Despite the defeats the Labour left can still fight

By Adrian Bailey

The largest scale political and organisational attack on the Labour Party’s left wing since the Second World War is currently unfolding within the party. The priority of the Labour’s right wing leadership is to crush the left and this will remain its priority. But despite the defeats that have been suffered the Labour left remains the largest political force engaged in resistance to the Tories’ attacks – although, due to the right wing line of Labour’s leadership some forces are now also resisting the Tories’ attacks on individual issues outside Labour.

This overall situation corresponds to the offensive by British capital, as it inflicts literally many tens of thousands of deaths on the working class, particularly its most oppressed layers through Covid, as it moves into a new Cold War, as it talks about climate change but takes no adequate action against it, as it unleashes new authoritarian laws, as it ramps up racism, and as it launches a further wave of economic attacks on the working class through ending the furlough scheme, the cut in Universal Credit, rising inflation and other means.

Capital and the Tories know the suffering this will cause will lead to discontent, and therefore the possibility of resistance, and consequently capital demands Labour’s leadership must be complicit in these attacks – to which Starmer and the Labour right agree. Any resistance to these attacks, of the type that was provided by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, is anathema for capital. Therefore, the overwhelming priority of the Labour leadership is and will remain to attack the left. All the illusions that Starmer would represent some sort of ‘compromise’ leadership, seeking to work with the left, as claimed by Paul Mason and others, have been completely refuted by events.

Confronted with such a serious attack on the working class, and such an assault by the Labour right, there is no virtue in wishful thinking or empty rhetoric. It is necessary to make a strictly objective analysis of the situation. As the voting at the Labour Party conference is a significant index of this, this article therefore will analyse this in detail.

The Covid defeat

Examining the overall situation in detail, in this past 18 months the working class in Britain has suffered a very serious defeat because of failure to take any adequate measures to fight Covid.. Taking advantage of the pandemic, by letting the virus spread, capital has been able to intimidate many millions of workers into accepting worse pay and conditions. That offensive is continuing, with new attacks being mounted. Further job losses will currently be taking place as government support for one million furloughed workers ceased at the end of September. This week five and a half million people are having their welfare benefits cut by £1,040 a year, as the Universal Credit ‘uplift’ has been removed. In addition, rising food and energy bills are starting to hit the population. The entire public sector is taking a wage cut in real terms once inflation is taken into account, Racism is increasingly being promoted to create scapegoats for declining living standards. On climate change the government is spouting a lot of words as it heads towards the Cop conference while taking no adequate measures.

Simultaneously with these trends the number of millionaires is multiplying and their combined wealth has reached record levels. This contrast reveals graphically the trend in the class relation of forces.

It is preferable for capital that opposition to this offensive stays marginal and is kept out of the sphere of politics as far as possible. Corbynism, because it provided a powerful political platform to oppose capitalism’s offensive, presented a real challenge. Following the 2019 general election the Labour left has suffered big defeats, but it has not been eliminated and still has significant support. Inside Labour, the right wing currently does not have the strength to simply defeat the left wing through democratic discussion and votes – hence the escalating series of anti-democratic measures unleashed by the Labour party leadership and party machine.

Amongst the membership support for the left has declined since 2019, but it still has been able to command a majority in internal elections and defeat the right. In the two most recent elections where ballot papers are sent to all members the left defeated the right. The left won four of the nine CLP Section NEC seats when they were elected under STV last November. The left won both CLP seats on the Conference Arrangements Committee this August. Therefore the right wing has adopted a range of undemocratic organisational means to repress the left. The aim is to purge Corbyn and his supporters from the party and the right wing have prepared for a protracted fight.

Purging the left

Jeremy Corbyn, has now been suspended from membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for 11 months. The party leadership does not intend to let him back in and it is likely it will try to block Corbyn from standing as a Labour candidate at the next general election. The party’s right wing would also like to get rid of other left MPs, if possible.

Freedom of speech, long established as a principle and practice within the party, has been removed from local party meetings. Members have been forbidden to discuss a range of issues, including the attacks Starmer has made on Corbyn. The leadership and its apparatus freely propagandise against Corbyn and his supporters, making false and exaggerated claims, including about antisemitism. The left cannot discuss these attacks in meetings without facing disciplinary action.

Many members on the left have already been expelled, suspended, or placed under investigation. The intimidation also leads to others self-censoring expressing their views, to avoid disciplinary action. The purge of Corbyn supporting party members is currently being stepped up.

A particularly reactionary development is the apparatus has increased its targeting of Jewish party members who support Corbyn and has placed them under investigation, taken disciplinary action against them and accused them of antisemitism..

Labour’s Annual Conference

At Labour’s Annual Conference in September, the right wing tightened its grip over the party and the left suffered further setbacks on the most central issues – above all control of the Party machine. Without this, as has long been the case, progressive policies passed by Labour Party conference will simply be ignored – although the degree of support for such policies remains an important index of the view of the Labour Party membership.

