Len McCluskey has fired a shot across the bows with threats to withdraw funds in response to Starmer’s rightward turn of the Labour Party. With NEC elections approaching, the left must mobilise around bold socialist policies.
Temperatures are rising across Britain this summer – not only outside in the sun, but in the Labour Party also. Things are heating up as frictions mount between the left and right. There is combustible material everywhere. An explosive situation is developing.
As the Labour civil war rumbles on, skirmishes are increasingly erupting on a number of fronts. Emboldened by their recent advances, and by their establishment backers cheering them on, the right wing are looking to push home their advantage. But they are meeting resistance along the way.
The more fanatical Blairite warriors are even pressing Keir Starmer to claim the scalp of Jeremy Corbyn himself. Other more hesitant right-wing commentators, however, are wary of the enormous backlash that this would provoke.
— Comrade Binman #Red (@TrashMcNish) July 28, 2020
One key battle is looming: that of elections for the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC). The two armies are already forming. It is vital that the left organises its troops for the fight ahead. This requires militant leadership, rallying activists under the banner of bold socialist policies.
Word of warning
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, launched an opening salvo for the left this week. In an interview with the Observer, McCluskey warned that his union could reassess its financial backing for the Labour Party in the wake of recent events. “It would be a mistake if anybody took Unite for granted,” the trade union leader cautioned.
These comments were provoked by recent events surrounding Labour’s six-figure settlement with a number of its former staffers. Seven ex-employees, along with documentary maker John Ware, had been looking to sue the party for supposed ‘defamation’ and ‘libel’.
These former party officials had all appeared in Ware’s disgraceful Panorama ‘investigation’ last year into the Labour’s alleged ‘institutional anti-semitism problem’. In the wake of this, the staffers claim, leading Labour figures under Corbyn had unfairly destroyed their reputations by publicly confronting them over the outrageous ‘evidence’ they had provided in the programme.
In reality, these ex-employees were right-wing saboteurs, as revealed by the leaked Labour report. By paying them off, Starmer and the right wing were looking to sweep the whole sordid affair under the carpet – and to score a cheap political point against the left in the process.
Following the announcement of the pay out, Jeremy Corbyn correctly took a stand against this scandalous settlement. In a Kafkaesque response, Ware then came forward saying he was looking to sue Corbyn himself!
With legal cases and threats flying around, McCluskey stepped in to highlight what a shocking waste of party funds this all is. “It’s an abuse of members’ money,” the Unite leader correctly stated. “A lot of it is Unite’s money and I’m already being asked all kinds of questions by my executive.”
Shot across the bows
McCluskey’s comments are clearly intended as a shot across the bows; a thinly veiled threat to the Blairites. And this is how they have been interpreted by Labour right-wingers, media commentators, and grassroots activists alike.
This stance was backed up by further sharp remarks from Ian Lavery and other former shadow cabinet ministers. “Starmer is on warning that he must work with everyone across the movement and cash has to be accounted for,” one anonymous left-wing MP asserted. “The lurch to the right will not be paid for with union subs.”
But in many respects, the Unite general secretary’s muscle flex shows not only the left’s potential strength, but also some of its greatest weaknesses.
Firstly, from reading the rest of the aforementioned Observer interview, we find that McCluskey is not looking for confrontation at all, but for compromise. His only sore point is over who gets to be the godfather in this gang war.
“He [Starmer] has our support,” the Unite leader assures readers. “That means that initially, in the first 100 days which he’s gone through, he has to make his mark. He has to do things – it’s almost like a honeymoon period. You get away with certain things.”
“And my view with the left,” McCluskey continues, “was, ‘look, just calm down until we get to the stage of whether there’s a shift in and a move in policies, because that would constitute a problem’.”
One has to wonder if the union chief is tuned into the same channel as the rest of us. In his months as Labour leader, Starmer has refused to provide any real opposition to the Tories; he has condemned and patronised Black Lives Matter activists; and he has sacked the most prominent left-winger in his shadow cabinet.
And on each and every occasion, ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer has received glowing praise from the establishment as a result. How much more evidence does one need of a “shift” and “move” inside the Labour Party?
It may be true that the Labour manifesto has not yet changed. Partially that is the result of the complete shutdown in party democracy, with no CLP meetings or annual conference due to the pandemic lockdown. But even this has not stopped the new right-wing Labour leadership from unilaterally reversing democratically agreed positions on questions such as Kashmir, or making up other official party policies on the hoof.
In any case, rank-and-file activists certainly feel that the party is rapidly changing direction. Hence reports of thousands of Corbyn-supporters ripping up their membership cards due to demoralisation and disgust.
Those leaving the Labour Party will not be convinced to stay and fight by seeing a left leadership that is burying its head in the sand or sowing illusions in Starmer. Rather, what is needed is to tell the truth: that we have a battle on our hands – one that requires organisation, determination, and audacity.
Furthermore, McCluskey’s comments beg the question: why didn’t the Unite leadership seize the opportunity to land a mortal against the right wing when they had the chance?
After all, lest we forget, it was the union bloc vote – including a sizeable delegation from Unite – that pushed mandatory reselection (‘open selection’) off the table at the 2018 Labour conference. This was despite the fact that mandatory reselection was official Unite policy, following a vote at the union’s 2016 conference. So much for ‘accountability’!
