What else could you call it? Members are resigning en masse; volunteer constituency officers are being suspended across the country; the parliamentary front bench is unable to effectively challenge government corruption; thousands of people are dead because Boris Johnson was so obsessed with Brexit that he paid no attention to the pandemic when early action would have saved lives. And yet Labour has not made any inroads onto the Tories’ popularity because its leadership is blind to the nature of the historical moment.
Keir Starmer’s recent refusal to call for health minister Matt Hancock’s resignation after he was found guilty of breaking the law, and his decision to oppose corporate tax increases, are based on the electoral calculations of the party’s right: they believe that opposing the government in the middle of the pandemic would be seen as unpatriotic by the conservative ex-Labour voters the party wants to win back. But these calculations are based on the assumption that parliamentary elections will follow traditional rules, despite the fact that the Tories broke every rule in the book in 2019. The perspective of preparing for an election in 2024 by moving the party to the centre-right does not take into account the ways in which the government has been taken over by an extremist Tory group which will whip up its Brexit base with ever more outrageous denunciations of “the enemy within,” amplified by its direct collaboration with the media.
The Labour right’s factional assault on the left is weakening the party and destroying its chances of winning elections. Bureaucratic manoeuvering in Liverpool, just as in Bristol, shows the development of an absolute antagonism between the party’s regional bureaucracies and the local memberships. Whereas previous Labour leaders have been able to hold the different parts of the Labour coalition together, Starmer has deliberately deepened the divide between left and right by maintaining Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the parliamentary party.
In Liverpool, Labour’s slate of candidates for the city’s mayoral election was scrapped on the same day that ballots were due to be distributed, after the intervention of a “right-wing mafia”, according to Skwawkbox. A six-person committee reinterviewed the candidates and decided to get a new shortlist, but the three women candidates were given no explanation, were excluded from the new list, and were kept in the dark about the decision until a global email was sent to all Liverpool party members. Favourite to win was Anna Rothery, a popular black, socialist, Liverpool councillor, who told the Guardian that she was “shocked by the party’s chaotic handling of the selection” and may seek an injunction against the decision.
Whatever the reason for selecting a new slate, the process was so secretive that members can only speculate that the intervention was to prevent a Corbyn-supporting politician becoming the new Liverpool mayor. The heavy-handed and politically incompetent interference by the right has the effect of cementing the perception that Labour is biased against its Black and Asian members as well as being anti-democratic. Liverpool is one of the strongest Labour bastions in the country, but its voters will not take kindly to candidates parachuted in from outside the area. Secretary of Walton CLP Alan Gibbons writes that some of the city’s Constituency Labour Parties are considering emergency motions, “condemning the alleged lack of transparency, U-turns and failures of process involved in the selections.” Liverpool councillors are considering voting to scrap the post of mayor completely at an emergency council meeting. “It scuppers the plans of Labour nationally, but there is not much HQ could do to stop it now,” says Elliot Chappell at LabourList.
In the constituencies, supporters of the leadership’s right-wing turn are telling members to ignore the anti-democratic actions of regional officials and rally behind Starmer to campaign in May’s local elections. But why campaign to elect a Labour council when they are being made responsible for measures to alleviate the effects of the pandemic with no additional government funding? Because of austerity cuts, councils are now dependent on council tax revenue at a time when, according to a new report from Citizens Advice, 11 percent of those furloughed are behind on their tax bills, together with 33 percent of those on zero-hours contracts. If they default, the penalties are severe because debt collection is governed by inflexible, centrally-determined regulations with a maximum penalty (in England) of three months’ jail time. Parliamentary objections to the government’s funding of councils won’t register with voters who see families facing jail for nonpayment of tax.
UPDATE: According to Skwawkbox, “councillors in London and elsewhere are being warned by their regional offices on behalf of CCHQ2 that any councillors who dare to vote against budgets set in line with the Tory cuts that have blighted the lives of the poor and vulnerable for more than a decade will face ‘very significant’ disciplinary sanctions and likely deselection.”
As Joe Guinan pointed out in Tribune, “politics as usual” ignores the multiple overlapping crises facing society. Not just the pandemic, but racism, a staggering economy, and environmental instability as major weather events flood parts of Yorkshire, freeze homes in Texas, and melt the permafrost in Siberia. Labour needs big ideas to address these emergencies. And it already has ambitious ideas, contained in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. Socialist thinkers in the Corbyn era, says Guinan, charted a viable political-economic path forward that tackled the crises of “economic and regional inequality, climate change and financialisation (to which we would now need to add Covid recovery).” What is required is the delivery of “fundamental structural changes to the everyday functioning of the economic system itself” that move power away from the City of London to held-back regions and communities.
However, the Labour right are feverishly eliminating any policy or party candidate that could conceivably be reminiscent of “Corbynism.” Unless members take action to restore a socialist perspective, the Labour party will continue to decay and degenerate. That is why Momentum’s call for the NEC to organise an immediate recall conference should be supported. It will have the purpose of “restoring party democracy and achieving genuine unity as the only means for the party to achieve victory at forthcoming elections,” says Momentum.
In the longer term, however, the left needs to build a new movement of counter-power. There is no short cut to putting down roots in communities and participating in existing grassroots struggles. Transformative change will depend on the collaborative efforts of specific groups within communities to make a difference in people’s lives.