Prior to the conference the right wing had already secured control of the party leadership, National Executive Committee (NEC) and party apparatus. Last week, it extended its control to the conference itself. For the first time since 2017 the right wing won the most important votes. These were the decisions taken that changed Labour’s rules on disciplining its membership, electing its leadership and selecting candidates for parliamentary elections. The votes detailed below indicate the size of the left’s vote on an issue at the conference, in some cases that was the vote for a proposal, on others the vote against the proposal.

New disciplinary rules to deepen the purge

A key set back for the left at the conference was the changes made to Labour’s rule book to facilitate the purge.

A small, but significant, democratic component of Labour’s disciplinary processes, has effectively been eliminated. In 2018 the left had secured, through elections, control of the National Constitutional Committee (NCC). That is an elected body that can operate independently from the NEC. Under the left’s control, it did operate independently and followed basic principles of natural justice. The NEC controls the process of investigation, charging and prosecution. The NCC acted independently, as jury and judge, not taking instructions from the NEC or the apparatus it controls. This required the apparatus to demonstrate with evidence the validity of charges it brought against members. This independence of prosecution from determination of guilt is not acceptable to Labour’s right wing. For the purge it is conducting, it needs mechanisms that function like a kangaroo court. So for more than one year now, it has used the various levers it controls within the party to block the NCC from hearing most disciplinary cases.

This year’s conference agreed changes to Labour’s rules to establish new structures that will by-pass the independent acting NCC. Two new disciplinary bodies were agreed to review judgements made by NEC panels and to process appeals. The right wing claim these will be ‘independent’ boards – which is basically doublespeak, as the members of both bodies will be appointed under the direction of the party’s General Secretary. These boards will handle the disciplinary cases of left wing activists, accused of antisemitism and other offences against ‘protected characteristics’. The democratic and independent component of Labour’s disciplinary processes is being replaced with right wing controlled machinery tied to General Secretary. This is being done so that the purge can proceed more smoothly.

When the rules to set up these boards were put to the vote at the conference, 35% of the CLP vote and 17% of the affiliate vote (a total across conference of 26%) was against the proposals. (The affiliate vote is numerically dominated by Labour’s affiliated trade unions.)

The conference also agreed to strengthen the powers of the General Secretary to simply expel member with out the need for a disciplinary panel or board to consider any paperwork. Members can be summarily expelled by the party apparatus if it deems they are part of a ‘proscribed’ group. In such cases it is claimed the member has expelled themselves and the party calls this ‘auto-exclusion’.

A large number of groups organise within Labour at all levels of the party, from right to left. Only those on the left are being targeted for proscription. Currently the NEC has decided that members of Socialist Appeal, Labour Against the Witchhunt, Labour In Exile Network and Resist are subject to ‘auto-exclusion’. The NEC is likely to add other groups to this list.

The net has already been widened beyond the four proscribed organisations. Some Labour members have been told they are being ‘auto-excluded’ because they attended a meeting at which there was someone else who had previously been expelled from Labour.

Labour’s conference voted to agree new rules including these proscriptions and ‘auto-exclusions’. 38% of the CLP vote and 39% of the affiliate vote (total conference vote 38%) was against these proposals.

Labour’s left – a significant force on the defensive

This year’s conference was the first since 2017 at which the left was in a minority across the conference. On the most important issues, the left was defeated in the vote. The maximum strength of the left in the conference was: 50% in CLPs and 40% in the affiliates (total in conference 45%). The left’s proportion of the CLP vote has declined from its conference peak of 80% in 2019, and 70% in 2018.

Some of the votes, indicating the balance of forces in the conference, were the following:

  • 49% of the CLP vote was for the left slate in the ‘CLP Section’ elections to the NCC;
  • 47% of CLP vote and 39% of affiliates vote was against endorsing the NEC’s right wing nominee for General Secretary; and
  • 49% of CLP and 38% of affiliate vote was against reducing the democracy of Labour’s Annual Conference.

These votes suggest the pro-Corbyn left controls approximately half of Labour’s local parties. This is a significant base of the left. It has reduced from 2019, when approximately three quarters of local parties were controlled by the left.

The political defeats of Corbynism combined with the organisational purge have shifted the balance of forces rightwards. Expulsions and suspensions of the left, resignations from the party, demoralisation and inactivity have all played a part.

The left is on the defensive and the right wing intends to use its new disciplinary machinery to push the left further back. But the Labour left is still larger than any other force resisting capital and the Tories offensive.

The right is determined to ensure there is no future left Leader

The conference agreed a series of changes to Labour’s rule book that will stop party members being able to choose the Leader they might want and make it almost impossible for them to replace their local Labour MP.

In future Labour MPs will be able to severely restrict which candidates can make it on to the leadership ballot paper. The minimum requirement will be that a candidate will need to secure nominations from 20% of the PLP – up from 10%. Currently that would mean a candidate would require the nominations of 40 Labour MPs. There are definitely not 40 MPs who would support placing a left wing candidate on a leadership ballot paper, not whilst party members receive the ballots and get to make the decision. Labour MPs will restrict who they put on the ballot paper to right wing candidates.

