Can the British Labour Party Win Power Without a Left Wing?

Can the British Labour Party Win Power Without a Left Wing?

Can the British Labour Party Win Power Without a Left Wing?

Despite being far ahead of the ruling Conservatives in the polls, Labour’s leadership seems determined to purge its way to electability.


Early last year, I visited a local Labour Party in England’s Midlands. As Covid lockdowns battered the area’s most vulnerable, Labour organizers in Broxtowe, in Nottinghamshire, pulled together to help out. They started a food bank. They worked with a local youth football club to set up a community center. They kept knocking on doors in the most deprived neighborhoods, checking in, showing up, making sure people were OK. It all seemed like the model of a local Labour party: nurturing community and seeding trust among people long abandoned by a remote political class, in this marginal seat held by the ruling Conservative Party since 2010. But this year all that local work was shut down—by the Labour Party.

Across the country, Labour under the leadership of Keir Starmer is driving out its left-wing flank. This is particularly galling for the party’s left, since many had voted Starmer in as leader in 2020 precisely because he promised party unity while retaining the redistributive policy platform carved out by his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer has since reversed course—with a vengeance.

In Broxtowe, Labour HQ blocked the local party’s preferred parliamentary candidate—the leftist Greg Marshall—despite support for him across the party and across eight trade unions. The entire local party leadership resigned in disgust. Vital community work ground to a halt. One of the party organizers I met last year tells me: “You wouldn’t recognize us now. It was crushing. They destroyed us.”

It’s the same story across Britain as left-wing candidates are blocked from standing at the next general election—which must be held before January 2025. One Labour veteran told me: “It’s the most ruthlessly cynical machine I’ve ever seen in my 40 odd years in the Labour party.” Of the hundred most winnable seats across Britain, only two of Labour’s selected candidates are from the left of the party. British broadcaster Michael Crick, who has been following Labour’s selection process, reports that these exclusions have been happening to impeccably credentialed candidates: young working-class women, respected former MPs, trade union organizers, and veteran community campaigners with masses of local credibility, often from minority communities whose representation within Labour is lagging. Crick quotes a friend of Labour’s election campaign director, Morgan McSweeney, who says that the left needs “to be eradicated from the party because they are so dangerous.” Aside from the disdain for party democracy, Labour HQ is accused of turning a blind eye to party rules so that anointed candidates receive early access to party membership contact details, giving them a campaigning advantage. Meanwhile, party officials are disqualifying candidates seemingly on spurious grounds, such as for “liking” tweets from the Green Party leader. The purge will change the nature of Labour for years to come.

Starmer’s dogged drive to eliminate the left is embodied in his edict banning former leader Jeremy Corbyn. The man who inspired mass membership of the party, drove up Labour’s vote share with a leftist manifesto—and then led the party into an election battering in 2019—is now blocked from even standing in the next election. An MP since 1983, Corbyn is hugely popular in his London constituency of Islington North. And his unwavering left-wing politics still hold considerable appeal—particularly among the under-40s, whose futures have been foreclosed by a maelstrom of shredded pay, spiraling rent, unbearable increases in the cost of living, and an ever-present climate emergency.

Corbyn was initially suspended from the party in 2020, over comments he made when the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its inquiry into the anti-Semitism that had dogged Labour during his leadership. Unwisely, Corbyn chose that day to say, “One anti-Semite is too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.” Both during his leadership and since, Corbyn never fully grasped what was required of him over this issue, allowing personal affront to cloud his judgement. But none of that featured in the motion to ban him in March—on the spurious grounds that he led the party to electoral defeat. That’s a standard never applied to any other Labour leader. As one political consultant told me, this ban is “part of a constant process to demonstrate that Starmer is not Corbyn—up to and including the removal of Corbyn himself.” There’s an added benefit for Starmerites: If Corbyn decides to stand as an independent MP and disgruntled Labour members support him, well, they can be expelled, too. Labour is thought to have lost some 200,000 members since Starmer took over. It might be the only political party that is happy to show members the door.

