Congratulations to Helen Morgan, emphatic victor in the North Shropshire by-election. The electorate’s revulsion at government hypocrisy was matched only by their sophistication in how to best register their protest.
As in Eastbourne over Thatcher and poll tax, or Newbury, Eastleigh and Christchurch over the ERM fiasco and ‘back to basics’, the voters chose the Liberal Democrats to send a booming signal to the governing Conservatives. Ms Morgan joins David Bellotti, David Rendel, and Diana Maddock in the pantheon of Lib Dems to take seats from the Tories in showstopping by-election victories (although sharp-eyed readers will spot another pattern there too).
The victory was accompanied by the traditional squeeze on the Labour vote, as Labour supporters ‘lent’ their votes to Sir Ed Davey for a very specific purpose. The scale of the swing, though, shows that it was Tory switchers wot won it, as well as the majority who stayed in the warm on Thursday.
There is already a chorus demanding ‘a progressive alliance’ to repeat the feat in a general election. Some of the loudest voices calling for a pact with the people who brought us the Bedroom Tax are the self-defined ‘left’ of the Labour Party. It tells us a great deal about the disarray and demoralisation of the myriad grouplets and factions which once coalesced around the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership that some desire to form a pact with Sir Ed Davey.
Take the long essay by Jeremy Gilbert for Momentum this week. Gilbert, doyenne of Momentum and Compass, is one of those Labour Party members who thinks his role is to change the Labour Party into something else. His essay reveals the widespread chaos and confusion on the hard left since Keir Starmer won the leadership.
He begins, like so many Corbynites, with Israel. Starmer’s refusal to sign Labour up to the boycott of Israeli goods and services (like the German SPD, which felt the idea has an uncanny resemblance to the 1933 Nazi policy of Judenboycott) is cited as a reasonable reason for Corbynites to leave the Labour Party, joining the ‘hundreds of thousands’ who have done so in 2021.
This, says Gilbert, is a ‘catastrophic mistake’. You should stay in the Labour Party, not because you like our leaders or policies, but because you oppose them. Indeed, perversely you should stay because ‘Keir Starmer wants you to leave the Labour Party.’
There is zero equivocation as to who the real enemy is: Keir Starmer ‘the political enemy of anyone who is even vaguely on the left of the Labour Party’. This is the ritual denunciation of the ‘leadership’ from every hard-left writer since Trotsky’s Transitional Programme which begins with ‘the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat’ and ends with ‘the present crisis in human culture is the crisis in the proletarian leadership.’ It’s all Keef’s fault, innit.
Gilbert’s argument reveals the torturous dilemma of those who joined the Labour Party in 2015, drawn in from various mailing lists, extra-parliamentary campaigns, and other political parties, because they saw a chance to turn it into something else. Some wanted a broad-based anti-capitalist campaigning organisation like Occupy or Podemos.
Others, with Lenin and Trotsky as their guide, saw a chance to weevil their way to control Labour’s assets and sprinkle transitional demands like confetti. Gilbert admits that ‘many people joined the party between 2015 and 2019 hoping that Jeremy Corbyn could transform the party into an ideologically uniform vehicle for socialism’. This is a straightforward honest admission that the influx of membership during the 2015 leadership and afterwards was mostly people from other traditions and organisations entering Labour to subvert its values, aims and policies.
Now the jig is up, some have left to join Galloway’s Workers’ Party, or gone back to the SWP, or started the somewhat-misnamed ‘Breakthrough’ Party. Some of the leavers met this week to give each other made-up awards and pat each other on the back. These people are described by Gilbert as ‘perfectly understandable, on the face of it, laudable’ for their decision to leave. Others have been booted out for breaking Labour’s rules on racism, or entryism, or supporting other parties.
But Gilbert’s argument is aimed at the remainders of the class of 2015, who are still inside the Labour Party, but confused to be now surrounded by people who quite like Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Bridget Phillipson and the rest, who want to organise election campaigns, and aren’t too bothered about Cuba. It’s called ‘culture shock’ – the disorientation caused by a sudden change of environment.
So why does Gilbert want to rally the remnants of Corbyn’s Grande Armée? To vote for left-wing candidates for Labour’s NEC of course. This, never forget, is the main purpose: internal control, not electoral success. To fail to see this is as the primary purpose of socialists is to think like a ‘liberal’ and be motivated by ‘individual self-worth’. No matter how miserable you are, and how unwell it makes you, give your money and time to the party you disagree with. Gilbert admits that Momentum’s attempts to infiltrate local Labour has been ‘fairly futile’, but never mind. This, he says, is the strategy of ‘stay and sulk’ – stop actively supporting Labour through your activism, but pay your subs to vote in internal elections.
Worse, you mustn’t ‘base your politics on identification with individuals: that’s for liberals and followers of demagogues’. Hear that? No more chanting, and throw away your knitted Corbyn dolls.
In the next paragraph Gilbert identifies the real enemy, not ‘the Labour Party’ or even the values and ethos of Labour, but ‘only certain members’ and you can guess who they are. The advice here is plainly explained: ‘yes it is true that the right-wing hate and despise us. So let us hate and despise them back.’
The fact is that thousands of people find themselves marooned inside the Labour, amidst a turning tide. They joined expecting something different, and now they’re perplexed by being in a mainstream centre-left political party dedicated to electoral success. If you’re one of them, my advice is to ignore Momentum’s Jeremy Gilbert and not sulk or hate. Sulking and hating are not healthy political motivations, and you will make yourself unwell. Instead, consider this: the enemy is poverty, not David Evans. The enemy is inequality, not Wes Streeting. Our values across the broad spectrum of the ‘left’ (yes Progressive Britain is part of it too) are similar or even the same.
Our disagreement is methodology. If you were told the best way to enact your values is shouting loudly, calling people names, or talking about a revolution, then you’ve been misled. In a parliamentary democracy the route to change is via the ballot box, as the result in North Shropshire may prove. And as Clause 1 makes it clear, Labour members must support Labour, not other parties, even as part of some beguiling ‘progressive alliance’. There’s an election coming, and people must vote Labour in record numbers. If you can sign up to that, and observe some basic rules and regulations, then welcome to our party.