No More Cruel Optimism, Leaving the Labour Party

The capitulation of left MPs over the question of NATO is the final straw.

14 min read

After being a Labour member for nearly fifteen years, including being a Parliamentary candidate in 2010, I have decided to leave the Party. The final straw was the capitulation of the eleven Socialist Campaign Group MPs to the demand from the leadership that they withdraw their signatures from Stop the War’s 18th February statement on the crisis over Ukraine. This capitulation shows, yet again, the political inadequacy of what has passed for the leadership of the Labour left since our defeat in 2019.

An argument has been made, for example by John McDonnell, that “this is not the time for focussing on events in the Labour Party. Our focus should be on supporting and showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine & these courageous Russians demonstrating for peace.” This argument makes a demand on the left, but it also contains a critique of the leadership for their focus on internal Labour matters at this time. But in the relationship between these two aspects, all that remains for the left is taking the moral high ground through renunciation.

Equally, given that it was written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are aspects of Stop the War’s statement that, at the very least, do not hold up perfectly. It is crucial, as is suggested in McDonnell’s tweet, to listen to comrades on the Russian left, and to bear in mind that, if we want to act in solidarity with the struggle for peace in Russia, “it is necessary to say clearly who started this war and not to look for any excuses for it.” This, and the internationalised nature of communications, poses some questions for the ‘main enemy is at home’ approach, in Stop the War’s 18th February statement, which focussed on “the policies of the British government which have poured oil on the fire throughout this episode.” As Ilya Budraitskis argues, to name Putin and the Russian state as those who started the war “does not mean supporting the governments in question, still less the NATO bloc.” This critique remains legitimate and important.

What all this suggests at the very least the need for emphasises that differ from the 18th February statement, indeed, that is largely the line Stop the War have taken since the invasion. What we have now is, “Stop the War condemns the movement of Russian forces into Ukraine and urges that they immediately withdraw” (we might prefer something stronger than movement, though), and the centrality of the “Russian troops out” slogan. There is, then, a much wider theoretical question for anti-imperialists, around how to maintain the absolutely necessary critique of NATO and demands that Britain withdraw, whilst taking account of how many people in Ukraine want NATO membership, and have good reasons for doing so.

Given that the original statement has been overtaken by events, we might ask why the capitulation is so important. We don’t necessarily need the bathos of Richard Burgon, who, I’m told, took inspiration from Fidel Castro’s advice to Hugo Chávez during the 2002 coup: “don’t do like Allende who was a man alone. You have most of the Army on your side, don’t quit, don’t resign” in orchestrating in the capitulation. Sometimes a bit of flexibility—not taking a useless stand—is necessary. But that needs, as Chávez had, a plan and a willingness to act bravely when the opportunity presents itself. For the Socialist Campaign Group, even its left, it may be the case that being a Labour MP, not losing the whip, enhances capacity to act within the broad socialist struggle, but there comes a point when the constant deferral of rupture and action and the effects of that constant deferral, for the sake of keeping the Labour MP reduces a capacity to act more — and in the case of the capitulation over the statement, may well not have even helped with that.

It is this political incapacity of the leadership of the left that has prompted me to leave. I think it’s worth trying to explain both why I hadn’t left sooner and what are not the reasons for leaving. Insofar as New Socialist has had a collective line on Labour membership after Starmer became leader, it was that we were agnostic. ‘Bad New Times’ was partially constituted by an extreme scepticism about the capacity of the left to have effects in and through in Labour in the immediate term, whether that was through “Stay and Fight”, or the notion that Starmer could be impacted by constructive engagement and challenge around policy. The case for continuing membership was based on the possibility of being able to cohere something independent of both the centre and the leadership, and in some contact with extra parliamentary movements. This possibility now seems blocked just as decisively as “stay and fight” or constructive engagement.

The Labour Party is of the British state; ultimately it aims to win elections in order to administer that state; this necessarily means one’s membership is a moral compromise – and this applied under Corbyn too.

