Keir Starmer has won the Labour leadership contest. His Blairite backers are already baying for blood, calling for the Corbyn movement to be purged from the party. The left must rally around socialist policies and prepare to fight back.
The election of Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour Party does not come as a great surprise.
Starmer – the candidate of the right wing – won in the first round, with 56% of the vote. Angela Rayner, meanwhile, was elected as deputy leader in the third round. Rebecca Long-Bailey got nearly 30% of the votes of Labour members, while Richard Burgon won a respectable vote of over 20% of the total cast.
The Blairites, having been on the backfoot for years, are now baying for blood. They – and the establishment they represent – are now demanding an offensive against the Corbyn movement. The Labour left must therefore organise and prepare for battle.
Before looking at what the future holds, it is worth putting what has happened into context.
I have in my possession a copy of the Financial Times Weekend Magazine from 26-27 September 2015, issued a matter of days after Jeremy Corbyn was overwhelmingly elected Labour leader. Jeremy’s face is on the front cover, with the heading: “Jeremy Corbyn: How Long Can He Last?”
Now we know the answer: four-and-a-half stormy years. It took almost half a decade to get rid of him. Whilst he won the votes of almost 60% of the membership, he had the backing of less than 10% of Labour MPs, who were (and still are) overwhelmingly from the Blairite era.
“There can’t be a coup now: we would have blood on our hands,” said one Labour MP. “We have to give him time to fail and to make it clear to all his supporters that this cannot work,” said another so-called ‘moderate’.
“Corbyn’s first appearance at prime minister’s question time was therefore a surreal affair; behind him were scores of Labour MPs who would dearly love to get rid of him…” explained the FT article. “It’s going to go wrong,” said another senior Blairite former minister at the time. “We just don’t know when.”
Tom Harris, a Labour MP who had just lost his seat, hoped Corbyn would be deposed within weeks. An “assassin” needed to be found, he asserted. Graham Stringer MP thought the idea of a Labour government led by Corbyn “horrifying”.
The plot to “assassinate” Corbyn was hatched within hours of him being elected leader. Behind this was the capitalist establishment, which had controlled the Labour Party for decades through its right-wing agents.
They threw everything against Corbyn to discredit him. They hounded him, turning the regular meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) into an anti-Corbyn bear pit.
The Labour right-wingers then launched their open coup in 2016, organising a mass resignation from the shadow cabinet and a huge vote of no confidence from the PLP. For all his campaign rhetoric about unity, Keir Starmer joined this ignominious charade.
But the mass membership, built up under Corbyn, repulsed the attack and saw him elected with an even bigger majority.
These right-wing Labour MPs desperately wanted Corbyn to fail. But in the 2017 general election, instead of failing, Labour won its biggest rise in the vote since 1945.
Lies and smears
The right wing were forced to bide their time, and Starmer reentered the shadow cabinet. While there were a few resignations of right-wing Labour MPs, the majority stayed to fight Corbyn.
They tried everything – eventually hitting on the question of anti-semitism. They unleashed a torrent of lies and distortions to ‘prove’ that the Labour Party was anti-Semitic. These smears were quickly taken up by the Tory media, who regurgitated the same nonsense day-in, day-out to discredit Corbyn.
Unfortunately, the so-called ‘left’ Jon Lansman – the self-appointed leader of Momentum – bought into this smear campaign; and the leadership retreated, issuing apology after apology, making concession after concession. But all to no avail.
The Blairites, together with Starmer, pushed the party towards a second referendum position. Again, unfortunately, even some left leaders, like John McDonnell, fell for this.
Four-and-a-half years of stabbing Corbyn in the back (and Jess Phillips threatening to stab him in the front) – with the slanders over anti-Semitism and the confusion over Brexit – made Corbyn look weak.
The only way forward would have been to have gone for the mandatory reselection (open selection) of MPs to clear out the saboteurs. The rank and file of the party were in favour, incensed by the scandalous behaviour of the Blairtes.
But the move to bring in open selection was blocked by the trade union leaders. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, meanwhile, acquiesced, appealing in vain for ‘unity’.
This sealed Corbyn’s fate. The Blairites launched a barrage against the Labour leader in the wake of the 2019 election, completely exaggerating the scale of the defeat for maximum effect. Corbyn, in the end, was pushed to stand down.
The Labour left consistently compromised and gave in to pressure from the right, with tragic consequences. But the Blairites, backed by the ruling class, were always on the offensive. It is this meekness of the left leaders that has led us to where we are now.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Starmer had many advantages over the left candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey. He had been preparing to stand for the position for a long time, and was quick off the mark.
This knight of the realm immediately positioned himself as the ‘unity’ candidate, promising to put an end to all the in-fighting of recent years. This had a certain impact, given the disorientation and demoralisation amongst Labour activists following the December general election defeat.
The left campaign, meanwhile, was slow and confused, starting with RLB talking about the need for ‘progressive patriotism’. This was hardly a programme to inspire confidence and audacity.
Starmer immediately received the backing of the capitalist media as the most credible champion to defeat Long-Bailey, who was regarded as the ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate.
The Blairites initially supported Jess Phillips, who was vocal in trashing the Corbyn years. But this was clearly too much for the left-leaning grassroots. Hence the Labour establishment switched over and threw their weight behind Starmer.
The problem for them was that Starmer did not openly condemn Corbyn or his left-wing policies. On the contrary, if the shadow Brexit secretary was going to win the leadership race, he needed to appeal to the mass membership.
