By Tim Nailsea

On 12 August, the Labour Party’s General Secretary, David Evans, sent an email to CLP secretaries banning discussion of ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer’s decision to settle a court case brought by former employees and the journalist John Ware, who had accused the party of slander in its rebuttal of their accusation of antisemitism in a controversial BBC Panorama documentary broadcast in 2019.1

Many of the staffers involved in that documentary have since been discovered to have been part of a concerted attempt to ensure that Labour lost the 2017 elections, which included drawing out the process of dealing with anti-Semitism allegations for as long as possible to inflict maximum damage on the party.2 The legal action was a continuation of this process, where right wing Labour Party members, in collusion with the Tory press, attempted to smear Corbyn and the entire left as antisemitic.

The Starmer leadership’s decision to settle, which constituted paying out hundreds of thousands of pounds and issuing an unreserved apology, meant the baseless and self-serving accusations did not have to be proven in a court of law, denying the accused (Jeremy Corbyn in particular and the leftwing membership in general) the opportunity to defend themselves.

It is an effective admission of guilt, designed to discredit the former leadership and demonstrate to the establishment that ‘normal service’ has been resumed. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions boasted to the House of Commons on 22 July, “In case the Prime Minister has not noticed, the Labour party is under new management.”

The role that the new manager of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition has been assigned, whether he acknowledges it or not, is to complete the defeat of the left in the party and ensure that a horrible aberration, like Corbyn’s election to the leadership, can never happen again.

Just as during the 1980s and early 90s under Neil Kinnock, the strategy consists of cowing the softs and driving out the hards. Sir Keir has succeeded with the former after sacking prominent Corbyn-supporting MPs from his shadow cabinet with barely a whimper of protest from their parliamentary colleagues. Having tamed the PLP, the leadership is turning its attention to the roughly 30 per cent of members who are determined to mount some sort of defence of the limited political gains of the left.

The right wing clearly prefer to fight the left on the terrain of antisemitism – a battle in which they can count on the full-throated support of the reactionary press and establishment – rather than on the Corbyn-era policies which they are itching to junk. The General Secretary’s diktat is simultaneously designed to provoke the left into defying it – and provide a pretext to purge them when they do.

On Friday, Rachel Garnham and other leftwing members of the NEC – technically the party’s ruling body between conferences – wrote to David Evans asking on whose authority his email was sent, and “expressing deep concerns about this attempt to curtail political discussion in CLPs”.3 What they do not complain about however is the second ban in Evans’ email, which bars discussion of ongoing disciplinary cases – a ban inherited from his predecessor, the Corbyn-supporting Jennie Formby.

The General Secretary’s edict is undemocratic and offensive and the left should vigorously oppose the slanderous campaign by Zionists and their establishment allies to paint socialists and supporters of Palestinian rights as antisemites.

But the reality is that, with the implosion of the Corbyn movement, annual conference cancelled, party meetings online-only, and the imposition of new NEC election rules, the balance of forces has shifted dramatically to the right within the party, and the central class battle has shifted to the terrain of the government’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic and the political response, or rather lack of it, of the Labour Party. At such a time it would be a mistake to wage a defensive struggle on the ground of their choosing.

Instead the left should take the offensive, convening CLPs as soon as possible in order to debate a strategy for protecting workers’ health and jobs, demanding the Labour leadership’s support, but organising to act without them where necessary.

The Labour Party is a mass organisation of the working class with strong roots in the unions. We need to drag the leaderships, the MPs, the councillors out of their parliamentary and bureaucratic bunkers onto the open terrain of the class struggle.

Where motions are needed they should be aimed first at getting members and communities out in support of NHS workers, anti-racist campaigns, workers defending their jobs and fighting for safe working conditions, and organising the unemployed. 

The end of the lockdown and the furlough scheme will send virus cases and unemployment rocketing. The danger the virus poses is obvious; the return of mass unemployment not seen since the 1980s threatens to fatally undermine the ability of those in work to defend their pay and conditions.

Against this we need to fight for a programme which prioritises the needs of the people at the expense of the profits of the bosses:

  • Full sick pay for the ill or those in quarantine
  • Socially useful work or full pay for the unemployed
  • Publicly owned test and trace run under workers control
  • Nationalisation of health, social care, and education without compensation
  • Schools to be returned to LEA control and run under workers’ and students’ control
  • Extend the Brexit transition deal

This leadership will not do this unless they are absolutely forced to, and given the impeccable pro-capitalist credentials of most of the MPs and staffers, they will not be forced without breaking up the party.

We cannot wait for Labour’s leadership to lead a battle it is neither prepared nor equipped to fight. While the Labour left is disoriented after Corbyn’s comprehensive defeat, Momentum, with a new leadership, a mass membership and at least the embryo of local organisations across the country faces a critical test of its own willingness to fill the leadership vacuum confronting socialists.

Momentum should defend members’ right to free speech, and condemn the undemocratic disciplinary system, but most of all it should reconvene the local branches in order to start organising workplace action committees to supervise the return to work and defend jobs, and building a national precarious and unemployed workers’ movement to resist the avalanche of job cuts. 

Taking this initiative, united by a common programme of action, Momentum can lay the foundations of an organisation that fights, a genuinely socialist party that can lead the struggle to make the capitalists pay for the crisis their system caused.

Notes

  1. “The Labour Party recently agreed a settlement with seven former members of staff who appeared on an edition of the BBC’s Panorama programme, as well as with the journalist who hosted that programme. Those settlements included an unreserved apology and a withdrawal of the allegations previously made by the Party about those individuals. The withdrawal and apology are binding on the Party and any motions which seek to undermine or contradict them will create a risk of further legal proceedings for both the national party and local parties. As such, motions relating to these settlements and the circumstances behind them are not competent business for discussion by local parties.”
  2. https://novaramedia.com/2020/07/22/bbc-panorama-investigation-into-labour-antisemitism-omitted-key-evidence-and-parts-of-labours-response/ and https://novaramedia.com/2020/04/12/its-going-to-be-a-long-night-how-members-of-labours-senior-management-campaigned-to-lose/
  3. https://skwawkbox.org/2020/08/16/nec-members-demand-evans-explain-on-whose-authority-he-banned-members-from-discussion-and-votes-on-starmers-surrender-pay-out-and-ehrc-report/