Unlike a lot of ‘Corbynites’, I was a member before 2015. My being a Labour member (at least during this instance of my membership; I have left the party before, in 2003, over the Iraq War) didn’t rest on a judgement as to the morality of the Labour Party, particularly one based on its policies and leadership. The Labour Party is of the British state; ultimately it aims to win elections in order to administer that state; this necessarily means one’s membership is a moral compromise – and this applied under Corbyn too. I don’t think the Labour Party can be totally reduced to being of the British state—the striking thing is that there has always been something more—but it is its being-of-the-state that ultimately determines it. The question of my membership has always been about the capacity to be part of a left project within Labour that contributes to socialist struggle. Even before 2015, I often enjoyed the comradeship, solidarity and sense of shared purpose—including with members who were not necessarily on the left. The authors of The May Day Manifesto write that “what we…have are two parties who basically agree about the structure and purposes and society”. However,

The extraordinary thing then is that thousands of people still turn out at nights or week-ends, and work to exhaustion during actual campaigns, to appear to join in that kind of conflict. In fact, while some of this is habitual loyalty, and some again an expectation of patronage, most of it is still an attempt, by politically interested people, to endow the dead forms with some real content.

I think sometimes—I certainly felt so at the time—my activity, necessarily together with others, did endow the dead forms with a little real content. Again, the dead forms are determining in the last instance, but that real content and the experience of collectivity was not nothing. I shall miss this, however frustrating party activity was a lot of the time (and it seems quite clear such experiences are probably no longer possible within the Labour Party at any rate).

Equally, I am not leaving because I think that there is any necessary contradiction between extra-parliamentary activity and Labour membership (at least, not on the level of an individual member). Even between 2010 and 2015, when I was simultaneously a Labour member and engaged in quite extensive extra-parliamentary activity, including action that challenged the legitimacy of the law, I never felt that there was a strong contradiction in my position. The limitations imposed by ‘Parliamentary socialism’ exist strongly on the level of the Party itself; but they bear down less on individual members. Undertaking extra-parliamentary activity alongside organising and challenging within the Labour Party does not, I think, put one in a false position. It speaks to the contradictions of socialist struggle that necessarily takes place at a number of social locations—particularly in a country with established, if increasingly limited from the democratic perspective, bourgeois democratic institutions and practices. Indeed, to be able to present the demands of extra-parliamentary movements within the Labour Party—for example by challenging councillors over housing questions—is a useful thing to be able to do. At least within England, it seems clear that while any socialist transition, at least in the short-to-medium term (and ecological crisis demands urgency), is not limited to the Labour Party, it will necessarily have to reckon with it nonetheless.

The development of extra-parliamentary movements post-December 2019, particularly around housing, and radicalisation, including the trade unions’ qualified disentangling from Labour (most notably Unite), as well as the further development of militant base unions, has been entirely welcome. However, even if the necessary massive scaling-up were possible (and I have my doubts), this would not be able to entirely replace Parliamentary-party struggle. A need for contestation in and through the left party of the state remains. As Poulantzas put it, the question is:

How is it possible radically to transform the state in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy (which were also a conquest of the popular masses) are combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies?

The extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy both requires the Labour Party and includes it. The Labour Party is one of those institutions of representative democracy, just as much as it is a (now blocked) way to affect other institutions of representative democracy. Rather miserably then, I am not leaving Labour in order to do anything else. The anything-elses were open when I was a member; I never experienced Labour membership as a constraint on other necessary political work.

Until now, my own position has been that, given socialist struggle goes through (although is not limited to) the Labour Party, for me to expect others to undertake Labour Party work, to struggle to maintain at least a certain potentiality, but not be willing to do it myself would be shabby and irresponsible. Moreover, I am experienced in the Labour Party. I know the Rule Book and can negotiate it; I can chair a meeting and draft a minute (and write a motion, and organise internally to win support from the intermediate…). I have a degree of a platform as a Labour Left person, and can use that to make arguments. I felt that I had a certain duty to try to challenge the Party’s anti-GRT, anti-Black or Islamophobic racism, or its transphobia. As a white, cis man these problems did not make the Party at best uncomfortable and at worst unsafe for me, as they did for other comrades; and one might expect to make some progress with these struggles, as they don’t necessarily need to map on to the left/right party contradiction in which the left is invariably defeated. Challenging these aspects of the Party felt like a responsibility, and I didn’t want to refuse it.

