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Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Friday, August 19, 2022

What should socialists do in response to the decline in Labour Party membership?


As I blogged on Wednesday, I have been thinking about the massive loss of membership experienced by the Labour Party in the period since Kier Starmer has been our Leader. Serendipitously, I have also been reading Mike Phipps’ excellent new book "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow", which tackles the vital question of how socialists should respond to the current situation in our Party.

One response, which has clearly been made by thousands, if not tens of thousands, is to leave the Labour Party. Those who have taken this path may well feel vindicated by the data which shows that they are not alone (although, by and large, once they leave the Party they are more or less alone and their political activity appears to consist largely of commenting on social media).

As Mike Phipps observes; “those who advocate leaving the Party entirely seldom treat the issue in terms of how it affects the needs of people the Party should represent, and instead frame it almost as an individual lifestyle choice.” 

Phipps quotes Jeremy Gilbert approvingly in relation to those who choose to leave the Labour Party because they feel it no longer reflects “who they are”, saying that this “seems to express a passive, ahistorical, consumerist, retail understanding of politics. The Labour brand identity no longer matches yours: time to shop elsewhere . .”

Phipps also quotes Momentum co-founder and Jeremy Corbyn’s former Head of Strategic Communications, James Schneider, who, interviewed in Socialist Register, offers a more informed perspective on the nature of our Party than that which has guided those who joined when it made them feel good and left as soon as it made them feel bad; 

“The Labour Party is an institution within society that has one foot within the progressive forces of society and one foot in the state, and therefore part of its role is to prop up the existing power structures of capitalist society and part of its role is to challenge that power. That conflict takes place within the party by definition. It’s a site of struggle.” 

Anyone who has had the misfortune to read this blog occasionally over the past 16 years will appreciate that this has very much been my view of the trade union movement, as an active member of which I spent my working life (and still hope to spend such retirement as I have ahead of me).

In a capitalist society, the labour movement (which includes both the trade unions and the Labour Party) is both a vehicle for the organisation of our class and a site of struggle between those seeking the transformation of society and those for whom politics and trade unionism are all about participating in the existing society in order to mitigate its worst features.

The latter generally hold the whip hand over the former within our movement (were that not the case capitalism would hardly be a stable system). They are never above the illegitimate use of administrative means to settle political disagreements, whether that is through the unjustified expulsion of UNISON activists in the past or the current purge of socialists within Labour Party.

Serious socialists do not have the option of abandoning the site of struggle which is our labour movement. Although we can anticipate that we will more often lose than win, we have to continue fighting in the interests of the people the movement was established to represent. This means that we cannot keep our heads down in a difficult time, but nor can we be cavalier about our positions in either our trade union or our Party.

Since the Labour Party machine began victimising socialists on an industrial scale (around the time that it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn stood a good chance of winning the leadership of the party), there have been two equally misconceived responses, each of which is the mirror image of the other.

From the beginning there was some who saw the "witchhunt" as the most important issue around which to organise. Having themselves been expelled from the party, some comrades felt that their cause should be the priority of all. The organisation "Labour Against the Witchhunt" arguably exemplified this approach.

At the other extreme were those who hardly wanted to mention the abuse of the Labour Party’s rules and procedures against socialists, whether because (during Corbyns leadership) they sought compromise with the right-wing or because (subsequently) they feared themselves becoming a target. The leadership of Momentum prior to 2020 were among those who appeared to have taken such a vow of silence.

Neither of these approaches are satisfactory. 

As is made clear by Mike Phipps, there is much more for socialists in the Labour Party to focus upon than simply the disciplinary action being taken unjustly against some of our number. We need to continue to build upon the policy gains of the Corbyn period, recognising that the right wing of the Party have a policy vacuum at their heart. We also need to build our Party locally as a campaigning organisation reaching out to the people we should represent, beyond a narrow electoralism. These are both higher priorities than waging internal battles.

However, it would be equally wrong to ignore the injustices being done to fellow socialists by the Party bureaucracy. If we hold onto our Party cards but keep our heads down, we will be avoiding the error of those who allow their individual discomfort to lead them away from the site of struggle within the Labour Party, but we will not be engaging in that struggle, and we will be giving carte blanche to our adversaries within the Party. Whilst the resistance to the victimisation of each individual must be guided by that individual, we must not see the current witchhunt as being essentially about the individuals under attack. This is a concerted effort to weaken socialism within the Labour Party and the individual socialists caught up in this have an obligation to do all they can to defend themselves, if only to tie up the resources being used for this illegitimate endeavour.

The decline in Labour Party membership has been positively welcomed by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, expressing the honest opinion of those on Labour's Right who are happy to have a smaller and more manageable party. The effectiveness of the political witchhunt, from the point of view of those supporting it, is not to be measured just in the number of those directly terminated or expelled. The victory of the witch hunters comes if, for every individual victimised, they can rely upon another dozen, or hundred, to express their precious individuality by resigning their membership.

From the point of view of the Labour Left it is important to remember that, for all the setbacks we have experienced since the last General Election we remain in a stronger position within the Labour Party than we were at any time this century prior to 2015. 

The least thing which each of us can do is to back the Grassroots Five candidates in the NEC elections, in which everyone should by now have cast their votes. Beyond that, we need to rebuild organisation on the Labour Left. The organisations which we had before 2015 are unlikely to be adequate to meet the challenges of 2025, and Momentum still has a lot to do to prove it's worth when it is no longer a fan club for a socialist Labour Leader. 

Part of this process of rebuilding organisation must include supporting resistance to the ongoing witchhunt.

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