24 September 2016 gave me a condensed snapshot of the problems which are now generating unease among Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party.
It was the opening day of Labour Party conference. A fringe event sponsored by the pro-Corbyn movement Momentum was just setting up. I knew already that the organisers of the event, The World Transformed, had banned stalls inside the meeting place for left-Labour newspapers and groups. We set up a stall for Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty on the pavement outside the event. We were asked by stewards to move across the road. They were worried about it “looking bad” that there were Trotskyists nearby.
Eventually they backed down. But inside, the Communist Party of Britain’s paper, the Morning Star, was featured on the event’s publicity as a sponsor, and the Morning Star was officially promoted inside the event. At the Labour Party conference itself, just down the road, neither Corbyn’s office nor the Momentum office were trying to use the political “capital” gained by Corbyn’s second Labour-leader election victory to help the great influx of left-minded new Labour members get left-wing policies through the 2016 conference. They made no effort to get Trident renewal onto the conference floor. Where that conference did pass left-wing policies — on the NHS — the Corbyn office has not taken them up.
Jeremy Corbyn had been re-elected leader with an increased majority, 313,209 votes or 61.8%, from a Labour Party membership which has grown now to 540,000 from a demoralised and mostly inactive rump of 150,000 before the 2010 election. Yet a raft of anti-democratic rule changes had been bounced through Labour’s National Executive by the right wing and were then bounced through a conference which was more right-dominated than any since 2009. Labour’s affiliated unions had officially agreed to support some timid but useful democratic changes to Labour Party structures. The Corbyn leadership never took them up on it. The Corbyn office has done nothing to help integrate the hundreds of thousands of new Labour Party members into activity.
Some 618 Labour Party members, many of them people who had remained active without reprisals in the Blair or Brown years, were “auto-excluded” (no hearing, no appeal) during the second leadership campaign, on suspicion of left-wing connections, and thousands suspended. Neither the Corbyn office nor (despite Momentum mandates) the Momentum office opposed the purge. Instead, in January, the Momentum office panicked about the danger of Momentum itself being purged, and respond by attacking the left.
The Labour Party has called no national demonstrations. It has not even mobilised seriously for the NHS demonstration on 4 March. Polls According to the polls now, the Tories now have a 48% to 10% lead over Labour among over-65s; but Corbyn’s Labour still has two-and-a-half times more support than the Tories among 18-24 year olds. Even without changing Blair-era rules, the Corbyn leadership could do a lot to organise and consolidate that support by building up real local Young Labour groups. It has done nothing.
Corbyn and McDonnell were forced to tread with care when Corbyn was first elected. The Parliamentary Labour Party was, and is, right-wing; so is the Labour Party office machine. Established Labour conference policies gave them a little, but not much, to go on. The trouble now is that, increasingly, they are not pushing the envelope, but letting the envelope push them. The Corbyn Leader’s Office talks of socialism less than did the feeble Ed Miliband, who in 2013 claimed he was “bringing back socialism”. The “ten pledges” it drafted for Corbyn in his second leadership contest, and the “relaunch” policies briefly splashed in January, go little beyond what Miliband said, and increasingly are mumbled rather than shouted.
The political root of this drift is what was symbolised by the promotion of the Morning Star at the September 2016 event: Stalinism. In July 2015 we wrote of Corbyn: “He has been a consistent rebel in Parliament against the Labour leadership. His local record of support for workers’ and community struggles, including against local Labour council adminstrations, is excellent.
“But Jeremy Corbyn’s broader politics have changed. Today he writes regularly for the Morning Star, the paper linked to the Communist Party of Britain, which bills him as ‘a friend of the Star’.
“People voting for Corbyn for Labour leader will be voting to support battles against cuts, to solidarise with immigrants, and to uphold the right to strike.
“That’s good. But to build something solid out of it, we also need broader political ideas. And, there, the ideas and the spirit of the Morning Star will undermine us...” (Solidarity 370, 3 July 2015).
Corbyn’s Leader’s Office is dominated by the former Guardian journalist Seumas Milne and by people close to Andrew Murray, chief of staff of the Unite union. Milne’s political formation was in the Stalinist sect “Straight Left”.
“Another Straight Lefter was Andrew Murray... Milne, like Murray, is still a Stalinist. Writing for the Guardian, as he has done for many years, he puts his views in urbane double-negative form, but he is still a Stalinist... Operators used to snuggling into the established political and media machines, ideologically imbued with and trained over decades in ‘top-down’ politics, will not serve Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and us well in opening up and revitalising the Labour Party” (Solidarity 382, 28 October 2015).
