Mike Phipps has been around for a while. A founding member of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) from 2004, a long-standing member of the editorial board of Labour Briefing, he was founder and editor of Iraq Occupation Focus for several years. Now he is a member of the Executive Committee of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), and writes for the website Labour Hub.
Phipps assesses the current state of the Labour party in his new book: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022). And his verdict is not pretty. As well as losing members, expelling activists, ignoring its own constitution and conference-decided policies, Labour is “headed by a leader with so little personal following in the broader Party that he is to a large extent the prisoner of its most factional right wing elements.”
It only gets worse. In the middle of the pandemic and climate crises, the party’s 2021 conference turned inwards to conflicts over rule changes. Phipps attributes the right-wing’s push for changes to the leadership election rules to the prospect of an alternative leader without the baggage of Starmer’s pledges to the membership: “It looked like Starmer’s ultimate problem was that he had lost the support of the left, and the right of the Party didn’t really want him.”
Phipps rightly identifies the December 2019 election result as a “life-changing” calamity for many activists who had spent hours door-knocking in the dark. But was the party really up to a “new politics” in any case? Transforming Labour into a movement that could sustain a radical Corbyn government in power “was always going to be a daunting task for an essentially electoralist Party notorious for its routinism and institutional conservatism.”
Phipps warned presciently (in his essay collection For the Many) in 2017 that the party needed “root and branch reform,” wholesale democratization of its structures so that the influx of new members could play an effective part in deciding policy and selecting candidates. That didn’t happen, and after initially electing left branch leaderships, control reverted to the hands of the right. Starmer’s election to the party leadership was a consequence of the overwhelming disappointment of many members after the 2019 election – and also the dashing of the left’s hopes of the possibility of electing a radical government to Westminster despite the ferocious Tory and deep state assault on Labour.
However, Phipps is still convinced of the possibilities of socialist activism within Labour. The left “needs to move beyond a fixation with the leadership,” he argues, “and focus on what was achievable: intellectually, in terms of organisation, among the membership and the affiliated organisations, in policy terms and among voters.”
Local government is an arena where citizen involvement offers a chance for consciousness-raising around economic and political issues, he points out. Locally-based politicians such as Andy Burnham demonstrate alternative regional visions, and the effective responses of regional and local authorities to Covid demonstrated their commitment to public health compared to the abysmal record of central government. Where councils have been active at grassroots community organizing (such as in Worthing), they won electoral support against the national trend.
The prospects opened up at local level, contends Phipps, militate against activists leaving the party in protest. He says: “the input that radical Labour ideas can have within the Party’s empire of local government depends hugely on the extent to which activists of the Corbyn era stay in the Party and make their ideas felt.” He considers the outlook for the left “is not as unremittingly negative as might at first appear.” Despite organizational exclusion and internal division, the left is far more powerful now than in 2015.
He contrasts Momentum’s ability to consolidate the left within the party with the fragmentation of a decade earlier, when there was little coordination between the LRC and the CLPD. Taking the long term view, he cites writers who argue for rebuilding the party on the ground in working-class communities, offering practical solidarity and real solutions, in Christine Berry’s words. He privileges community organizing coming from people taking ownership of the party themselves, but “organizing should be the central priority of the left in the party.”
Because of his long-term approach, Phipps discusses the role of the unions mainly in terms of their effects on the structural workings of the party, although he allows for the rapid growth of mass movements having a direct impact on Labour and its representatives. This is evident from the current upsurge of militant strike struggles that has placed the unions at the centre of mass opposition to the government, despite the lukewarm response of the Labour front bench to the escalating cost of living and energy rates.
While criticizing Starmer’s authoritarian clampdown on party discussion, Phipps is also critical of the left, which he charges with responsibility for the party’s grassroots organisation and policy development. “If many of the leadership’s woes since 2019 have been self-inflicted, this might equally be said of the left: demoralization, infighting and a failure to look outwards all undermined its effectiveness at a time when it was needed more than ever.” Demoralization and infighting signal the weakness rather than the strength of the left. However, potential divisions within the PLP could be deepened by the grassroots response to Momentum’s demands that MPs attend picket lines in their constituencies and that Starmer drop his ban on MPs joining the pickets.
The creation of a special category of members who have been suspended or expelled from the Labour party and do not have voting rights within Momentum has only exacerbated the contradictions between Momentum’s efforts to move Labour to the left and the unprecedented ruthlessness of the right in expelling and suspending activists. Although Momentum members have joined picket lines and are enthused by the upsurge of strike struggles, this hasn’t gone much further than activism with a distinct lack of strategy. Local branches have adopted measures such as working with trades councils and Tribune supporters clubs to get around the membership restrictions.
Perhaps the left should not be held solely responsible for the state of Labour’s grassroots organisation: its role might better be one of unlocking the practical imagination of the broader labour movement on how to build a movement of counter-power and fulfil earlier promises of a movement-based party. Phipps is right, however, to point to the upsurge of creative socialist thinking in the party under Corbyn’s leadership, and the need to defend and continue this legacy embodied in new conceptions of socialism and the policies in the 2017 and 2019 party manifestos.
Mike Phipps, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn, OR Books 2022
My own book, The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party: from Attlee to Corbyn, is available from Merlin Press at merlinpress.co.uk