Labour members have now had six months to assess what a Starmer leadership means. And the results are conclusive: a sharp right-ward turn; the jettisoning of any radical demands; and the abandonment of class politics in favour of flag-waving ‘patriotism’.
Demoralised by last year’s general election defeat, and without a clear direction from the left leaders, many Corbyn supporters understandably lent their votes to Starmer, lulled in by his siren calls for ‘unity’.
But any such illusions have by now been shattered. There has been no end to ‘factionalism’. Instead, political polarisation inside the party has only been heightened by events.
The Labour right, meanwhile, has been emboldened – going on the offensive, attacking the left, and looking to eliminate any vestiges of ‘Corbynism’ in the party.
All of this underlines why the upcoming elections to Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) are so important. In the wake of a series of defeats and retreats, it is essential that the left mobilises to win this key battle and turn the situation around.
This can only be achieved by rallying and uniting activists around a clear socialist vision: to drive back the right and fight for a socialist Labour Party. All forces to the point of attack!
Early indicators should give left-wingers confidence. Despite some reports of potentially large numbers of activists ripping up their membership cards in disgust, NEC nominations from local Labour parties suggest that the balance of forces is firmly in favour of the left.
The main focus of these elections is on the contest over the nine places available to represent the constituency Labour parties (CLPs). In addition, there are separate votes to choose representatives for various subsections of the membership, including youth, those in Wales, and disabled members.
To get on the ballot, candidates for the CLP rep positions required the support of at least five local parties. In total, 42 candidates achieved this.
Importantly, these CLP nominations also demonstrate the relative strength of the left and right on the ground.
There are two left-wing slates standing in the NEC elections: the centre-left ‘Grassroots Voice’ slate; and the socialist slate organised by the Labour Left Alliance (LLA).
On the right, the main slate is running under the banner of ‘Labour to Win’. Meanwhile, there are smaller groupings organised by Open Labour (claiming to be soft left, but in reality on the centre-right) and the Tribune MPs (not to be confused with the left-wing Tribune magazine).
Encouragingly, the six-person Grassroots Voice slate are all in the top seven in terms of nominations. In total, they have almost 1,667 nominations. Labour to Win candidates, meanwhile, have 932 nominations between them, and not one candidate in the top seven.
In total, 42 candidates received enough nominations to proceed to the ballot for CLP representatives on the NEC.— CLP Nominations (@CLPNominations) September 28, 2020
Laura Pidcock: 333
Ann Black: 301
Yasmine Dar: 292
Gemma Bolton: 277
Mish Rahman: 274
Nadia Jama: 250
Ann Henderson: 241
Johanna Baxter: 223
Gurinder Singh Josan: 204 pic.twitter.com/uHQz8n2nrn
Weighing up the total nominations for the left and right, we see 1,882 for the centre-left and socialist slates together; and 1,640 for the right-wing candidates – although even a large chunk of this is for self-proclaimed ‘lefts’ Ann Black (301 nominations) and Jermain Jackman (131).
The same pattern can be seen in all the other races, where candidates backed by the more left-wing unions lead in terms of CLP nominations.
Similarly, in the Young Labour (YL) elections – scheduled to take place at the same time as those for the NEC – it is the Momentum slate that has secured the most nominations in almost every region and category (with the notable exception of Scotland). This includes Lewis Griffiths, candidate for Wales rep and Socialist Appeal supporter.
In total, forty-eight candidates received enough nominations to proceed to the ballot for the Young Labour National Committee. pic.twitter.com/SJyd8xMn8E— CLP Nominations (@CLPNominations) September 28, 2020
Of course, everything is still to play for. But these preliminary results demonstrate that the left still has a firm majority inside the party.
This should come as no surprise. After all, the vast bulk of Labour’s mass membership joined under Corbyn, inspired by his left-wing programme.
And now that Starmer’s mask of ‘unity’ has been stripped away, revealing the ugly face of Blairism underneath, it is clear that this is a straight up fight between the left and right. Rank-and-file members will not be fooled again by ‘Sir’ Starmer’s lip-service to socialism, nor by his hollow rhetoric and vacuous promises.
The task now is to ensure that this potential strength is fully utilised, in order to secure a sweeping victory for the left. And this can only be done by enthusing members with the promise of bold socialist change – both inside the party, and beyond.
Need for unity
The possibility of a left clean sweep has been sabotaged, however, by a procedural change brought in by the current NEC, which is balanced in favour of the right wing.
Under the old voting system, each member could select a number of candidates; and those with the most votes would be selected. This enabled elections to fall entirely in one direction or another – as happened for several years under Corbyn, when the left had a majority on the NEC.
The downside, however, was that the left vote could be split, enabling the right wing to win without having a majority – or even a plurality – of the membership behind them. This was seen earlier this year, when a failure of the left to unite around a single trio allowed the right to take all the positions up for grabs in NEC by-elections.
Under the new ‘Single Transferable Vote’ (STV) system, members now rank candidates according to preference. And rather than being able to select multiple candidates, each member has only one (single, transferable) vote, which moves down the list of preferences as candidates are eliminated after each round of counting.
Given what is at stake in these latest elections, there is a strong desire to avoid any repeat of previous vote-splitting errors. But that is easier said than done.
Some on the left have stated that STV makes splitting impossible. This is the justification given by the LLA for running their own six-person slate, in addition to the Grassroots Voice slate, when there are only nine positions available.
