In our editorial of 3rd September we argued that:
“Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party allowed us to imagine the possibility of a left Labour government coming to power via the ballot box. Since Labour betrayed that dream, the majority of socialists still cling to the idea that a new democratic socialist party with Corbyn’s policies could pick up millions of votes. It might not win this time, but next time – who knows?”
This was, in part, a response to a perception of a growing movement on the left who are still in thrall to the parliamentary system. This was shown recently when Transform emerged with some fanfare on left Twitter. Transform is an alliance of Left Unity, the Breakthrough Party, the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL) and Liverpool Community Independents. Interestingly, PAL was a previous, and shortlived, attempt to create this party and included: Breakthrough Party, Northern Independence Party, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and Left Unity; whilst TUSC includes the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) and Resist (the movement started by former Labour MP Chris Williamson). Add to this mix the decisions of Newcastle mayor Jamie O’Driscoll and former MP Emma Dent-Coad to stand as independents and the speculation that Jeremy Corbyn may well contest his Islington seat as an independent, and it is easy to see why there is a certain excitement on the left. The electoral fixation can also be seen in the recently launched Stop Starmer Campaign which, whilst not an attempt to start another new party, is firmly fixated on the electability of Labour. As we concluded in our recent news item:
“Starmer may deserve all the opprobrium heaped upon him by the Stop Starmer Campaign, but we have to be careful that anger and frustration after the dashed hopes of the Corbyn period do not lead us into futile campaigns that have little hope of success and will only deepen the despondency and demoralisation of the participants. In truth Labour is favourite to win the next election whatever the left does. There are millions of voters who are sick of the Tories, as against thousands of us who are sick of both Labour and the Tories. They will not be moved by abstract demands to defend democracy.
Instead of Stop Starmer, let us Start Socialism.
Critical Mass has no ambition to become a party and also no desire to be a cynical voice, far less an ultra leftist one pretending it has all the answers. We don’t even think we have all the questions. But what we do see is the same people in different organisations supporting a dream of electoral success by standing as a left alternative to Labour. But in the same way that Labour simply not being the Tories seems to us to be a poor electoral strategy, even if it turns out to be successful, so standing as ‘Not The Labour Party’ feels even less ambitious, and not just because it is unlikely to be successful. Whilst a campaign fixated on Starmer just sums up the pessimism of a large section of the left who would find solace in an entirely negative campaign. If this were able to succeed, which is doubtful, it would probably mean, at best, a hung parliament.
It is true that in 2017 Labour achieved 12.8 million votes. But we should not forget that, although this was on a very left wing manifesto in 2015, on a less ambitious manifesto, Ed Miliband’s Labour received 9.3 million votes. So the Corbyn premium, if we can call it that, was 3.5 million votes. A considerable number of votes but not enough to win the election, nor to be a serious breakaway party. Besides, in 2019 Labour only got 10.2 million votes, and even then, Corbyn still got a larger share of the vote than any other Labour Leader since Blair. Given that those committed to the Corbyn cause were still voting Labour, the Corbyn premium was 0.9 million votes. This is not an insubstantial number but is it enough to make a left party viable.
Not all of those 900,000 voters were activists, but this is the base if we are to form a viable party. Of course, there are those who don’t vote, but to be honest if they wouldn’t vote for Labour led by Corbyn why would they vote for a socialist party led by an ex-MP who most will never have heard of? There are also young voters who could not vote in 2017 and 2019 and who would, in all likelihood, have supported Corbyn, who was, for all sorts of reasons, very popular with the young.
But, without being cynical, we have to point out that ‘socialist’ parties standing outside the banner of Labour have not fared well in British general elections. That’s not to say that they never will, but we see no particular grounds for optimism in the current climate. All the more the shame because Britain’s electoral system could do with the shake up a strong, electorally popular, socialist party could give it.
We understand that those committed to forming a new party, or new parties if that is what emerges, will not let little inconveniences like facts or history get in their way. And, come the election, they will certainly have our support against Labour (for what that is worth). But we feel that the left needs a different project at present if it is to become any kind of force to be reckoned with.
We note that the left of the 2020s, whilst not entirely bereft of policies, lacks a coherent position on many issues. Some members of the ultra left are quick to point this out, but without providing any alternative except their own tendency to believe that whatever they propose is true socialism. Perhaps it is, but we are not entirely convinced. Neither are we convinced by policies that remain popular with much of the left but are simply stated as either important or an improvement with little in the way of argument.
Policies tend to be framed in the most general terms possible and are also a response to the current political environment. For example, Transform have a list of principles including “seeking to redistribute wealth and power from the elite to the people”. We agree, but, if we are going to vote for you, we want to know how you intend to do that within a capitalist system that has traditionally seen the wealth flow in exactly the opposite direction?
We think that, if we can start addressing these questions, the left can be much stronger intellectually. It is not enough to say ‘get rid of capitalism’, unless we can be clearer about what we are replacing it with. Just saying ‘socialism’ doesn’t help much, because there are as many definitions of socialism as there are socialists.
We invite you to be part of our project to develop a ‘manifesto for socialism’. We want to try to move our thinking away from just reacting to whatever issue confronts us and get back to basics, to politics, to a vision of a better future. In short to Start Socialism. We want thinking socialists (which we hope are the majority) to contribute to a process of developing a proto-manifesto which we can compare to what is on offer from other parties. We will be able to see how current offerings match up. We will also be able to see which parties, if any, might be worth supporting.
The reason for doing this is not simply to help us decide who to vote for now that Labour has lost the right to have the votes of the left as a taken for granted; but also to sharpen our focus in arguments. In some ways this might seem a long-winded way of deciding what is worth supporting, but let us not ignore amongst the calls for unity on the left just how deep some of the divisions are. It is not just personal, but sometimes seems more than political, but whatever, there are socialists who refuse to talk to one another, refuse to collaborate, will not share a platform with those from other parties and whose disagreements go far beyond whether this or that policy is correct. Most of this is inevitable. Despite what some might think, socialists are not paragons of virtue and certainly not paragons of logic, often taking positions on the basis that somebody else believes the opposite.
Too much left thinking is oppositional. If they are for it, we are against it. If they are backed by those we don’t trust, whoever they are against we must support. If a policy is introduced by the Conservatives (or increasingly Labour) it must be wrong. Some of this is simply lazy thinking. It allows us to take strong positions which have no basis in anything but our own sense of right. At times it can feel as if we are only content when we are in a tiny minority. And, at times, of course, we will be a tiny minority. Not out of choice but because our voices are being drowned out by a one-sided propaganda machine or because we have no audience for our ideas. And, even if we do, we have not perfected the arguments we need to convince people, who themselves have been deluged by right-wing ideology, to come over to our side.
Start Socialism cannot fix everything that is wrong with the left, nor the world, by an effort of will alone. But what we can do is start to develop a socialism that is fit for the times we live in. A socialism that, whilst acknowledging its past, can move beyond it. A socialism that people leaning leftward can both understand and contribute to. And a socialism that is relevant to the people whose lives it is aiming to transform.
We invite you to join us in a series of debates to develop something new and fresh that is, at the same time, true to our collective values and roots.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.