MPs will not face selection contests

The conference also agreed to change the process of ‘trigger ballots’, so that in future sitting Labour MPs will be almost guaranteed automatic reselection as their CLP’s candidate for the next general election. It will be impossible in most CLPs for party members to ‘trigger’ a full selection contest in which the sitting MP would face a contest including other potential candidates. The new process has different arrangements for triggering such a contest. The thresholds for triggering a contest has been changed: form one third of either the local affiliates’ section or the local party branches’ section, to a majority of both affiliate and party branches (with each section’s total votes being worth 50% of the total). The practical effect of the change will be to transfer the power to trigger a contest away from party members, to affiliates who invariably vote to back the sitting MP.

The changes to the rules on electing Labour’s leader and the rules on MP’s trigger ballots were opposed by 53% of the CLP and 40% of the affiliate vote (total across conference 46%) – confirming that the left is a minority but still a considerable force.

There was one small victory for the left over MP selection rules for when there is ‘snap parliamentary election’. The conference agreed that the local party should have a significant say in the selection of the candidate. 62% of the CLPs vote and 44% of the affiliate vote (total across conference 53%) was cast for this proposal. However, given the right wing’s tightening grip on selections for public elections, the degree to which local parties will in practice find they can use this new rule remains to be seen.

Overall the right wing rule changes that the Conference agreed will be used by the leadership to try to alter the balance of forces in the party further to the right.

Jeremy Corbyn remains suspended from the PLP

The conference had an opportunity to introduce rules allowing it to discuss Corbyn’s suspension from the PLP. If it had agreed those rules it would have been possible for the conference to restore the PLP whip to him. For that rule change debate, the conference chair permitted one speech in favour of the proposal and five speeches against. Then 39% of the CLP vote was for the proposal and 30% of the affiliate vote (34% of the conference total).

This CLP vote at conference in support of allowing a possible challenge to Corbyn’s PLP suspension (39%) was significantly lower than the level of opposition to the suspension amongst party members. The YouGov / Sky News survey in June 2021 recorded 60% of Labour members thinking Corbyn should be readmitted to the PLP. It is because of members’ opposition to the attacks on Corbyn that the leadership has forbidden local party meetings from discussing the issue. If the customary free speech, permitted in party meeting for many decades up till 2020, was still practiced a majority of local parties would most likely vote for the Labour whip to be restored to Corbyn.

Left policies were agreed that should be campaigned on

Although the right wing won the key votes on control of the Party leadership and machine a number of left wing policy motions were passed by the conference. They set out policies to tackle some of the serious problems confronting the population. These included: a socialist approach to a Green New Deal; a £15 per hour minimum wage and sick pay at the living wage level; a motion supporting Palestinian human rights, referencing Israel apartheid and backing sanctions on Israel; and an emergency motion opposing the AUKUS pact.

The latter motion, opposing the AUKUS pact, was framed around the US’ and UK’s commitment, in the pact, to assist Australia in developing nuclear-powered submarines, fuelled with weapons grade enriched uranium. The supply of such fuel to a non-nuclear weapons state would breach the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The motion opposed the pact and re-confirmed Labour support for the treaty. On this issue support for the motion went far beyond the left. 63% of the CLP vote and 78% of the affiliate vote supported the motion (that is 70% of the conference vote).

The leadership has no intention of taking forward these progressive decisions made by the conference. It will keep the party’s front bench policy tightly aligned with Tories. However, these policies do have the party’s support, so campaigning on them should continue.

Labour’s collusion with the Tories

Following Labour’s defeat at the 2019 General Election, Corbyn stood down as Leader and the party stopped opposing the Tories’ agenda. The minor criticisms of the government that are made by Starmer’s front bench tend to be framed by the Tories’ agenda.

It has been very important for the Tories that Labour has endorsed the government’s deadly public health policies throughout the pandemic. According to the government’s own figures, more than 160,000 have now died within 60 days of a positive Covid-19 test. In effect a cull of the most vulnerable people is taking place, with close to 1,000 dying every week at present. The government’s promotion of conditions that have been allowing the virus to spread, infect, harm and kill so many people, would be far more politically controversial if Labour had led a fight to protect the population. Instead that fight has been led by parts of the medical profession and a few of Labour’s left wing MPs and the Labour leadership is still backing the Tories on this.

Stay and fight

A large part of Labour’s membership wants the party to fight the Tories and put forward some sort of alternative agenda. However, with the right wing in control of the party, that will clearly not happen at present. The right wing’s stepping up of the purge means the internal fight will be protracted.

The Labour left can still fight within the party for the agenda that Labour should be putting forward. Fundamentally that needs to be an agenda that opposes the Tories’ offensive and champions the biggest and most important issues in the class struggle, both domestic and international, including: the new cold war; the climate catastrophe; the pandemic; the growing racist offensive; the attacks on women and on disabled people. The left is on the defensive, but it can stay in Labour and fight.