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“WE ARE at a unique moment for the left in Britain – but time is running out.
“Those people, the movement inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, a quarter of a million of them – they’re still there, not necessarily in Labour, but they still exist. And in a couple of years they won’t, not as a group.”
Film director Ken Loach could not be angrier at the direction the Labour Party has taken since Keir Starmer took the helm 18 months ago – the rejection of the socialist policies he promised to uphold, the continued character assassination of his predecessor Corbyn and the wave of proscriptions and purges that saw Loach himself forced out over the summer.
It’s a bitter conclusion to the saga of the Corbyn movement that raised high hopes of far-reaching socialist change in this country – a movement in which Loach was deeply involved and helped inspire through films like I, Daniel Blake and The Spirit of ‘45.
Starmer approaches his first real Labour conference having lost over 120,000 party members – Corbyn famously more than doubled Labour’s size to make it the largest party in western Europe – and driven it to the edge of bankruptcy. But is his leadership in trouble?
“My hunch is it isn’t,” Loach says. “Because a healthy Labour Party isn’t what Starmer’s leadership is about. And this goes right back to Jeremy Corbyn.
“Remember that Corbyn only got to stand for leader in the first place because MPs assumed he couldn’t win but a contest would give the appearance of democracy.
“Then he stood and the vast majority of members voted for him, and he and John [McDonnell] began a programme that would begin the transformation of British society in the interests of working-class people. And then we nearly won the 2017 election.
“And if the right were worried before, they became much worse. And the ruling class, not to mince words, decided that he had to go.”
If the Labour right pretended from 2015-17 that they feared Corbyn could never win an election, after 2017 it was much clearer that their real fear was that he could. And, Loach stresses, it’s down to class.
“What have we learned about the Establishment from the Corbyn movement? First, it’s ruthless. Second, it has people in the Labour Party, they are the Labour right as embodied in most of the parliamentary party and they represent the interests of the ruling class. The class struggle is within the party.
“And Starmer’s leadership only makes sense in those terms,” he points out, noting that the party machine is continuing to hound members out even while facing financial ruin because it has lost so many members.
“His actions only make sense as part of a long-term strategy to destroy the left. His aim is to have a small party with few activists, and funded by donations from big business, so the leader is independent of the party itself and then someone like Rupert Murdoch can put his arm around him and say, ‘it’s OK to vote for this man,’ like he did with Blair.
“So he can get rid of a third of the party members – doesn’t matter. He can piss off the trade unions – doesn’t matter. He imagines the same wealthy individuals who backed Blair will save him because they know however good Boris Johnson’s polling, one party doesn’t stay in government forever, there will be a time when a change of government is going to happen and big business wants a Labour Party it can rely on.
“Starmer is giving it to them. He might not lead it into government, maybe they’ll resurrect David Miliband from across the water or pick one of the rightwingers in the shadow cabinet, because Starmer is such a dull performer that few will vote for him. But his job is to clean up the party.”
It is because the whole purpose of the Starmer project is to make Labour a safe pair of hands for the ruling class that Loach is unconvinced by arguments that it retains some of the left policies developed under Corbyn – with Ed Miliband, for example, suggesting this week that it was still in favour of public ownership.
“His aim is to position himself as a slightly more benign version of the Tories but operating within the same economic structure.
“You can see it in everything he says. He doesn’t talk about ending privatisation in the health service, or the outsourcing or the subcontracting. And those are what drive the gig economy and the race to the bottom on workers’ rights, whatever he says about opposing those things.”
Loach worries about a fragmentation of the left and labour movement into disparate causes that, divided, will never achieve much.
Some in the trade unions will be appeased by Labour’s talk of fighting insecure contracts and raising the minimum wage; others seem to be turning their backs on Westminster as they look to build industrial strength.
The energy and passion of the Corbyn-era left erupts in movements like Extinction Rebellion, while Black Lives Matter mobilises young black people for change in a way even Corbynism didn’t.