Others on the left have asserted otherwise – sometimes genuinely, citing evidence; other times cynically, in order to justify supporting the politically weaker Grassroots Voice slate over the more explicitly socialist LLA slate.
Rank the LLA 6 first - standing on an anti-witchhunt platform. Then as many left-wing candidates as you can, including the CLGA 6. And no, this does not "split the left vote" - quite the opposite. https://t.co/nyPRnTfQsv pic.twitter.com/4zPIjcO8DS— Labour Left Alliance (@LabLeftAlliance) September 27, 2020
The responsibility for this mess lies with the organisers of the so-called ‘grassroots’ slate. Despite its name, this slate is the result of horse-trading and backroom deal-making between factions involved in the ‘Centre Left Grassroots Alliance’ – which includes influential elements that are neither particularly ‘left’, nor especially representative of any grassroots activists.
Going forwards, it is vital that the movement mobilises all its forces to maximise the vote for left candidates. This will not be done by attempting to ‘game’ the STV system through clever tricks, but by galvanising support on the basis of bold socialist pledges and militant leadership.
Given the strength of the left numerically, the Grassroots Voice slate could well see all six of its candidates elected.
If so, these figures should commit themselves to the socialist programme advocated by the LLA slate: for public ownership and socialist economic planning; for open selection and a thorough democratisation of the party; and for a determined struggle against the witch-hunt and smear campaign being undertaken by the right against left-wingers.
It is by offering rank-and-file members a no-holds barred fight against the right wing – a battle to regain control of the party and transform it along socialist lines – that left candidates can best hope to mobilise activists and win.
For many activists, the focus has clearly, and understandably, shifted away from the struggle inside the Labour Party – and towards community organisation against evictions; protesting over public sector pay and working conditions; and fighting against racism and police violence.
The grassroots organisation undertaken to achieve the strong results seen in terms of CLP nominations for the left shows that there is, however, still an appetite for a political struggle within Labour.
And as the reality of Starmer’s right-wing leadership becomes clearer by the day – with every vote (or abstention) in Parliament – this mood will only harden in the period ahead.
The NEC and YL elections are key battles in Labour’s civil war. But victories at the top must be matched by organisation from below. And this means grassroots members mobilising to retain control of local Labour parties.
Indeed, the two go hand-in-hand: organisation at a rank-and-file level is required to win the vote for NEC positions; and victory in these important elections can – and should – breathe life into the left-wing movement, which is far from being defeated, despite what the right may think or hope.
These local skirmishes are looming. With the pandemic-induced lockdown set to continue for many months more, Labour HQ has confirmed that online AGMs to elect CLP executives are now on the cards. These will also be important theatres of conflict in the wider war to determine the future direction of the party.
Up until now, Starmer and the right wing have been able to push through their changes by shutting down and stifling internal democracy. But instead of subduing opposition, such moves have only created an even more explosive situation. And lifting the lid on this could provide this combustible cocktail with the democratic oxygen that is needed for it to ignite.
Faced with a left-dominated NEC, youth wing, and array of local Labour parties, it is the right wing who could find themselves in retreat – or risk losing in a bitter struggle against an emboldened left opposition.
Of course, Starmer can rest assured of his bastion inside the PLP. That this is a sanctuary for right-wingers and careerists has been shown by the feeble abstentions in recent weeks over the Overseas Operations bill and ‘Spy Cops’ bill.
But even here, many left MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group have set out their stall, commendably voting against on both occasions. This platform should be another rallying point for the left to rebuild around and upon.
At the same time, there are further rumblings from within the trade union movement. On the one hand, there is the potential for the leadership of Unison – one of Starmer’s most prominent backers – to fall into the hands of the left.
And furthermore, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has been in the news recently over the union’s decision to reduce its political funding to the Labour Party by 10%.
This follows on from threats made by McCluskey over the summer, in the wake of the Labour leadership’s decision to pay-off former staffers who had sabotaged the party and its electoral chances.
But as we explained at that time, whilst frustration and anger over such scandalous misuse of members’ money is understandable, blackmail alone is not enough. After all, Starmer can always replace union funds with those from big business backers, as he has now pledged to do.
What is needed is to organise activists politically against the right wing, around a militant strategy and a bold socialist programme. This means having union leaders who are not afraid of rocking the boat or clashing with the Labour right.
Above all, it means struggling for essential demands such as open selection, to replace Blairite MPs with genuine class fighters.
“We want to use our political funding to support and nurture the newer voices in our movement,” McCluskey stated, commenting on Unite’s move to cut its affiliation fees to the party.
But then why, when the chance was presented under Corbyn’s leadership, did the Unite general secretary block attempts to bring in mandatory reselection (a policy that was even his union’s official, democratically-decided position)?
Across the labour movement, then, the situation is reaching boiling point. This is only a reflection of the intense pressure that the whole working class is under, due to the crisis that the pandemic has triggered – the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism.
In the final analysis, this turbulent objective situation means that there can be no calm or quiet life for those at the top: neither for Starmer and the right wing; nor for the left leaders who might otherwise seek conciliation and compromise.
Only the socialist transformation of society can put an end to the onslaught facing workers, the youth, and the oppressed. Grassroots activists in the Labour Party and the trade unions need to organise and fight for a leadership that is willing and able to face up to this challenge.