Finally, to give up entirely on Labour presents a very serious danger of what Raymond Williams described in 1976, as an “internal exile”, particularly risky in a situation of crisis for the left party of the state, constituted not only by the blockage of left reformism but also when the cost of incorporation of the popular classes is “increasingly too high for the system to pay.” One might hope this crisis could generate challenge again, and there are risks in being separated from it. In England, to break fully with Labour still means to break with by far the greatest concentration of politically active socialists. It amounts to a break with a range of potential practical effects, a giving up on the institutions of representative democracy.

These arguments, then, were the ones that I put to myself to justify continuing my membership. There was, I have no doubt, also a sentimental aspect. The Labour Party has been a huge part of my life. I care about it, probably more than I should. Equally, there was perhaps a level of pride—it is hard to give up on a theoretical-practical assessment I made (and made before 2015, and on which I was, at least for a time, substantially vindicated) about the usefulness of Labour.

The question for me has always been that of whether being a member of the Labour Party extends or limits my political effectiveness. The capitulation over the Stop the War statement has confirmed that at this point, Labour membership is a limit on that effectiveness. The decisive aspect of this limit is that to continue being a member involves presenting a false assessment of the situation, not only to others, but to myself.

To continue being a member involves presenting a false assessment of the situation, not only to others, but to myself.

It is not only the Labour leadership that is a democratic blockage. It is also the Labour left (and not just its Parliamentary representatives, but Momentum’s leadership, too). We have a left leadership in Parliament that is unwilling to defend not only themselves, but the socialist and anti-imperialist members whom they ostensibly represent. To stay a member would be to indulge a cruel optimism, defined by Lauren Berlant as: “maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object, which looks optimistic but in reality limits our ability to flourish.”1 How far would a worry about, for example, internal exile, represent “the fear… that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything”?2

For the 11 SCG MPs to withdraw their signatures from the Stop the War statement—and to continue to capitulate, then who am I to disagree? If no Labour MP is capable of challenging Starmer’s spokesperson’s insistence that “Labour is under new management. Starmer’s leadership there will never be any confusion about whose side Labour is on-Britain, NATO, freedom & democracy”—above all the articulation of “freedom” and “democracy” to being on Britain and NATO’s side—then, again, who am I to challenge it?

We know, too, that this limitation will be partially enforced by violent threats, but we are left in the position where all we can do is point out that the atmosphere that produces these threats has been created not only by the press and the Tory Party, but by the Labour leadership itself—without being able to defend the legitimacy of anti-NATO beliefs, or to explain what is at stake democratically. All we are left with is appeals to Starmer’s—or David Lammy’s–better nature, and to abstractions like ‘civility’ and ‘decency’.

In Britain, though perhaps increasingly one might want to limit this to England, democracy, is not just about voting and Parliament, it has always been significantly about the internal procedures and practices of the Labour Party. Here we are talking not about “democracy” as determined by its articulation to NATO and the “pro-British” perspective but but democracy as the capacity and struggle of ordinary people to have political effects, including, but not only, through the institutions of representative democracy. This, moreover, is a democracy that is a conquest of the popular masses (and what limited democracy there is, always is the effect of popular struggle). The Labour Party has been a way for the popular masses to engage politically—certainly a very imperfect way, but a way nevertheless. The restriction on what positions can be taken up within Labour, including the left’s acceptance of these limits, is a very serious curtailment of democracy. The capitulation of left MPs, moreover, has emboldened the leadership’s limits on the democratic life of the Party—most notably in closing down the twitter account of Young Labour, the only part of the Party where a capacity and willingness to challenge remained. Young Labour is, I would add, the part of the Party that has consistently made the most meaningful demands for solidarity with people in Ukraine and elsewhere, insisting that “the Labour Party must wholeheartedly call for the support and protection of refugees, of all crises”. Predictably, the Labour leadership refuses to support anything like this—whether for those displaced by the invasion of Ukraine, or by conflict elsewhere.

