What Next for the Labour Left?

Labour's left is disorientated and fractured after traumatising defeats. But any retreat into low-stakes sectarianism would consign it to irrelevance for years to come.

This piece is part of our “Bad New Times” edition, which will be published in early May. We are making this available in advance of the edition itself because of its relevance to debates over immediately practical questions.

An interminable leadership election now finally over and with Keir Starmer taking up residence in the leader’s office, Labour’s disorientated left wing now finds itself back out in the cold. The new shadow cabinet, composed predominantly of Starmer’s soft-left allies, now contains only three members of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. Senior frontbenchers including John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn himself return to the backbenches after a gruelling four-and-a-half years in the firing line.

Labour’s grassroots left, for its part, is badly fragmented. The recent elections to the National Executive Committee were, if anything, more ominous than the leadership election result, with left-wing votes splintered hither and thither amid bitter internal ructions between rival organisations and their respective slates. It is perhaps just as well that the left no longer finds itself tasked with having to lead the party, because it is in no position to do so. Events since 2015, and particularly the brutal election defeat in December, have taken an undeniably heavy toll.

Some on the left are wondering whether they have a future in the Labour Party at all. No doubt the election defeat, followed by the left’s loss of the leadership, has hit socialists in the party hard. A few months ago most Labour members seemed confident that they could at least force a hung Parliament, and maybe lead a government of some description, only to find themselves badly beaten – including being routed in some constituencies Labour had held for a century. Now they’re subjected to the sight of Labour right-wingers, people who have spent the last few years tearing chunks out of Corbyn’s leadership, strutting around with their tails in the air. Of course it sticks in the craw.

There is, however, no hope for socialists in cocooning ourselves with the comforts of low-stakes sectarianism, irrelevant to the mainstream of the organised working-class movement. Any left-wing split from Labour would stand no chance without taking big trade unions along with it, and under first-past-the-post would probably be doomed anyway. Labour remains what it always was: not a socialist party, but a party with socialists in it. But Jeremy Corbyn leaves behind a Labour left much bigger than before 2015, and one which continues to set the general parameters of policy discussion. The fractured radical left of the pre-2015 period, while providing much of the impetus for some substantial if short-lived social movement activity, ended up burnt out and rudderless (at least in England) until Corbynism provided an alternative outlet. It would be a disaster to willingly go back to that.

In the years to come, the socialist left has to channel its energies into new projects going beyond short-termist electoralism. Leo Panitch has made the point that amid all the furore of recent years, the necessary and long-neglected work of “class formation” has fallen by the wayside. It would be easy for the Labour left to revert to doing what it’s most used to: ploughing the bulk of its efforts into motions and rule changes to conference, and so on. Rebuilding the left’s organisation within the party is important, but even more so is the need to develop more creative, outward-looking forms of political activity engaging with both the wider labour movement and the class currently outside the ranks of that movement.

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

How did the Labour left come to lose its grip on the party, and in such limp fashion? The obvious reason is that it failed in electoral terms, overseeing Labour’s worst defeat in decades despite having outperformed expectations two-and-a-half years earlier. But the signs that Corbynite party members were starting to disengage were already apparent before the election. The failure to make use of trigger ballots to transform the Parliamentary Labour Party suggested that a lot of members had demobilised. Without such a transformation, any attempt to lead a government would have likely ended in a debacle. But to the end, many on the Labour left hoped that the inherent reasonableness of their proposals—and their concessions in key areas—would reconcile the irreconcilable.

Corbyn came to the leadership promising to bring about a ‘people-powered politics’, but this scarcely materialised outside of the leadership campaigns of 2015 and 2016, and the general elections of 2017 and 2019. After four-and-a-half years of acrid civil war, both the structures of the party and the political composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party remain essentially unchanged (an expanded Socialist Campaign Group contingent notwithstanding). This is a poor return. Following the shock election result of 2017, when a Corbyn-led Labour government suddenly seemed like a near-term possibility, the prospects of radical party reform rapidly diminished. The Democracy Review of the following year was gutted of most of its substance by the National Executive Committee on the eve of conference, while open selection was ruled out – whether by trade union representatives acting under their own steam or at Corbyn’s prompting remains disputed.