This only underlines the fact that, far from wanting to take the fight to the right wing, what McCluskey and the other union leaders desire above all else is a quiet life.
With general secretary elections for the ‘big three’ unions (Unison, Unite, and GMB) all on the cards, it is therefore vital that rank-and-file trade unionists organise and push for militant leaderships.
Grassroots Labour members have had to learn the hard way, from bitter experience, how appeasement with our opponents gets us nowhere. Worse than this, it leads to confusion and disorientation, in the face of an enemy that is ruthless and resolute.
This raises a final point relating to McCluskey’s recent remarks: are financial threats really the best weapon the left has at its disposal?
The Unite general secretary is certainly correct to question how trade union members’ money is being spent. But blackmail alone is not enough to defeat the right wing. After all, Starmer has the full support of the establishment. And no doubt he could find some big business backers to replace the unions’ funding were it to be withdrawn.
What the Corbyn movement needs to defend itself is not idle threats, but numbers – an organised mass of grassroots activists. And this can only come by inspiring people on the basis of a clear political programme of bold socialist policies.
The upcoming NEC elections must now be used as a platform to galvanise the left and launch a fightback against the right. Nominations from CLPs are already underway, closing on Sunday 27 September, with candidates for the CLP representative positions requiring five nominations to make it onto the ballot.
Recent months have demonstrated the importance of this contest. Due to a splintered left, several right-wing candidates were able to slip onto the NEC during the by-elections held at the same time as the last leadership race.
With their support, Starmer was able to win a series of narrow victories on Labour’s ruling body: appointing Blairite David Evans as general secretary; blocking attempts to introduce online democracy; and altering the system by which future NEC elections take place.
This has underlined the importance of left unity going forwards. Left-wing activists are in no mood to see another battle lost because of splits and bureaucratic maneuvering.
Unfortunately, the main left slate being put forward – the Grassroots Voice – does not inspire confidence in this respect. Firstly, the method by which it was decided (by the ‘Centre Left Grassroots Alliance’) is all-too-reminiscent of the much-hated backroom dealing and horse-trading of the past.
Secondly, the slate is only composed of six candidates. But there are nine CLP-rep NEC positions up for grabs. The right wing is running a primary slate of six (called ‘Labour to Win’), with public support for three others. Yet the CLGA is not doing the same, despite a number of other clear left-wing, socialist candidates standing.
On the one hand, this smacks of sectarianism. On the other hand, it also reveals the lack of confidence at the top. The new STV (Single Transferable Vote) system makes it far less likely that the left vote will be split. And surely, with the full resources of Momentum and Unite, etc., the Corbyn movement could organise a visible campaign to mobilise rank-and-file members behind a full state of nine candidates?
Fight for socialism
This raises the third and final point, however: that of the programme. Linked to the complete lack of transparency and accountability, one of the other main downsides of the CLGA-led slate selection is the political compromise made in the process. After all, this is explicitly not a socialist slate, but a ‘centre left’ one.
But one of the key lessons learnt from the Corbyn movement over the past five years must be that timidity and mildness mobilise no-one. Rather, the left won two leadership elections, took over branches and CLPs, and came close to winning power on the basis of boldness.
Artificial attempts to create a ‘broad church’ will only lead to a ‘lowest common denominator’ programme that will not inspire anyone. Instead, what is required is clear socialist ideas.
For this reason, Socialist Appeal believes that – alongside backing the Grassroots Voice slate against the right wing – left activists should also offer their support (with CLP nominations and high STV preferences) to socialist candidates, such as Alec Price, Roger Silverman, and Carol Taylor-Spedding (amongst others).
These comrades are all standing on an explicitly socialist programme, including demands for: nationalisation and workers’ control; a mass fightback against austerity; and open selection and workers’ MPs taking an average worker’s wage.
This is the kind of solid political foundation upon which the left can regroup, rebuild, and regain control of the party from the right wing’s grip. We urge readers to help ensure that all socialist candidates make it onto the ballot by nominating them through your CLP.
The gloves are off
Undoubtedly, and understandably, there is much demoralisation in the wake of Starmer’s victory and the dramatic shift to the right seen in recent months. It is the responsibility of the leaders of the Corbyn movement to turn the situation around. And this can only come by taking a firm stand against right-wing aggression, and by mobilising activists around a genuine socialist alternative.
In his Observer interview, McCluskey mentions plans for a “major gathering” to rejuvenate the left. Elsewhere, secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, Richard Burgon, has put forward a 10-point programme to galvanise activists and voters.
These – along with the platform provided by the NEC elections – represent an important opportunity to turn the tide in Labour’s ongoing civil war. But to seize the moment, the left leaders need to acknowledge that this is a gloves off, no-holds-barred battle. There can be no more compromises or concessions.
We need to drive the Blairites and bureaucrats out of the PLP and Labour HQ, and transform Labour back into the mass social movement that it was becoming at the height of the Corbyn era.
Above all, with capitalism facing its deepest ever crisis, we need a movement of workers and youth that has as its aim the overthrow of this rotten system, not any attempt to patch it up.
These goals can only be achieved by filling grassroots activists with confidence and determination; by organising around the call for open selection and bold socialist demands.
This is what Socialist Appeal – the Marxist Voice of Labour and youth – is fighting for, in the labour movement and on the streets. We call on you to join us in this struggle.