Heroes and Villains

Ann Marcial’s remarks about Keir Starmer being a villain in a recent issue of the Sunday Socialist should make us all stop and think. It used to be the case that differences within the Labour and Trade Union movement were framed in political terms. It was not about who was good or bad but who was right or wrong. And you could have a furious disagreement with somebody over one policy while being comrades in arms when it came to something else.

For example, let us consider Zionism and NATO. Nowadays these issues are articles of faith for the Labour establishment. If you try and challenge on either of these issues, you are likely to be expelled from the party or lose the Labour whip if you are an MP. This was not always the case.

In 1947 the New Statesman published a pamphlet by MPs Michael Foot, Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo called Keep Left. They were against NATO and proposed an alliance of democratic forces in Europe that could maintain our independence from both Russia and the USA. They were fiercely opposed by Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was one of the architects of NATO. But here is the rub. Mikardo was a committed Zionist, while both Bevin and Crossman were, at that time, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. In Starmer’s Labour Party these giants of Labour history could all have lost the Labour whip.

Starmer is a villain: but not because he was deliberately inserted into Labour to subvert its socialist principles. Labour right-wingers have been doing that for years. His villainy derives from his insistence that all who oppose him are villains. We are simultaneously ‘Tory Enablers’ and ‘Putin’s Puppets’. He does not challenge our ideas. He questions our motivation.

This creates a danger for us. We are tempted to uncritically rally around anyone who falls foul of Starmer and his sidekicks and turn them into heroes. But you can support someone because they have been wronged without endorsing them because they are right. Take Corbyn as an example. He has been foully treated by the Labour Party. But his naivete in believing that the right wing would unite behind him in a general election to oust the Tories contributed to his downfall.

Starmer is undoubtedly a bad man and Corbyn is a good man. But we have to critically support our heroes and not sanctify them. And it is not just Corbyn. The left-wing MPs and advisors around him seem more committed to the Labour Party than they are to socialism. For them the immediate task of ousting the Tories takes precedence over everything else and, as the only immediate alternative is Labour, they will always submit to the leadership.

By the same token, it is not enough to demonise the Labour right as traitors to the cause. We have to understand them and the constituency they represent. Starmer is the front man of a tendency that is strongly entrenched within the Labour Party and has been since its inception. They may advocate reform, but not if it means undermining the British state or the capitalist system. They are essentially technocrats. While the Tories acknowledge the class struggle and want to win it, the Starmerites see it as an error not a feature of capitalism and they wish it would go away.

At Critical Mass we do not believe that Labour was ever a socialist party. But it was a party that drew in a lot of socialists for whom the party became the focus that shaped their political activity. It is time to refocus, and, if we are to build a new party, we have to learn from the experience of the Labour Party and not repeat the errors of the past.

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