After 2017, a ‘one more heave’ mindset became predominant on the Labour left, its leaders and activists alike hoping that the next general election would be enough to push the party over the precipice and into office. The objective in the interim was simply to maintain some semblance of peace with the majority of the PLP, get into government and then begin alleviating the worst of austerity (even if the party manifesto stood only a remote chance of being implemented in full). It was perhaps hoped that after seemingly proving the gloomiest prophets of doom wrong in 2017, the right of the PLP would come to accept a left-wing leadership that steered clear of open selection and left certain Labour right shibboleths—most notably Nato membership and Trident—untouched.

If this was the logic, it turned out to be hopelessly wrong. Whatever else the Labour right is, it’s not stupid (even if its tactical blundering after 2015, and its headbanging impetuosity, might have given the opposite impression). It was never going to be hoodwinked. Firstly, the right knew that were a left-led Labour government to succeed in implementing the bulk of its programme, the right would have been prevented from getting its hands on the party for years to come. Secondly, it also recognised that a left Labour government that implemented such a programme would inevitably raise expectations and invite further pressure from the left, potentially dragging it into more radical territory (whether or not it wanted to be) and thus beyond acceptable boundaries for the right. It wasn’t that the Labour right necessarily believed it was impossible for the left to win: for these reasons and others as well, it just didn’t want it to.

But 2017’s insurgent energies were soon sapped. Only a matter of months after an ebullient, irreverent grassroots campaign and an unexpected political breakthrough, Labour found itself struggling to make itself heard over the likes of Jo Swinson, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve; an undignified experience at the best of times. The centre of attention shifted rapidly back to Westminster, exactly where Corbyn (lacking support in the PLP and never the most assured performer at the despatch box) was at his very weakest.1 The Labour right recognised Brexit’s potential as a wedge issue and took full advantage, hammering away at it and widening the cracks in Corbyn’s fragile base. As quickly as it happened, the “mass repudiation of Thatcherism” of 2017 dissipated. Labour was back to being boxed in as Brexit came to the crunch, and worse still, it no longer appeared as an insurgent shaking up the system but as the elitist, anti-democratic guardian of a hated status quo. Absurdly, the Conservative Party was allowed to position itself as tribune of the people.

The consequences for Corbyn himself were profound, and any remaining personal credibility he had was destroyed by this. Previously, even people who disliked the man and his politics could at least recognise that he’d stood by his principles for more than three decades in Parliament; his intransigent stands proved that he’d never angled for self-advancement. Corbyn’s agonised U-turn on the Brexit question was made in response both to genuine democratic pressures from within his party and worrying polls. Yet to many voters, who can hardly be expected to follow the minutiae of Labour’s internal debates, it simply wrecked any claim he had to ‘straight-talking, honest politics’ and made him look as slippery as any other politician. At the same time, Corbyn’s track record of left Euroscepticism was well known and held against him in anti-Brexit circles, making his pivot to backing a second referendum difficult for committed Remainers to credit – vexing though it was to see people who had registered little interest in European politics before 2016 suddenly castigating Jeremy Corbyn for his lack of pro-EU zeal.

What about Rebecca Long-Bailey and her campaign for the Labour leadership? As one of the leading architects of the most forward-thinking policies to come out of Corbynism – Alternative Models of Ownership and the Green Industrial Revolution – Long-Bailey has a lot going for her: she’s sharp, has intellectual depth, comes across well in interviews and is a genuinely warm, likeable character. Her socialist credentials are likewise solid, having backed Corbyn to the hilt since 2015 (she was one of those MPs who nominated him for the leadership) and taken the brave stance, especially as a new MP, of breaking the whip to vote against the Tory Welfare Bill at its second reading that summer.