“But what we need is a common denominator. An understanding that the economic system generates everything.
“It generates the inequality. It generates the racism.
“It generates the exploitation, the exploitation of working people and the exploitation of natural resources that is driving the climate disaster.
“There’s a common denominator, and we need to grasp that without changing the economic system we can’t solve these problems, racism, sexism, bad contracts, the housing crisis, global warming. Everything, everything leads back to the economic system!”
But how do you unite these causes?
“At the moment, I think we agree, it doesn’t make sense to start a new party. There have been various left groups over the decades that have all aimed at building a new mass party of the working class and it hasn’t ever worked.
“But what is unique about this moment is that you’ve had this maybe quarter of a million activists inspired by socialism in the last few years to join Labour, plus a number beyond that who were part of the movement.
“And of them maybe 120-140,000 have now left the Labour Party or been kicked out. And probably a similar number who are still in.
“These people were brought in by the promise of radical change, and the 2017 manifesto in particular generated a lot of hope that the door to change the country through the Labour Party had opened.
“Now it has been slammed shut. We have to build a movement. Not an electoral movement, because you want to hold together those who have left Labour and those who are still in. An independent labour movement though, that does organise and act and intervene politically.
“To do this we need leaders. We cannot stand back and watch this possibility disappear. So many are politically homeless, and we need a leadership that people will recognise and trust. We cannot be like the Grand Old Duke of York, and march the troops to the top of the hill just to march them down again.
“We have so much talent in our movement, some young ex-MPs, leaders in the campaigns, academics, some wonderful speakers and clear-minded analysts and thinkers. There are some figures emerging in the unions and Jeremy and John have lost none of their ability to inspire. Now is the time to build that collective leadership. If not now, it will be too late.”
Does he see the interventions at this week’s TUC, with the CWU’s push for co-ordinated work to “build collectivism” in alliance with community campaigns and new Unite leader Sharon Graham’s assertion that Parliament is not going to solve workers’ problems, as steps toward such a movement?
“So long as it’s not a kind of syndicalism that says just work within the unions and forget politics. We’ve got to have a political instrument. Otherwise, everything we do is undermined. Look at the great achievements of the labour movement. The eight-hour day – where’s that now? The weekend? Sick pay, holiday pay – all eroded, because of the logic of the economic structure, and you can’t change that without political change.”
Some in the unions argue that rebuilding industrial power is the first step in building the class-conscious workers’ movement that Corbynism lacked – and which meant it was never able to cut through in many working-class areas.
“Well, but why didn’t it cut through? Because the mass media and his own party set out to destroy Jeremy.
“The Guardian led the way, the BBC followed and then the right-wing press had a field day, because if the liberal media were up to their necks in the smear campaign then it was open season, who was going to contradict you? So we saw what Peter Oborne termed a political assassination of Jeremy Corbyn and the assassins were the right wing of the Labour Party. They didn’t need Tories to do it. It was like Margaret Hodge had a season ticket to Newsnight.
“That combined with Brexit, the long-term neglect of working-class areas over many years in the north and Midlands, to lead to a significant number of people refusing to vote Labour” (who had done so in 2017). “Then we lost heavily, predictably, and the right celebrated. We’ve seen the leaked emails. That’s what the Labour machine is like – the left’s mistake was not to realise the class nature of the battle from the start, and to act to take over the machine.
“The biggest obstacle to change now is the Labour right. As long as they govern the party we cannot have transformative change. And we don’t have the luxury that earlier generations of socialists did, that we can fight the long war. That we can wait till the next left surge, the next time we get a toehold in the Labour Party in a few decades’ time.
“The climate emergency makes all the difference. It means we have to act now because disaster is at the door. None of us can afford to see the left recede again while the ruling class re-establishes itself. The left MPs, the unions, the disability and anti-racism and climate campaigns – we have to work together, now, to build a political movement.”
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