By Mohan Sen
Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner are the new leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party.
There has been all kinds of speculation about what Starmer represents politically and what he will do. But, going beyond speculation, what should the left argue and fight for under the new leadership?
Socialists should neither rally to Starmer (as some have done), nor give up the fight in Labour (as others have suggested). Here are some ideas, to help arm and organise the left as well as provoke debate.
1. Demand fight against the Tories
The media reports that Starmer and his inner circle think it is clever and “statesmanlike” to refrain from too much or too vocal criticism of the Tory government in the Covid-19 crisis. This or that tactical issue aside, such quietism always means abandoning the field politically, with bad results.
It it not surprising the government has had a boost in support, despite its poor response to the epidemic. This crisis is like a war, and governments, perhaps most of all right-wing and authoritarian ones, usually achieve a rallying-round in the early periods of wars. Later on disillusionment and rebellion are likely, but a lot depends on the groundwork laid now.
There are numerous issues on which the labour movement and any opposition worthy of the name should be criticising and attacking the Tories, and proposing radical alternatives. Refusal to do so can only prolong and strengthen their ability to avoid widespread outrage as their failings mount up.
Before the crisis, Labour did very little campaigning outside elections, or work to support others’ campaigning. This was surely a factor in the 2019 defeat. It needs to change, and the change should start now. Even while mass demonstrations and meetings are not possible – and they will be soon – many other forms of campaigning are. We must wake the party from the sleep it has fallen into.
Immediately, a major campaign to reverse cuts and privatisation in the NHS, reminding health workers and the public of the Tories’ responsibility for the state of the health service as it entered the crisis, seems indicated.
We should absolutely oppose Labour joining a national unity government or similar. Practical cooperation against the epidemic does not imply political support: in this case just the opposite.
2. Organise an opposition
Some supporters of Rebecca Long-Bailey have tried to present Starmer as a died-in-the-wool Blairite. This does not seem particularly plausible; and of course Angela Rayner, Long-Bailey’s running mate, was backed by many if not most Starmer-supporters. On the other hand, attempts by left-wingers backing Starmer to present him as a figure of the radical left are not very plausible either.
It would be perverse to ignore Starmer’s backing by swathes of Labour’s organised right and hard-right, many of whom are very open about a desire to defeat and marginalise the left. Or the likelihood he will appoint a Shadow Cabinet leaning heavily to the right; in particular the prospect of Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor is appalling. (Was Reeves floated to make centrist Anneliese Dodds more acceptable? If so, that might tell us a lot about Starmer’s strategy.) Angela Rayner’s record gives no reason to think she will provide a major counterweight to the right.
Even before you get to the Rachel Reeves, Matt Pounds and John McTernans, Starmer and Rayner at their best are not very left-wing. The left needs to go beyond speculating and start organising for clear, positive goals. Describe it how you want, that will clearly involve pressure on and therefore conflict with the new leadership. We need a left-wing opposition.
Left-wing MPs should help the grassroots left organise, not take positions in Starmer’s administration.
3. Fight for Labour democracy
However good or bad a Starmer-Rayner leadership is, a lot will depend on the ability of Labour members to organise ourselves and bring pressure to bear for the left-wing politics and demands they overwhelmingly favour. That implies stepping up the fight to democratise the party: above all, demanding a democratic conference which actually decides policy and campaigning. No accident that John McTernan, in his proposals for how Starmer should utilise his victory to smash the left, makes further downgrading Labour conference so central.
If we had fought for and established this principle under Corbyn, we would be in a vastly stronger position. Now it will be harder, but the left should unite and campaign hard to win a sovereign conference as well as other democratic reforms like open selection of MPs.
We should become a megaphone for the left-wing policies passed by conference but not campaigned for – on reversing cuts, council housing, the Green New Deal, repealing anti-union laws, migrants’ rights, undoing NHS privatisation and many other issues.
If the left keeps largely ignoring what is passed at conference – and maintains its ambivalence about party democracy more generally – then our ability to wield influence will be gravely weakened. If we make these things central, we can be a force.
4. Be radical
Actually, the policies passed at conference are not particularly radical – they only look it measured against what Labour has (sort of) campaigned for, even in the 2019 manifesto and certainly before then. Beyond generic opposition, beyond fighting for conference policies to be implemented, we need to raise more radical ideas, to shift the debate in a socialist direction.
The current crisis, in which everything is thrown skywards and the Tories are forced to take actions they would not have dreamed of, demands this kind of radicalism. Why has Labour not argued for public ownership of the big supermarkets and the creation of a publicly-owned delivery system guaranteeing supplies for those in need?
Both to weather the crisis in the interests of the majority and to rebuild on a new basis afterwards, the demand for public ownership of banking and finance – agreed by TUC Congress in 2012 and 2019, but left in a drawer – makes perfect sense.
Even vague, tentative ideas for democratic and workers’ control of public services seem to have disappeared from Labour’s approach. In the current situation, developing and promoting such ideas are more important than ever.
More broadly, we need to argue for a radically transformed society, based on common ownership and democratic and workers’ control (socialism).
5. Be internationalist
The Covid-19 crisis should be a stark reminder – unfortunately a needed one – that the challenges facing humanity require international action and solidarity. Making a mockery of nationalism, the virus has been no respecter of national borders.
In the face of the insurgent nationalist right, too much of the left, certainly in Britain, has capitulated to the lure of “patriotism”. We must reassert internationalism as the heart of socialist politics.
Internationalism begins at home, with migrants’ rights. The mistreatment and scapegoating of migrants in this crisis makes standing up for solidarity urgent. Specifically, we must insist the party campaigns for the policies won at last year’s conference by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement – policies which are now even more relevant and important.
As an urgent priority, the whole labour movement should demand a serious extension to the Brexit transition period. As for the anti-Brexit left, we should not be afraid to re-open the wider issue of Brexit either.
Let us know what you think? Write a reply? firstname.lastname@example.org