Updated: Jan 15
1 November 2020
One stand out reaction to the news is that we were all blindsided. We really did not expect the Spanish Inquisition, writes Dave Kellaway. The right, the mainstream media, the left media and the left as a whole all failed to see this coming.
Most commentators excluded this scenario because they imagined that Starmer would be cautious in stirring up a membership and trade unions like Unite who are still supportive or sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn, even those who gave their vote pragmatically to a new leader. The prevailing wisdom was that Starmer had to stick to his ten Corbynite pledges to win the leadership and would then gradually water them down thereby keeping the party united.
However, with hindsight, the signs were there that Starmer was going to be much more decisive and brutal against a Corbynist opposition than Jeremy was with the right-wing. There was the Long-Bailey sacking and then the tough line over the immunity for British Soldiers bill and the spy cops legislation.
The fact that he was able to split the opposition to the spy cops bill so that a number of MPs elected on a Corbynista platform were cajoled into supporting the party line must have got him thinking about how solid the Socialist Campaign group of MPs were going to be. He has worked out that some of them are not prepared to die in a ditch for Corbyn particularly if a promising political career is dangled in front of them.
His leadership team is much more homogenous and solidly behind him than Corbyn’s shadow cabinet had ever been. Of course, everything is easier for you if the establishment and mainstream media do not see you as a threat in any way and you are going with the grain of the traditional ‘conservative’ bias of the parliamentary party, apparatus and local government cadre.
Timing is of the essence in politics and if you want to clean up Labour and embed a new leadership it is best to get it done well before you get into any serious electoral confrontation. The Covid pandemic also facilitates the operation since political organisation has to be by Zoom. Mass meetings in support of Corbyn or demonstrations will be difficult and there is no Labour conference for a good while. So why not go for it now.
Clearly, the decision was not arrived at on the day, after Corbyn’s statement. Starmer might want the media to believe that but it comes from a playbook that has been discussed at least within his close leadership team. Soundings have been made. The fact that deputy leader, Rayner, contacted Jeremy to warn him off making a statement criticising any aspect of the ECHR report shows that it was a worked-out position.
Starmer and his team feel that this is the best terrain on which to roll back Corbynism in the party rather than on questions such as the Green New Deal. The mainstream media had done a lot of the dirty work and errors made by Murphy and Formby on some of the anti-Semitism cases allows him to build up his case. Even if you agree broadly with Jeremy on his statement it does not mean the anti-Semitism crisis could not have been handled better.
Maybe it is too early to see whether Starmer wants just to slap down Corbyn as a symbolic break with the past or intends a thoroughgoing purge. The problem is to some extent taken out of his hands if other MPs or Labour members actively support Jeremy’s position. You cannot just suspend one person if many others express the same line. The logic of a purge is persuasive.
It is difficult to imagine that Corbyn will retract his statement. He had plenty of time to prepare it and to retract – apart from raising ugly echoes of the Stalinist show trials – would be like stabbing himself in the back, disowning his whole political history.
A further complication is a lengthy letter from the Campaign against Anti-Semitism demanding Starmer act against many other figures on the Labour left. Will Starmer give them what they want?
On social media, I have seen lots of resignation posts and even in our local Labour Party branch, several people have resigned. Both Jeremy and John McDonnell have said keep calm and fight the suspension inside Labour. I agree.
We need to build a massive defence campaign involving all sectors of the party and particularly the trade unions. Unite and the CWU leaders have both defended Corbyn. Starmer gives the impression he is prepared to face down McCluskey, he feels he can get funds from business.
But let us be realistic, what do we do if Corbyn is expelled? To avoid this one side or the other would have to compromise. It would be difficult for the right to carry this through, but not impossible.
I suppose some people might suggest tactically you abandon Corbyn and keep plugging away to rebuild the left in local progressive councils or by arguing your points on the NEC. But if Corbyn goes it means that nobody on the left will be allowed to repeat his position on the report. It will be effectively a self-purging. How can you build a left that does not defend its own principles?
What will Corbyn do? His whole political strategy has been based on transforming Labour and linking it to the broader workers movement and the campaigns. He has been the most left social democratic leader the party has ever produced.
We have sometimes joked the only way someone like him will split from Labour is if he is expelled.
Well, this may well happen. Will he then see the only way of keeping faith with the movement to call for a socialist movement independent of Labour? It would still be a big step and there could be intermediary moves that could be taken – an inside/outside project.
What will Starmer do? Will he carry through the expulsion of Corbyn? Will it become a thoroughgoing purge? Apparently, the staff at Labour HQ are already trawling social media for people supporting Corbyn’s position.
At lot depends on the scale of and force of a Corbyn defence campaign. Starmer has to work out whether a Corbynista movement outside is more of a threat than trying to contain one inside the Labour Party. Then he might try and cobble together a compromise solution. Obviously, if Starmer climbs down and allows Corbyn to stay without retracting his position it will be seen as a political setback to the political project of remaking Labour safe for capital.
For socialists or people who supported the Corbyn project we need to follow his advice and fight the suspension inside the party (but also definitely outside too) but be prepared to argue for another perspective if he is expelled.
This article was originally posted on the Socialist Resistance website and can be found here.