On 4 April, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner were proclaimed Labour’s new leader and deputy, and the Labour right won all three by-elections for the National Executive Committee, against a divided field of left candidates.
The left should neither rally to Starmer uncritically (as some have done), nor give up on the fight inside the Labour Party (as others have suggested).
1. Demand fight against the Tories
The media reports that Starmer and his inner circle think it is clever and “statesmanlike” to refrain from too vocal criticism of the Tory government in the Covid-19 crisis. This is wrong.
It is not surprising the government has had a boost in support, despite its poor response to the epidemic. This crisis is like a war, and governments usually achieve a rallying-round in the early periods of wars. Disillusionment and rebellion are likely later, but a lot depends on the groundwork laid now.
The labour movement should be criticising and attacking the Tories on numerous issues, and proposing alternatives. Refusal to do so can only prolong and strengthen their ability to avoid widespread outrage as their failings mount up.
Before the crisis, Labour did very little campaigning outside elections. This was surely a factor in the 2019 defeat. It needs to change. Even while mass demonstrations and meetings are not possible, many other forms of campaigning are. We must awaken the party from its sleep.
We should absolutely oppose Labour joining a national unity government or similar. Practical cooperation against the epidemic should not imply political support.
2. Organise an opposition
Swathes of Labour’s organised right and hard-right backed Starmer, many of them very open about a desire to defeat and marginalise the left. His Shadow Cabinet shows a careful but clear shift to the right, or at least centre. Angela Rayner’s record gives no reason to think she will provide a major counterweight.
The left needs to start organising for clear, positive, radical goals. That will clearly involve conflict with the new leadership. We need a left-wing opposition.
Left-wing MPs should help the grassroots left organise. They should not take positions in Starmer’s administration.
3. Fight for Labour democracy
A lot will depend on the ability of Labour members to organise and bring pressure to bear for radical politics and demands. That implies stepping up the fight to democratise the party: above all, demanding a democratic conference which actually decides policy and campaigning.
No accident that former Blair official John McTernan, in his proposals for how Starmer should utilise his victory to smash the left, makes further downgrading Labour conference central.
If we had won the principle of conference sovereignty under Corbyn, we would be in a vastly stronger position. The left should unite and campaign to win a sovereign conference as well as other democratic reforms like open selection of MPs.
We should become a megaphone for the radical policies passed by conference but not campaigned for – on reversing cuts, council housing, the Green New Deal, repealing anti-union laws, migrants’ rights, undoing NHS privatisation and many other issues.
The left must make a democratic conference, the carrying out of conference policy and getting the party campaigning around its policies central.
4. Be radical
Conference policy is not particularly radical – it only looks like it measured against what Labour has (sort of) campaigned for.
Beyond fighting for conference policies to be implemented, we need more radical ideas, to shift the debate in a socialist direction.
The current crisis demands this kind of radicalism. Why has Labour not argued for public ownership of the big supermarkets and the creation of a publicly-owned delivery system guaranteeing supplies for those in need?
To weather the crisis in the interests of the majority and to rebuild on a new basis afterwards, the demand for public ownership of banking and finance – agreed by TUC Congress in 2012 and 2019, but left in a drawer – makes perfect sense.
More broadly, we need to argue for a radically transformed society, based on common ownership and democratic control – socialism.
5. Be internationalist
The Covid-19 crisis should be a stark reminder that the challenges facing humanity require international action and solidarity.
In the face of the insurgent nationalist right, layers of the left have capitulated to the lure of “patriotism”. We must reassert internationalism as the heart of socialist politics.
Internationalism begins at home, with migrants’ rights. The mistreatment and scapegoating of migrants in this crisis makes standing up for solidarity urgent.
We must insist the party campaigns for the policies won at last year’s conference by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement – policies which are now even more relevant and important.
• Adapted with thanks from The Clarion