Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Socialists, Stay in the Labour Party

Recent developments in the Labour Party have many socialists wondering if they should give up on the party for good. That would be a disaster. Leftists should stay in the party and focus on building power at the local level.

New Labour leader Keir Starmer leaves his home on April 4, 2020 in London, England. Hollie Adams / Getty

Should you stay in the Labour Party? That’s the question most supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are asking. When Keir Starmer announced the first few members of his cabinet, the answer seemed to be no. Anneliese Dodds as shadow chancellor seemed to be a smart choice. Not a Corbynite, but a member of the shadow Treasury team who is smart and open to the ideas Corbyn expressed.

But the inclusion of Rachel Reeves, in the same non-job as Michael Gove, was an ominous signal. She recently praised Nancy Astor at length — the first female member of Parliament to take her seat, Astor was also a rabid antisemite and Nazi sympathizer, and virulently anti-Catholic. During Ed Miliband’s tenure as leader, Reeves promised Labour would be “tougher than the Tories on benefits” and in a Guardian interview said “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.”

The full cabinet is better: Rebecca Long-Bailey is the shadow education minister, an important role with plenty of work to be done. Marsha De Cordova is an excellent MP, left-wing, and perfect for the post of shadow women and equalities minister. And Corbynite Cat Smith remains shadow minister for Young People and Voter engagement.

The election of Keir Starmer as leader over Long-Bailey is a blow, but the election of Corbyn was a swift and unexpected victory. The Left was suddenly thrown into a leadership role but consistently undermined by a far more right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Some members will leave, understandably, but many more will stay.

The community organizing unit will hopefully stay and be expanded. The Left needs to focus on working in their local areas to build up a left consensus. Many councils are run by right-wing members; more left councilors can make a major difference locally, and in doing so, find left members willing to stand for Parliamentary seats and reshape the PLP.

The desire to leave is strong, but socialism is achieved slowly and locally. Far more people deal with their local council than their MP and Parliament directly. We need more left-wing councilors ensuring housing and homelessness are dealt with appropriately. Too many councils are flooded with older, right-wing Labour councilors with little regard for people’s lives, focusing solely on money and the opportunity to sell off the land and estates people live in.

The Left was as surprised as anyone to find themselves victorious in 2015. Starmer has returned the cabinet largely back towards Milibandism, promising to agree with the government “when necessary,” rather than offer the “forensic” scrutiny his supporters insisted he would deliver. We need a PLP that will hold the government to account for its slow and dangerous approach to the coronavirus, which has both risked and ended lives. Doctors do not have the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they need, and testing has been slow.

Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell rightly attacked the government for this, but were roundly ignored by the press. The shadow cabinet will be slow to respond, and Starmer will insist on performatively praising the government on occasion.

Rather than leave, we should focus our efforts locally: get the right people to stand as councilors. Flood local Labour meetings to ensure left candidates win selections in seats. We have several brilliant left MPs in Parliament, especially women: Nadia Whittome, Charlotte Nichols, Zarah Sultana, Cat Smith, Bell Ribeiro-Addy. All are young and capable of leadership after gaining more experience. Working at a local level and pursuing municipal socialism should be the focus for people staying in the party.

The Corbyn win was as much a shock for the Left as it was for the establishment. Staying in the party but focusing on local issues, rather than the confected drama in the PLP is the way forward. Small steps that lead to greater control of councils, and then Parliament, is the only way to win. It’s a slow process, but mercifully involves far less travel.