However, Long-Bailey is a more orthodox and businesslike politician than Corbyn, lacking his grounding in and perhaps his feel for social movement activism. Unlike Corbyn, Long-Bailey can’t point to a 40-year track record of movement activity. Nor are her fairly mild criticisms of the party’s 2019 Brexit position likely to have gone down well with party members who still think it was basically right (indeed, many still think that if anything, it wasn’t anti-Brexit enough). Her depressing equivocation on Palestine, meanwhile, did her real damage among the more unrepentant Corbyn supporters. While Long-Bailey’s calls for more party democracy were correct in principle, the moment had passed, and they threatened more internal upheaval and conflict for a party by now desperate to avoid it.

Long-Bailey’s campaign failed to ignite, but its shortcomings alone don’t explain her defeat. Keir Starmer’s campaign was savvy (helped by some endorsements from big-name left celebrities) and read the party membership’s temperature accurately, but it wasn’t thrilling. His appeals to unity simply resonated with a membership guilt-stricken by its apparent excesses. As Panitch has noted, the burden of maintaining party unity always weighs heaviest on the Labour left, and especially so in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic election defeat for which it had to take direct responsibility.

This is why the ‘continuity Corbyn’ label with which Rebecca Long-Bailey was instantly tagged did her so much damage. Richard Burgon’s unashamedly Corbynite deputy leadership campaign was spirited but underperformed even Long-Bailey’s disappointing showing, a clear indication that many penitent former Corbynites weren’t prepared to risk electing anyone else tarred with that brush. Above all, the leadership election has demonstrated the current exhaustion of the Labour left, proving that the last few years have taken a great deal out of all concerned.

Regaining Momentum?

Much hope was vested in Momentum when it was first established in 2015, with its main brief being to defend the Corbyn project and lead the effort to remould Labour more in the Corbynite left’s image. It was to be the vehicle which made Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ a reality, linking a reformed Labour Party with the energies of social movements. It was intended that Momentum would lead the charge to democratise the party, finally dragging its rulebook, policies and political culture kicking and screaming into the 21st century. In the end, it has settled into a much more limited repertoire and its achievements to date have been much more modest than originally hoped for (or feared, depending on where your factional sympathies lie).

Perhaps expectations for Momentum were too high from the outset. The organisation operates on a relative shoestring budget (something which is often overlooked) considering the amount of work it has had to do. It has been overloaded with responsibilities, having been forced to serve as get-out-the-vote machine, PR operation, factional organising vehicle and Praetorian guard for an embattled Labour leadership. Its ambitions for reorientating the party towards social movements were hampered somewhat by the fact that there weren’t many left to reorientate to after 2015. Social movement activity remained weak throughout the Corbyn era; in fact, Corbynism itself was a product of the earlier exhaustion of the post-2010 social movements, with the anti-cuts movement having already waned. The one exception is the relatively recent revival of environmentalism, reflected in the Labour for a Green New Deal campaign, and the fight for climate justice must be a key focal point for socialists in the years ahead.

With the left dislodged from the Labour leadership, there is at least an opportunity for Momentum to take on a role more in line with its original inspiration. It is no longer obliged to shield the party leadership from attack. It is obvious, furthermore, that the Labour left’s base in the constituencies is in considerable disarray. All but a handful of Momentum branches are moribund, and hence are in no position either to provide a coordinating role for local Labour left activity or to keep leftist members engaged and involved. Momentum’s membership peaked at somewhere above 40,000. This is much bigger than the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, whose membership peaked at about 1,200 in the early 1980s, ever was. But that Momentum membership is badly atomised and disaggregated, not to mention disempowered, with power heavily centralised at its London HQ.

Momentum needs both to democratise and to sharpen its own politics. The besieged nature of the leadership was reflected in the command-and-control regime which came to dominate Momentum, and which closed itself off to democratic input for fear of being overrun by sectarian groups seeking recruits for themselves. Ronan Burtenshaw and Marcus Barnett are right to argue that it has come to sound more like a do-gooding NGO than a radical organisation dedicated to fighting for socialism. There must be a much more explicit commitment to the struggle for socialist advance and on socialist political education. Paradoxically, the left’s defeat in the Labour leadership election could provide an opening for a more outspoken and less apologetic kind of politics. This might turn out to be liberating for Momentum, if it is prepared to change. But if not, its prospects are bleak: many on the Labour left are already ill disposed towards Momentum and disdainful about its ability to reform itself. A Momentum which continues much as it has up to now would serve no purpose.

