt a demoralisation. It can be debilitating when something like 2019 happens and then the leader that you may have supported, or the type of leader doesn’t emerge. My message is that we have to have a united party, but more than anything, we need a united left,” he says.

Owen Jones, The Guardian columnist and author, who is writing a book on Corbyn’s Labour movement, says: “I totally understand the disillusionment and the frustration. But I would say that despite what’s happened, the left’s ideas are more dominant in the Labour party now by a long way than they were before 2015.” But for those who do wish to depart, he adds: “If you can’t stomach doing that, then what you need to do is through your energy into extra-parliamentary movements.”

As for the idea of a new party forming, a former Corbyn staffer says: “Until we have a proportional electoral system, it is pointless. The only way you can effect left-wing change in a first past the post system is through the Labour party.”

James Schneider argues the test of the left will be “how internally tolerant and generous” it is to its component parts and whether or not an “institutional arrangement” can be developed to connect the trade unions, grassroots movements such as Momentum and the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. “This structure of socialists in the Labour party could then engage with other progressive forces in the UK, such as the tenants', feminist, anti-racist and environmental movements,” he envisages.

All contributors to this article emphasised the importance of the left sticking to constructive criticism of policy when talking about the Labour leadership. “We don’t want to end up the Neil Coyle’s of the left,” quips Owen Jones of the Labour MP and outspoken opponent of Jeremy Corbyn.

Some on the left felt vindicated by a leaked internal report into anti-Semitism that highlighted a "hyper-factional" environment among party staff who were hostile to Corbyn. Keir Starmer, who subsequently called for an independent inquiry, will also have to deal with the fallout of an Equality and Human Rights Commission review on anti-Semitism, which was handed to the party this week.

Left-wing activists stress that they will work towards ensuring a Labour government. “I still firmly believe that we could have won the 2017 general election if people had put more effort in, particularly in Southside," says one ex-Corbyn staffer. "So it would be wrong of me to then come out of that environment, knowing what it’s like to have infrastructure working against you and then be like, ‘Let’s do all that we can to destroy Keir’s chances’. It would be hypocritical.”

The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, who wrote to Starmer over the 2030 commitment on net zero emissions, met the Labour leader soon after the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey. Richard Burgon says left-wing MPs will work constructively with Starmer, as opposed to “some of the right of the PLP” under Corbyn, who tried to “steer the ship” towards the rocks and make the “elected captain walk the plank”.

“We want Keir in Downing Street. We don’t want to capsize the ship - we want to steer its course - its policy programme - to the left,” he explains. “We are not oppositional; we intend to be propositional.”

We have to have a united party, but more than anything, we need a united left

There is not complete agreement, however, on the prospects of the left. Against a backdrop of a pandemic, in which campaigning has all but been ruled out, there is a genuine challenge in gaining traction. For some, they also fear a lack of desire to get the word out and cast doubt as to whether the infrastructure that built up around Corbyn still exists.

“It’s all died down,” says a Labour insider. “In terms of rallying the troops and getting people around to try and put in a credible opposition, I don’t see that happening for a long time.” They add: “It is very much not our moment anymore.”

Others, like Len McCluskey, are more bullish. "The left is a powerful force. Jeremy Corbyn created this movement and that's what we have - a movement - that is still there. So my message is for left radical individuals to stay in the Labour party and not to be too demoralised to the point where they want to leave.

“The reason they could join the party was because of the values and ideals that they held close to their hearts and those ideals are still worth fighting for and they’re worth fighting for in the Labour party because we have a leader who has based his leadership on those radical values, on the moral case for socialism.”

He concludes: "I would say that the reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated.”

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