Keir Starmer has won the Labour leadership election, but it’s not yet clear what that will mean. Politics-as-usual has suspended for the moment anyway – will there be a conference this year? Will any of the things that normally mark a new leader’s tenure even happen? At this stage, it’s all deeply unclear.
What is clear is that a variety of people in the party will be considering their futures within it. This will include such dubious wings as the family-faith-and-flag types who still cleave to Blue Labour, and the crank left who found a home under the previous leadership – the former of which would really be better suited in the latter-day SDP or even the Tories, and the latter of whom will hopefully jog on to places like George Galloway’s new publicity vehicle/party. Keir promises to rip up the stain of antisemitism by its roots, and I think many will choose to jump before they are pushed.
Yet the multitudes considering their future also includes a large number of people who are strongly on the left, who were only drawn to Labour after its recent moves in that direction, and now see it drifting away again. I do believe that the vast majority of such people are fundamentally decent; and I want to share a party and work together with them. Having been rather more sceptical of Corbynism, I don’t count myself amongst them – but I do feel a kinship. I find myself thinking – how should those in my position in the party respond to those more left than us who are thinking of leaving?
Some of these people – particularly those, I think, more left-libertarian or anarchist-inclined – will want to focus their efforts outside of the party, on mutual aid groups, on strengthening unions and activism on housing and climate change and liberation and a multitude of other causes. I don’t see a problem with this – while I think the Labour Party remains the only truly viable vehicle for implementing left-wing policies within electoral politics in this country, I think it is healthy and sensible for there to be a much wider left-wing culture outside of it. In an ideal world there are good links between them – but it is not healthy to see the Labour Party as the only possible vehicle for socialism or social democracy, and I think it’s a mistake we can often make. To those who want to pursue other routes but whose beliefs align with my own, I say: go, do what you feel you must. I believe, though, that the door should remain open for those who decide to take a different path at the present to one day return.
There will be others who will choose to stay. There will be those who have a strong streak of pragmatism, who have close friends and comrades in the party, or who have a local CLP who shares their views, who feel they still have a place. This, too, has value – I do not want to see the Labour party lurch back to the right and to the old formulae of the 00s. It is easy for some, I think, on the Labour right to harken back to a kind of nostalgia for this time: I think this is a mistake. A strong left within Labour keeps it honest; it can put pressure on the leadership to meet, match, and exceed its promises and ambitions. Momentum’s future seems uncertain, but I feel sure that it, or a successor organisation, will continue in some form. Yet this will be met with strong hostility from sections of the party who would like to see anything that feels like the “last five years” run out of town. I think those of us who stand on what was, until recently, the “Corbynsceptic left” must resist this.
To the extent that I feel I have a home within the party myself, it is certainly within Open Labour. The politics it stands for – and the approach it calls for – inherently appeal to my mildly hippy-like soul: fundamentally I do, in the immortal quote from Mean Girls, indeed wish that I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles which everyone would eat from and be happy. I do recognise that this is an essentially wet – soft, perhaps – view: that many of my comrades on the left take, or have taken in these past years, a harder line. Well, now the boot is on the other foot, and there is talk of purges and all the rest, and the time has come once again to choose between the closed fist and the open hand. To be clear, I do not think that those who have perpetrated or given cover to antisemitism, transphobia, Islamophobia, or indeed any other form of bigotry belong in this party; however, more widely, I do not think a scorched-earth attitude to the so-called “hard left” is the right course at all.
Why? I mean, at my core it is because I believe in open politics, but it’s about more than that. It’s about the fact that I want others to, also. For those of us who believe in pluralism in this party, in forgiveness and the breaking of bread, for giving space for mutual reconciliation, for finding as one a route to a better world – there is no better time than this to actually prove that we mean it. If the strongly socialist left of this party feel driven out to the last person, ready to spent another thirty years in the wilderness, then the next time the pendulum of fate swings all that has happened before will happen again. It is the open hand, not the closed fist, that can bring people together, give them the choice and the chance, at least, to work in unison once more. As I have said – I don’t judge anyone for wanting to pursue the politics of the left another way – but I think it is incumbent on all of us to give people a seat at the table.
We live in a time of conflict and fear, climate catastrophe and teetering capital, disease and death; it feels as if the old is dying and the new is born, but what form the newborn age will take is as yet uncertain. I cannot and will not give up on my long-held dream that we shall “love fellowship, and go singing to the fashioning of a new world”. What I beg of those who feel heartbroken by this leadership result is: give us a chance to sing to you, and for you to sing to us, and for us to sing together.