“They didn’t trip, fall & land on another way to attack the party membership… this is part of their project.”Ronan Burtenshaw
Patrick Foley of ‘Labour Outlook’ sat down with Ronan Burtenshaw, the Editor of ‘Tribune’ Magazine, for an in-depth discussion on the Labour Left and the concerns being raised around Labour Party democracy.
With many Labour members and supporters feeling that the task of opposing the Tories has been left up to the wider Labour movement, we asked Ronan to set out the challenges facing the left and look at whether we can show the Leadership that a more powerful vision is needed.
Ronan explained that the left is facing a difficult situation, with Keir Starmer’s strategy aimed at doing away with the broader movement in favour of a “Westminster style” political operation. The member engagement and democracy sought under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was seen to take away “the ability of a small group of advisors, with focus groups and corporate consultants,” to dictate policy.
The goal is to build a “middle of the road message” that doesn’t challenge “any one with any particular power in British society.” Thus, leaving the Labour party (in their eyes) “in a position to win an election should the Tories become unpopular” and also leaving the party less open to attacks from the right wing tabloids, who as we know “routinely go after left wing people.”
One problem of course with this approach currently is that it shows no signs they will actually win. Another is that it alienates large swathes of the party’s membership.
“They didn’t trip, fall and land on another way to attack the party membership… this is part of their project.” Ronan further detailed that “each time a crisis emerges, they’re taking another step to undermine democratic rights of Labour members” with the goal of driving left wing members out of the party.
This is particularly worrying as the left of the party in recent years has been much more representative of party members’ views – fighting big business interests in politics, trying to redistribute wealth and power, creating a Green New Deal and rebuilding the welfare state.
So what can we do to fight back? Those of us who are interested in a “more fundamentally transformative politics” have to align our campaigns with “broad popular demands for change.”
“As the Labour leadership disappears off into some swampy middle ground,” the Left needs to look at the deep crises effecting people’s lives and articulate demands that are “genuinely transformative.” This includes campaigns directly around the Covid Crisis including Statutory Sick Pay, overhauling the Universal Credit System or ensuring the Furlough Scheme has a minimum wage floor.
On top of these key issues, Ronan highlighted the bigger demands we need to be making – particularly that of NHS reform.
Picking out the Tories White Paper on the health service, he explained that the crisis has exposed “their way of dealing with the NHS for the entire decade of Government” and going all the way back to when Thatcher introduced the internal market. This white paper allowed the system of private involvement in the NHS to remain, “it only the slightly changed the tendering process.” But the Labour Leadership missed an opportunity to articulate their vision.
We could have been addressing the “massive outsourcing of cleaners,” the disgraceful Serco and Sitel outsourcing situation, hospital trusts being underfunded or the 40,000 nurse shortage at the beginning of the pandemic. The Labour Party “is not putting it’s shoulder to the wheel under this leadership” and Ronan argues that the left should be doing just that.
Other broader demands mention included the fight for the Green New Deal or for change in Trade Union laws. The risk, Ronan believes, is that the Labour party gets framed as being “irrelevant to working class people.”
However, what gives us power, “is that the left’s demands reflect the aspirations of millions of people in the economy and the political system. Until we are seen to represent that, it will be difficult to put pressure of Keir Starmer.
So how do we get our message into the mainstream and show that our demands match with the demands being made across society?
For a left-wing party opposing a government that has “hopelessly mismanaged the covid situation” there should have been plenty of opportunities to land blows on the Tories. And where there is a debate around corporation tax rises, Labour could “marry that to a question of pay rises for key workers and you would talk about covid justice.”
Going forward, Ronan argues that we need to ensure that we do not go back into another wave of austerity six months down the line. With the economy “in the tank after not only this crisis… but a decade of stagnant growth before it” people need real investment and support.
The jobs crisis needs to be addressed and in particular, problems laid bare by the pandemic like the use of “fire and rehire” tactics against workers, record numbers of unemployment, and bogus self-employment that don’t entitle people to support.
“This pandemic exposed the underbelly of the British economy.”
The Tribune editor explained that we need to clearer about these issues and “be building it into a broader case for Covid justice” where we resolve the social issues that have arisen and push for greater equality in our economy.
Asked about the future of the Labour party democracy under Keir Starmer, particularly the concerns raised over the gagging orders on Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension and the removal of mayoral candidates in Liverpool, Ronan’s message was clear.
“100,000 or more members have left since Keir Starmer became leader and not a single tear will have been shed over that.” Ronan continued to draw the conclusion that this leadership doesn’t want an active membership, using comments made by Labour General Secretary David Evans as an example towards this.
He fears that this relationship, coupled with deals struck to bring in corporate donors and sponsors, will move the Labour party further and further to the right on key policy positions – “Politics is a transactional affair for them.”
The question then, Ronan asked, is what to do about this?
“Real political change takes a long time.” Although we may have missed an opportunity to reform the party to be more member orientated under Corbyn, it’s far better for activists to continue the fight within the Labour party for a truly transformative agenda than to leave in protest.
He pointed to the huge shifts in national attitudes achieved under Corbyn’s leadership – from the economy, nationalisation, public health and in other areas and that the reason for this was that “10 years of economic stagnation was met with real answers from Corbyn that had to be answered.”
The discussion ended on a clear message. Stay in the party, get organised for socialist policies and build for the future.