In December 2016, Momentum voted to call a democratic conference. In preparation for a 10 January coup in which they would annul the conference and all Momentum’s elected structures, Momentum officials engineered a media storm. We commented: “In the media storm... the great warehouse of Stalinist slurs against Trotskyists has been called into use...” (Solidarity 425, 9 December 2016).
Stalinist ideas were drilled into swathes of labour movements and the left in decades when activists could see the USSR (or Cuba, China, Albania) as practical examples of the alternative to capitalism. Today we have a more demoralised Stalinists and Stalinoids: while sometimes loud in denunciation of Tory misdeeds, they generally see no further in positive policy than what were only stepping stones for Stalinism in its heyday: economic nationalism, bureaucratic state-directed economic development...
The Article 50 fiasco, and the Labour leaders’ waffle about a “People’s Brexit”, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left. Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation fits with the Blairite heritage: “policy development” means not debate in the rank and file leading up to conference decisions, but formulas handed down by clever people in the Leader’s Office. The office’s response to the Copeland by-election has been to get another “Straight Left” old-timer, Steve Howell, seconded from the PR company he now owns.
Articles by Christine Shawcroft and Jon Lansman have shown that the motive for the 10 January coup in Momentum was nothing to do with the virtues of online plebiscites (which the post-coup Momentum office will use little). It was about blocking the “hard left”, the “Trotskyists”.
The pressures and blockages on the left-wing Labour leadership cannot be defeated by panic-stricken manipulations, but only by helping the new left-wing members to organise, mobilise, debate, learn, and win democratic control. To do that we must combat the influence of Stalinism and semi-Stalinism.
There are number of other aspects and examples of this phenomenon it would be worth mentioning, in connection with Momentum.
For instance, when Fidel Castro died, Momentum put out a statement which read as a fairly uncritical paean to his regime. So we suddenly discovered that an organisation whose leaders think or pretend to think it would be wrong to have policy on broad areas of Labour Party policy, has a policy on the Cuban government! A policy decided purely by the Momentum office naturally. This was before the 10 January coup, but there was as usual no attempt to consult the elected NC or even the Steering Committee.
I challenged a few central Momentum office people about this, and the responses I got were very instructive. One in particular, which was: I'm not a big fan of Castro myself, but don't know you know this is what the movement thinks, and any way we can't say anything out of step with what Jeremy will be saying. And read the statement carefully, it has hints of a more critical view (sort of true, if you were looking for them very, very hard indeed).
So we see in action the ludicrousness, incoherence and hypocrisy of the idea that Momentum shouldn't or doesn't have policy; the unwillingness to - not even criticise Corbyn - but say anything distinct from him; the falling in with dominant labour movement left "common sense"; but also how in practice this leads to Stalinist or Stalinist-ish positions.
(I wondered if the people clustered around the Momentum office on some level, maybe not fully conscious, admire Cuba's undemocratic but supposedly "progressive" regime, but other comrades told me that was an argument too far...)
A student comrade reports how at recent NCAFC conference, a small group of "Lansmanite" youth turned up to move a motion arguing that the left should support withdrawal from the EU, that defending free movement from the EU countries somehow cuts against arguing for migrants' rights more generally, and that only after the EU has been broken up can a socialist Europe emerge. (They were heavily defeated.) In other words: a Stalinist or at least Stalinist-influenced position.
Meanwhile, although out and out Stalinists are relatively small minority among young supporters of the Momentum "leadership", they are treated with friendly acceptance by the majority, and their repulsive references to Stalinist witch-hunting and slaughter of Trotskyists in the 1930s - "Correct position", "Vigilance", "Clear them out" and so on - have become common usage in these circles. I suspect that as things develop many of young careerists are adopting elements of their politics, no doubt in softened form, too. Are we seeing a renewal of official labour movement Stalinism for a new generation?
All this is not without contradictions: for instance, many of those working or volunteering at the Momentum office are apparently unhappy about the Labour leadership's retreat on free movement and migrants' rights. We should not fall into scatter-gun or indiscriminate use of terms like Stalinist. But to deny the influence of Stalinism in Momentum is to ignore the facts, and we need to challenge the better people around the leadership about this.