Labour’s community organising unit is widely scoffed at on the Labour right; some councillors audibly groaned when Rebecca Long-Bailey made a reference to it at the local government leadership hustings. Without Corbyn and the left at Labour’s helm, it is unclear what future the community organising unit has. But it is attempting to address a fundamental problem. The disappearance of labour movement institutions from the social fabric of many working-class communities over many years has badly weakened the Labour Party. Those institutions propounded a distinct value system which, however defensive it might have been, at least promoted social solidarity and collective self-assertion. Absent this, class consciousness has gone into marked decline, leaving behind atomisation and desperate social alienation. New socialist and labour movement institutions must be built. Momentum might be to offer a lead here, reaching out to existing radical mutual aid groups, tenants’ unions and other potential allies, but it can only take on so much of this work by itself.

The Labour left’s presence in local government remains generally marginal, though it can point to some successes (namely Preston and Salford). The deep unpopularity of some Labour councils is very real, and the Tories were able to play on this – however dishonestly – to great effect in December. Few in the party seem willing to face up to this. Labour councils are in an unenviable situation, having been spitefully starved by Tory governments for a decade. There is, however, a clear and urgent need for new ideas and a new fighting spirit on Labour council groups. Nurturing a new generation of local government leftists could provide an important outlet and a focus for Momentum and the Labour left. However, Starmer has already made overtures to councillors with a view to building a base among them, seemingly with some success. Existing power-holders on Labour councils will expect a quid pro quo and they will want to see any rebellious party members reined in.

Starmer wasted no time in relieving much of the parliamentary left of its frontbench responsibilities. Leaders have a right to appoint reliable allies to senior frontbench roles, though it would have been welcome if more people had respected Corbyn’s right to do the same. But during the Corbyn era, few left MPs had the time and energy left to handle both their shadow cabinet briefs and play a consistent link role between the party at the base and the party in Parliament. Now, Labour left MPs can devote more time to the grassroots of the party and the trade unions, providing practical solidarity, serving as socialist tribunes and strengthening bonds for the struggles ahead. Better to be a principled, campaigning socialist backbencher than to be begrudgingly tolerated as a tame frontbencher.

It is clear that most party members wouldn’t thank the Labour left for engaging in the kind of wrecking tactics deployed by the right over the last four-and-a-half years. Those tactics did much to destroy Corbyn, but unlike the Labour right, the left doesn’t have the ear of friendly journalists, eagerly awaiting any leaks and gossip that might paint its internal adversaries in an unflattering light. Starmer’s mandate is undeniable, and the Labour left – which spent years demanding others respect Corbyn’s mandate, albeit forlornly – can hardly pretend otherwise. It has to play a more constructive, but still critical role. We will see what sort of role the Labour right plays if Starmer hesitates to give it what it wants and sticks to a soft-left course instead. He almost certainly has more to worry about from that quarter than from an exhausted left evidently in need of its own ‘period of reflection’. Anonymous briefings from the shadow cabinet have already begun.

Whatever the next few years have in store, socialists should keep a sense of perspective. The liberal centre and the Labour right remain alarmingly complacent and intellectually flabby despite the mounting crises of our time, displaying little willingness even to acknowledge their scale. There is nothing much to suggest this is about to change, even in a post-pandemic world. However, the new leadership has had to bend to the altered centre of political gravity in the Labour Party, which is well to the left of where it was. The intellectual energy in Labour continues to come overwhelmingly from the left. We might have fallen short this time, but we are not in the position of hopeless marginality we were in just a few years ago.

Nonetheless, the last 40 years, not just the last ten, have done much to dampen down popular expectations. The unlikely advance of 2017 caused much of the socialist left to momentarily lose sight of that. We have paid a heavy price. In the aftermath of our latest defeat, we must redouble our efforts to win more people to the view that it is possible, through class politics and collective political action, to transform society in the interests of its exploited and oppressed.

  1. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, Verso 2020, p234-5.