Left wing Labour members arrived for their party’s conference in Brighton on Saturday amid big questions and debates about their future.
Activists debated “socialist strategy after Jeremy Corbyn” at the parallel festival The World Transformed. Meanwhile delegates on the conference floor faced a losing battle against the party machine.
Left wing members are organising desperately to stop moves by Keir Starmer to give MPs more power in party leadership elections.
It comes amid reports of swathes of left wing delegates being suspended before conference even began—and after at least 100,000 members have quit under Starmer’s leadership.
Some Labour members at the World Transformed event talked of dramatic falls of left wing members turning up at their local party meetings.
“When Jeremy Corbyn was leader we had so many people at our meetings,” one told Socialist Worker. “Now under Keir Starmer so many have left or don’t want to come to meetings anymore.”
Others talked about the silencing effect that the leadership’s war on the membership has had.
Richard Kuper is a member of Jewish Voice for Labour. He told a meeting party members had to answer, “How do we do this organising, particularly in the Labour Party, when there is a purge being carried out this very moment against socialists?”
Many activists at the meeting said left wing Labour members had to build support for campaigns outside the party.
Leo from Bristol said, “The most important thing you should be doing is organising your workplace. And if you don’t know how to do that then people need to train you how to do it.
“If your union is resistant to proper organising then we need to be working out how to take over those committees and branches and to force that stuff through.”
A couple of people said Labour left organisation Momentum should open up its membership to people outside the party to become more outward looking.
“I really believe we need to be in the Labour Party,” said one. “I think the least demoralised of us are those of us who are in the Labour Party who have a left community.”
She added, “Those who are most at risk of being isolated and demoralised are those who are not in that left community. Momentum really has a role to play in finding those members and bringing them back into the left community because it’s so important that we stay together.”
Another member, Hillary from Hackney South, asked, “Where do we find some kind of hub that can connect all the different movements which are growing up?
“After 2019 what kept me going was fighting privatisation of Homerton Hospital, fighting the sacking of teachers. Then suddenly there was all the attacks on Labour Party people and all the energies got sucked into this internal battle.
“On the one hand I wanted to support the comrades that were being victimised, but on the other hand I wanted my energies to be reaching out.”
Yet at the same time, most at the meeting also thought it was important to stay in Labour, and keep trying to fight internal battles against the right.
As one told Socialist Worker, “We’ve only got a choice between the Tories and Labour. I’d still rather a Labour government and it’s important we stay to make it keep left wing policies.”
The World Transformed organisers said it was a priority to defeat changes to Labour’s rules proposed by Starmer.
Starmer wants to increase the number of MPs’ nominations needed for a candidate to stand in future leadership elections. This would make it harder for a left wing candidate to get on the ballot paper.
He had wanted to go further and make the votes of MPs count for a full third in any leadership election. Union leaders made him back down before conference—but approved the new planned change that the left wing membership still want to defeat.
And in a potential sign of things to come, the left lost a vote to reject the appointment of David Evans as general secretary. He has overseen the war on party members. Delegates from the Unison and GMB unions voted to back Evans, in a card vote where union members’ ballots count for half.
Left wing party members are still grappling with how they can stay in a party with a machine that wants to silence them or drive them out.
As Alex from Somerset put it at The World Transformed, “It would be nice to be able to organise within Labour. But there are many of us do not have that option due to exclusion by our party structure.
“We’re in a paradox where we need a proper organised structure of the left that can speak collectively. And we cannot trust that to exist within the current party political system.”
John McDonnell learns wrong lessons from Bernie Sanders campaign
The World Transformed hosted an interview by left wing MP John McDonnell with US senator Bernie Sanders.
Sanders stood unsuccessfully to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2020, and now claims to be influencing president Joe Biden to increase public spending.
In fact, Biden has spurned the so-called “progressives” in the Democrats. Even Sanders admitted, “On healthcare, Biden is wedded to the for-profit system.”
But McDonnell asked Sanders how to build “a working relationship from the left” with a “centrist” leadership of the party.
McDonnell has appealed repeatedly to Keir Starmer to stop his attacks on the left in the name of unity.
Even as he encouraged party members to vote down Starmer’s plans at conference, he said he and Jeremy Corbyn had agreed not to undermine Starmer’s leadership.
“When Starmer won the leadership election Jeremy and I took the view that we wouldn’t do to him what they did to us.” he said. “We didn’t want the excuse to be made that the left was undermining Starmer.”
He added that “Under the first past the post system, there’s no other way of achieving some advancement of socialism unless it’s in the Labour Party.”
But that means staying in Labour and trying to find compromise with the right. Some Labour members are questioning whether that’s possible.
One, who didn’t want to be named, told Socialist Worker she wasn’t sure the right would agree to live with the left. “You would like to think that would be possible, but there’s so much aggression from their side I just don’t know,” she said.
“The other thing is, what will you have to sell out on? Do you sell out on some point of principle or do you stand your ground and just leave them in power? I just don’t know.”