My deciding to leave was not only motivated by the capitulation over Stop the War. There have been constant failings by the leadership of the left in internal party matters, especially (but not only) Momentum. This week, the NEC candidates for the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance were announced. It was revealed that Momentum were only backing four of the seven. We were also promised an internal primary for NEC elections, and much more transparency in deciding who Momentum would back. This never happened. Why? Who knows. Nobody seems to have explained it, and, for me, the crucial point is that I have realised that I don’t care. I probably should, at least in my role as New Socialist editor, find out what’s happened and help inform members—but the idea of doing so fills me with a mixture of boredom and dread. I can’t make myself care.
Laura Pidcock’s resignation from the NEC feels particularly emblematic of the limits the left face internally, particularly the fact that these limits are not just imposed by the leadership, or an “objective” balance of forces within the Party, but by the leadership of the left’s own timidity and lack of imagination. Pidcock is correct to argue, in terms of negotiations with the leadership, that she “can’t and won’t negotiate with these people anymore”. She goes on, however, to say that “the only really effective response to these attacks, on people’s values and reputations, is from the mass membership”. But how are members supposed to respond? Without a strategy for challenging the balance of forces in the Party, this is, at best, merely abstract and sentimental. At worst, such an appeal to the membership is a refusal of the responsibility that comes with a leadership role.

In criticising the leadership of the Labour left, whether in Parliament or those focused on internal Party struggle, I do not want to deny that there are individuals who are admirable. Dawn Butler has made consistently strong and important arguments around the civil liberties impacts of Covid restrictions (by contrast, the collective line of the Socialist Campaign Group was largely extremely weak and, at best, complacent over increased repressive powers and border restrictions). Apsana Begum, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Zarah Sultana have done fine articulation work in the Kill the Bill struggle, representing the Labour left in the extra-Parliamentary struggle, and the extra-Parliamentary struggle within the Labour Party. John McDonnell, for all his political flaws, remains the sharpest and most intellectually interesting and engaging politician of his generation. However, all this admirable activity has been the work of individuals, often quite isolated ones. It has not, in most cases, been part of a shared political project, and has never been part of a shared political project of the Labour left (the shared political project around Kill the Bill was specifically guided and determined by organisations and individuals outside the Labour left).

If I lived in the constituencies of any of the Labour MPs mentioned above, I would continue to be a member in order to support them in any way I could, as individuals who are able to have political effects. Equally, if I lived in Preston or North Ayrshire, I would probably feel part of a meaningful and effective political project at a local level. But I live in Barnet. If I were 26 or younger, I would stay to vote in the upcoming committee elections, as the current committee have asked. But I am not a young member.

Ultimately, one has to take responsibility. The official optimism of Momentum, the SCG, and various left commentators—including the claim that any political effects are possible for socialists in and through Labour—has been entirely destructive, including of any project within Labour to change things. A whole host of people have been, for various reasons, unable to acknowledge the extent of the blockages on the left (including those that have been partially self-imposed), and on the democratic functioning of the Labour Party. Perhaps acknowledging this would also be to acknowledge their own responsibility for how bad things have got.

The official optimism of Momentum, the SCG, and various left commentators—including the claim that any political effects are possible for socialists in and through Labour—has been entirely destructive, including of any project within Labour to change things.

There is no positive content to my leaving Labour, no alternative that leaving liberates for me—but I can’t continue to participate practically in this cruel optimism. I don’t regret being a Labour member. I got so much out of it, as well as putting a great deal in. My life would be very different if I hadn’t been an active participant in the Corbyn project, and I think, particularly, if it hadn’t been for the intellectual role of John McDonnell. But it’s over now. I’m done.

  1. Lauren Berlant. 2011. Cruel Optimism. London: Duke University Press. p. 24. 

  2. Berlant. Cruel Optimism. p. 24. 


Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

Founding editor