Left ideas live on in the Labour party – if we argue for them : Sam Browse


“The Corbyn leadership has left an inspiring legacy – a mass politics that dared to argue for the fundamental transfer of wealth & power necessary to build a better world. It falls to us to defend it.”

Sam Browse

Sir Keir Starmer is the new leader of the Labour Party. Within hours of the result, opponents of the Corbyn leadership have asserted that this represents a decisive break with the “failed experiment of Corbynism”, citing Starmer’s undoubtedly impressive mandate from members. This analysis should be completely rejected.

While the result signifies a defeat for the organised left – certainly Rebecca Long Bailey was the preferred candidate – it would be wrong to assume that it means an end to the left’s influence in the party.

Starmer did not run as a candidate of the Blairite or old right, nor as a “centrist”. His campaign sought to position him as a charismatic “electable” figure, but also – crucially – as an adherent of the policy platform of the last five years. His ten pledges were frustratingly short on detail, but covered all the same talking points that the left has traditionally advanced.

The coalition this platform put together comprised both the opponents of the old leadership, who were happy to unite behind any candidate not of the left, but also a layer of people who had previously supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. The conclusion this latter group drew from the 2019 election was not necessarily that the policies were wrong, but that they required someone more “media friendly” to present them.

It would be incorrect, then, to assume that the leadership results spell the defeat for left politics in the party. There will be a push from some for Starmer to move away from the pledges he set out in his campaign. The initial stages of this will take the form of redefining the terms of the debate. This should be resisted.

Take, for example, the ‘common ownership’ pledge. It reads ‘pubic services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders’. First, we need to ensure that this pledge stays on the political agenda. Second, we need to define what it means for a public service to be in public hands. The pledge also calls for ‘common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water’. Obviously we should support common ownership of these services, but it has to mean something more than, say, simply encouraging the proliferation of start-up energy co-ops.

It’s for this reason that it’s vital the left continues to develop its own ideological infrastructure to develop its own coherent – and convincing – position on these issues. It’s heartening to read that Corbyn is thinking of establishing a think-tank. Richard Burgon’s suggestion of a political school, aptly named after Tony Benn, should also be pursued.

The key task in the coming weeks and months will be to ensure that our ideas are not phased out during the debate over the future policy direction of the Labour Party. Figures like Ian Lavery have rightly sought to make the 2019 manifesto a rallying point for this.

While it’s small comfort to a left that is used to gaining large majorities under Jeremy Corbyn, the 28% for Rebecca Long Bailey provides a solid organisational base from which to make the arguments. Richard Burgon’s very well-organised campaign for deputy leader demonstrates how the left can continue to set the terms of debate on issues ranging from party democracy and public ownership, to political education and foreign policy.

The weaknesses the ongoing pandemic has exposed in our economy, our rights in the workplace, our health and social care services, and the benefit system also demonstrate that those arguments are more relevant than ever. Whether it’s the distribution of food, or the return of foreign nationals trapped abroad, it’s clear that the market is failing to provide answers to the challenges the public health crisis poses.

Some might argue that this is too partisan – that our approach should be constructive support of the government. But political partisanship does not consist in outlining better solutions to the challenges people face during the COVID-19 crisis, but in rejecting them on the basis that they fail to return profits to private businesses. Now, more than ever, is the time to hold government to account on these issues.

The Labour left, then, maybe knocked down, but not out. As Tony Benn once said, ‘there is no final defeat’. A new struggle begins – to ensure that the ideas we have championed in these last five years stay on the agenda, and that they remain embedded in the soul of the Labour Party. The Corbyn leadership has left an inspiring legacy – a mass politics that dared to argue for the fundamental transfer of wealth and power necessary to build a better world. It falls to us to defend it.

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