The Labour Party is in an existential crisis. This is partially Keir Starmer’s fault for spending his first year as leader of the opposition defending the Conservative government. If the institution was healthy and thriving, it could survive a single bad leader. But the rot runs much deeper – right to the internal contradiction at the heart of the Party itself.
The Labour Party’s legitimacy rests on its reputation as a force for constitutional change in the United Kingdom, but its historic role has been to contain dissent by corralling would-be reformers into a stiflingly bureaucratic and ultimately conservative organisation. The much-lauded 1945 Labour government, which introduced the NHS, embodied this contradiction. Domestically, it ushered in a proper welfare state, improving the lives of the people of the UK. But internationally, the 1945-1951 Labour government established the structures – The Western Alliance, NATO, and the UN Security Council – that continued to enable Western imperialism well into the 21st century.
No political project can be progressive if it entrenches an imperialist world order founded on the backs of slaves and which works to increase inequalities of power both within nations and between them.
The Labour Party’s structure works against change
Labour’s structural conservatism runs right down to CLP level. I started my own ‘activism’ with Labour in 2013, having joined the party in the hope that Ed Miliband would move it forward. I thought there might be something I could do to help. But I found out the structures of the Labour Party work against even the smallest calls for change. When my CLP – supposedly the sovereign body – voted something ‘radical’ through, the committees could easily find a way to block it. This happened when I proposed a very moderate motion that sought to place conditions on the party’s support for estate ‘regeneration’ – a byword for social cleansing. The motion was passed with near unanimity – even strengthened by members who did not think it went far enough – but it was subsequently ignored by the gatekeeping committees.
Estate regeneration was just one example that committee jurisdictions seem to expand or shrink depending on the issue at hand. If an idea did not sit well with a local grandee sitting on the executive committee (EC), then it was the EC’s job to decide that it wouldn’t go ahead. If the objection came from the local campaign forum (LCF), then the LCF decision held sway. What all the committees agreed on all the time was that the priority was not ‘rocking the boat’.
Conflict of interests
Too often the interests of the party align with the interests of the people who hold influence within it and their friends, relatives, and associates – many of whom happen to be prominent members of the local and national establishment. To put it more simply, Labour councillors often socialise more with Lib Dem and Tory councillors than they do with ordinary people and naturally wouldn’t want to say or do anything that might upset their friends. The little people shouldn’t be let near power because, as a ‘socialist’ Labour councillor I once knew explained, “they don’t know what’s best for them”.
This culture runs from the top to the bottom in Labour. It explains why instead of challenging the austerity that most serious economists know to be nonsense, Miliband’s leadership ultimately signed on to the agenda of cuts to public services. It also illuminates why Starmer was so keen not to challenge the Conservative government’s already disastrous ‘big bang’ push to get children back into the classroom.
The one disruption to the cosy cross-party consensus was Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected election as Labour Leader in 2015. Far too many people describe Corbyn’s leadership as having ‘failed’ in passive terms. Corbyn didn’t fail. If given a clear run, he would have succeeded. His leadership was sabotaged by a majority reactionary right wing careerist PLP, for whom democracy and true accountability is an anathema, and by a regressive party structure dominated by a coterie of elitists.
Experience now tells me that chimera of Labour Party ‘unity’ is based on the false premise that everyone in the organisation is seeking the same goal, albeit through different means. In truth, to unite Labour is to seek common cause with people who actively undermine democracy in service of an inherently unequal status quo. It cannot be done in good faith. Many people on the left say “don’t leave, organise”. But they don’t explain why or for what?
Why bother fighting tooth and nail against Labour Party committees to have your CLP adopt half sensible positions on local issues, only to have these blocked from above, when you can spend that time organising, mobilising, and fighting door to door? Even a change in leadership at the top won’t necessarily improve CLP culture, nor will it make many Labour councillors more interested in the needs of the people they claim to represent. Whoever leads, the vested interests that actively and intentionally sabotaged Corbyn’s chances are likely to remain and will aggressively contest any attempt at progressive reform.
To stay in Labour or leave is always going to be a deeply personal decision. It was for me. I became far more influential in my local area when I stopped putting all my efforts into committee politics and started to organise in my community alongside people who wanted stop talking and act. Doing this also gave me the uninhibited freedom to campaign against estate regeneration with likeminded people, which was fun and very rewarding. Anyone can do this. Leaflets aren’t expensive, and neither is social media. If you have something worthwhile to say, people will listen, and you might be surprised by what you can achieve.
More broadly, the movement that led to Corbyn’s leadership hasn’t disappeared. It has simply changed focus, coalescing in opposition to the government’s increasingly authoritarian policies, like the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and around the excellent Thelma Walker in her candidacy to be Hartlepool’s MP. The anti-war movement of the early 2000s eventually paved the way for Corbyn’s Labour leadership and raised the possibility of a British prime minister dedicated to social justice and human rights globally.
In the same way, without a credible mainstream political vehicle for people’s dissent, it’s likely the popular opposition to the present government and opposition’s racist authoritarianism will grow, becoming a strong force in British politics. What’s important now is not to fight within the small, increasingly confined space in Labour, but to build a widespread movement for social justice at national level, and, just as importantly, in our communities.
We don’t need Labour. We – ordinary people in communities across the country – can make a difference by fighting for social justice ourselves.
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