From Electoral Rehab to Control-Freakery

The Starmer leadership claims its under-new-management, eliminate-the-left strategy is all about becoming more electable. But do core Labour voters in key northern constituencies who turned Conservative in 2019 really care whether Corbyn remains a backbench London MP? Meanwhile, poll after poll shows the electorate—even Tory voters—want the economic policies championed by the party’s left. Aside from persuading Britain’s commentariat that Corbynism has been expunged, where is the sense in driving away the thousands who pounded the pavements campaigning for Labour under Corbyn? I joined party activists during 2017’s election campaign and watched them go house to house, persuading the most disillusioned and alienated from politics that it was still worth voting. That effort—and Corbyn’s radical leadership—helped produce unexpected gains across England and an increase in voter share for Labour that exceeded Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997.

Under the guise of electoral rehab, team Starmer’s control-freakery verges on brittle authoritarianism—and loudly gives the lie to the leader’s previous commitment to party democracy. For the Tony Blair stans who now flank him as aides and advisers, getting rid of the left and reclaiming what they see as their rightful control of the party is an end in and of itself. Though Labour is currently streets ahead in polling, that has more to do with the epic collapse of the Conservatives. Starmer’s personal ratings remain firmly on the floor. Even loyal Labour voters say they don’t know what he stands for. And some of Starmer’s supporters are growing exasperated with his anodyne leadership. For now, the rallying imperative is getting rid of the Tories. But what happens after that, when the honeymoon period of sheer relief is over?

If Labour only wins a small majority in the next election, the size of its left wing becomes more significant—and the Starmer leadership doesn’t want to risk that wing of the party ever having any sort of influence again. As one shadow cabinet member recently told the London Times: “If we only scrape a small majority, or end up the biggest party in a hung parliament, then all of a sudden, these people are relevant again.… We’ll have to have another general election to get rid of them.”

The prospect of a hung Parliament—a rarity in British politics—appeared in the tea leaves of local elections earlier this month. A total rout for the Conservatives, these elections weren’t exactly a slam dunk for Labour either, with the Liberal Democrats and especially the Green Party mopping up anti-government votes. Labour performed well—but not well enough to assure outright victory at a general election, according to polling guru John Curtice. Britain’s two-party electoral system could ensure that Labour claims those smaller party voters in a national election, but the local elections also might have opened the door to tactical voting and unofficial agreements between progressive parties on the ground.

UK leftists are now so demoralized that they look yearningly at the Biden administration’s cordial relations with Bernie Sanders and the Democrats’ own left flank. Truly, things here are that miserable. Starmer has revoked all 10 of the pledges on which he became party leader. He says that’s because things have changed, post-pandemic—as though every day of the pandemic didn’t make the case for economic redistribution, public services, and the welfare state. Starmer himself seems in thrall to the false prophets of Britain’s commentariat, who have always labeled the left a liability. But with his parliamentarians also cowed—fearful of saying anything that might be misconstrued by the leadership as reason to bar them—Starmer is alienating not just the party left but all of those who believe in the idea of Labour as a broad church and in its democratic processes.

The Importance of Not Being Corbyn

Meanwhile, shorn of actual policy, Labour’s leadership has been reluctant to commit to anything concrete beyond not being Corbyn (we already knew that), offering greater competence than the current Conservatives (not a high bar), and a commitment to fiscal credibility (because who doesn’t love their bank manager?). At a time when Britain’s cost-of-living crisis dominates people’s lives, Labour offers no blueprint for a better alternative. Bereft of large-scale solutions, the party insists on simply being a more professional B-team—precisely when many voters already believe that politicians are cynically self-serving and all parties are equally bad. Although polling shows clearly that Brits want the government to go ahead and nationalize the currently profiteering private utility companies, Starmer balks at the idea. When taxing the wealthiest as a means to resuscitate the national health service also has widespread support, Labour can’t possibly comment. When swaths of the public sector are striking to lift long-stagnant wages further decimated by surging inflation, Labour leaders shake their heads and say they simply cannot commit. And though it is becoming clear that in the UK, with our spluttering economy experiencing the slowest post-pandemic recovery in the G7, inflation itself is being caused by corporate profiteering, Labour has expressed scant desire to rein in the fatcats.

The danger is that Labour in power—which, thanks to Conservative bungling, still seems likely after the next election—will only make things a tiny bit better. Less bad than the Tories would—but failing to deliver the scale or the vision or the policies needed to address the multiple crises now battering Britain. And what then? Either Labour summons up a state intervention that actually engages with reality or it risks getting booted out after once term in office—banished to the sidelines again as another wave of divisive, right-populist hate-mongers charm their way back in to power, determined to starve the welfare state and our remaining public services to death.

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