The more noncommittal Starmer was, the better, in their eyes. He even tried to reinforce his ‘left’ credentials in his cringe-worthy promotional videos, where he praised the miners’ strike and the anti-poll tax campaign, amongst other things. The only mention of the Blair years was the Iraq war, which deeply rankled the Blairites.
There is a video on the Financial Times website made about Margaret Hodge’s views of the leadership campaign, where she interviews a number of people, including Alastair Campbell. They mused over what a Starmer leadership would look like.
“He wasn’t like Neil [Kinnock] or Tony [Blair],” said Margaret Hodge. Campbell agreed, not looking too convinced of Starmer, given his failure to openly wave the Blairite flag. “But he was only doing so to get elected,” said Hodge, hoping he would change once elected.
The Blairites had no alternative but to back him and hope he would come good.
Rebecca Long-Bailey came a credible second place. There were quite a few on the left who refused to vote for her after she endorsed the 10-point manifesto of the Jewish Board of Deputies, which demonstrated how weak she was in face of intimidation.
RLB also endorsed Angela Raynor for deputy, instead of the left candidate Richard Burgon. All of this only added to the confusion on the left.
What lies ahead?
Some have promised to leave the Labour Party if Starmer wins. But this is very short-sighted – as if the right wing have won hands down.
Of course, Starmer’s victory is a setback; no one can deny this. It will breath new confidence into the right wing. The problem, for them, is the mass left-leaning membership that stands in their way.
Even Tony Blair has noted that for the ‘moderates’ to reclaim the Labour Party, they would need to purge 300,000 members! This is easier said than done.
Starmer will in all likelihood play a balancing act for now. He will change the shadow cabinet to fill it with reliable right-wingers. Long-Bailey may be given a tokenistic position, in order to provide a left fig-leaf for his new establishment team.
According to the Sunday Times, Starmer and his allies plan to ‘purge’ the left from the shadow cabinet and the party’s headquarters. But they will have to tread lightly. The new Labour leader will certainly not be able to abandon the current left-wing manifesto without provoking a massive backlash from the membership.
Already in his campaign, the Holborn and St Pancras MP had to endorse policies such as the renationalisation of rail, post, energy and water; the scrapping of tuition fees; opposition to austerity and wars, amongst other things, in order to get elected.
Starmer will be under immense pressure from the Blairites to deliver. But on the other side, he will also be under pressure from the rank and file. The outcome of this battle is not yet decided.
The struggle in the Labour Party is not all over by a long shot. At the end of the day, it is a struggle of living forces. Left-wingers must not give up now, but should stay and fight. Ken Loach’s recent advice on this was absolutely correct.
Epoch of crisis
This is not the 1980s, when Kinnock took over. Nor is it the 1990s for that matter, when the party shifted dramatically to the right under Tony Blair. That was a period of relative boom in the world economy, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of China to the capitalist market.
Today, we are in the deepest crisis of capitalism in its history. Britain is facing an economic catastrophe. The Tories and the bosses will be demanding austerity and attacks on the working class. And the establishment will be calling on Starmer to lend Labour’s support to such a programme. But the mass left-leaning membership will have something to say about this!
The entire world is undergoing an unprecedented upheaval. Capitalism is exposing its bankruptcy on a daily basis. There has never been a better time to argue for clear socialist policies.
Of course, the capitalists will be demanding that Starmer acts ‘responsibly’ as a ‘statesman’, etc. They may even attempt to pull him into some kind of national government. But all of this would provoke a massive backlash within the Labour Party.
The capitalist establishment are already pushing for Starmer to clear out the left, using the issue of anti-Semitism as an excuse. They will want to purge the Labour Party of ‘Corbynistas’. But that will open up a battle royale.
Don’t mourn – organise!
The left needs to regroup on a solid basis. Momentum has shown itself to be inadequate as a vehicle for the left.
Long-Bailey, the left candidate, gained nearly a third of the vote, which is a sizable proportion. This strength is far greater than that under Blair, Brown or Miliband. It is a powerful force – if organised.
Richard Burgon seems to have emerged as the real standard bearer of the left, with his excellent campaign pledges in favour of open selection and a new, socialist Clause IV.
Burgon now needs to build on this platform. This means organising within the constituency parties and amongst grassroots members; rallying the 90,000 or more Labour activists who voted for him, along with the left-wing trade unions that backed him; and preparing the resistance to the right wing.
We have everything to play for. This is no time to desert the battlefield. Rather, it is precisely the time to join and fight!
We must have confidence in our ideas and confidence in ourselves. The struggle to transform the Labour Party into a weapon to change society is not a straight line, and never has been.
There will inevitably be ups and downs. But the endemic crisis of capitalism will push waves of workers into political activity. The Labour Party, based on the mass trade unions, remains the party of the working class – the only rallying point for workers on the political plane.
Our task remains the same: to cleanse it of the Tory infiltrators, who masquerade as Labour MPs.
On the basis of events, the Labour Party will be transformed and retransformed in the coming period. This will open up the way for a real mass socialist Labour Party – one that has as its vision the socialist transformation of society.
The Marxist tendency – represented by Socialist Appeal – has a vital role to play the struggles ahead. We will mobilise grassroots members and fight the right with bold socialist policies, which are the only answer to the crisis of capitalism. We call on you to join us in this task.