Editorial of the Socialist issue 1097

Labour payouts: unions must discuss political representation

While only mildly criticising the Tories, Starmer has acted firmly to remove all remnants of Corbynism at the top of Labour, photostream/CC

While only mildly criticising the Tories, Starmer has acted firmly to remove all remnants of Corbynism at the top of Labour, photostream/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Unite union leader Len McCluskey rightly stated, in an interview with the Observer, that the Labour Party leadership has misused trade union members’ money. He was referring to the Starmer leadership’s decision to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in settlements and apologise to eight people who had contributed to a scurrilous anti-Corbyn BBC Panorama documentary last year on antisemitism.

Jeremy Corbyn also criticised the settlements, calling them “a political decision, not a legal one”. When he was Labour’s leader, lawyers had advised him that the party had a strong case against the eight.

This latest episode in the long-running use of antisemitism alle-gations against Corbyn supporters adds to the list of rightward leaps spearheaded by Keir Starmer.

Rightward lurch

In the Observer, McCluskey warned Starmer not to go “too much to the right” and to stick to the ten pledges he made in his campaign to become leader. The pledges included the Corbyn policies of abolishing tuition fees and returning public ownership to rail, mail, energy and water.

However, after his victory, Starmer set about decisively shifting the party away from the Corbyn era. While only mildly criticising the Tories, he acted firmly to remove all remnants of Corbynism at the top of Labour, getting rid of Jennie Formby as general secretary and Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education minister, among numerous other changes.

‘Blairism’ has returned in more ways than as a political categorisation, as the new general secretary, David Evans, was once an assistant general secretary under Blair himself.

Regarding keeping some of Corbyn’s popular policies, Starmer knew they would help him to win the leadership, fully aware he could later drop them.

His pledges included that Labour should “work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions” and “maintain collective links” with them. But the influence of the unions on the Labour Party was drastically reduced during rightward steps between 1992 and 2015 to create the firmly pro-capitalist New Labour, and they have not been reversed.

Today the affiliated unions only have a third of the members of the party’s National Executive Committee and less than a sixth of the National Policy Forum. Their affiliation fees provide the party with less than 15% of its income. So Unite, despite giving over £7 million to Labour since the start of 2019, is not able to prevent Labour’s political misuse of that money on the settlements to the eight, even in alliance with the other affiliates.

Nor can it stop the many other misuses of its money in the course of the party being taken further and further away from representing working-class interests.

The explicit rightward path of the Starmer leadership makes it all the more urgent that trade union and anti-austerity activists, along with socialists inside and outside Labour, discuss how a vehicle for socialist, working-class political representation can be re-established.

Perpetrators into ‘victims’

Seven of the eight people being given the financial settlements are former Labour staff members. They claimed to be defending their reputations after a representative of Corbyn’s leadership called them “disaffected, politically hostile former employees” who gave “malicious, selective briefing” to the Panorama programme.

That they were politically hostile to Corbyn’s leadership was never in doubt. Moreover, they were part of a Labour machine which in April 2020 was exposed in a leaked report – into Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints – as acting over years to undermine Corbyn. The report cited instances of anti-Corbyn senior staff using racist and other abuse, failing to deal properly with antisemitism cases, and even trying to prevent a Labour victory in the 2017 general election.

John McDonnell subsequently commented: “The same procedures must apply to those implicated in this report as apply to other party members. If charges are serious, implicated members are suspended pending the outcome of investigation and discipline. Those found guilty of serious contraventions of our rules should be expelled.”

Not surprisingly, no such action has been taken by the Starmer leadership. For them it’s one rule for those on the right, while regular reports have continued of Corbyn supporters being suspended or expelled, in most cases on trumped-up charges.

Meanwhile, Labour’s left figureheads have – both today and throughout Corbyn’s leadership years – failed to go on the offensive against the politically motivated, false accusations of antisemitism, and to explain to a wide audience why antisemitism and socialist ideas have nothing in common.

Even Rebecca Long-Bailey, the politically closest leadership contender to Corbyn, argued for an apology and settlement to be given to the eight.

A fight against the right on that issue was just one of the many struggles needed to transform Labour away from a pro-capitalist agenda. Others should have included pushing for the reintroduction of mandatory reselection for parliamentary candidates; measures to transfer power from the party bureaucracy to the membership and affiliated unions; and demanding that Labour councillors must refuse to pass on Tory cuts.

Building an alternative

Len McCluskey – who has affirmed he will stay in office until April 2022 – mentioned in the Observer a “major gathering” in the autumn. At this stage his position is: “It’s not supposed to be an alternative. It’s supposed to be a declaration that we are here. We are going nowhere. And we stand for those principles of radicalism and socialism that we’ve fought for all our lives.”

However, the scenario of prolonged capitalist crisis that has begun will be accompanied by battles between working-class and capitalist interests that will make that position untenable. The vast layer of workers and young people who face relentless attacks from the bosses on jobs, pay, terms and conditions precisely need the development of a clear and determined political alternative to Blairism.

Standing for ‘principles of radicalism and socialism’ will not be compatible with funding Labour MPs and councillors who implement austerity and other measures in capitalist interests.

This is why the Socialist Party has called for discussion in the workers’ movement on the need for a new mass workers’ party.

A ‘major gathering’ of trade unionists and socialists is definitely needed, in the form of a conference that can democratically discuss and debate how political representation for the working class can concretely be re-established in the situation created by Starmer’s leadership.

Current support for Corbyn and his policies was shown in the response to a defence appeal for him, after he was personally threatened with legal action. In just over a week, £325,000 poured in from over 17,000 donors.

Some of the most rabid right wingers in Labour are raring for more action against Corbyn than those legal threats.

Among them is former speech writer for Blair, Philip Collins, who used his column in the Times to hurl unpolitical insults at Corbyn and end with: “Kick Corbyn out. Take away the whip, expel him from the party” (24 July).

However, most Labour pro-capitalist strategists are highly wary of such moves, realising they could possibly drive Corbyn and his support base towards a new party.

Either way, with or without the involvement of any particular individual, the need for a mass workers’ party that can discuss and adopt a socialist programme is inherent in today’s situation.

The Socialist Party has already initiated a call for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) to once again stand anti-cuts candidates in the next local and mayoral elections, following TUSC’s suspension of standing in the last local elections.

Presenting candidates who will fight for workers’ interests can only aid the discussion on how a mass workers’ party can be built, while in the meantime playing an important role in putting a socialist alternative on the ballot papers.