by NORMAN THOMAS
There is a famous scene at the beginning of the 1939 film Beau Geste. Some soldiers approach a fort in the desert. The flag is flying, it looks defended, but closer up they find only dead men propped up on their rifles at the parapets.
The British establishment is a bit like that desert fort: apparently invincible but dead at the core.
The whole creaking structure is built on a lie: that ultimately everything is based on the wealth of the few and we would all be ruined if they took their wealth away.
The current pandemic has done a brilliant job of exposing this lie.
In the past we’ve been told that coal mines and other industries had to be closed down because they were “uneconomic”, that we had to have huge cuts and privatisation in the NHS and in local and public services because Britain had been living beyond its means.
The government wasn’t to blame, they said, it was the market — it had to be.
There was no magic money tree, a prime minister once told Jeremy Corbyn, ridiculing his spending plans.
But suddenly with the pandemic a whole magic money forest sprang up. When the government wanted it, it found the money.
And the money can be found again. We know it can.
This means that when the virus crisis is over, we could go two ways.
We could enter a time of austerity even worse than the last one. The mantra will be that we have to pay for the pandemic with cuts, fewer jobs and more privatisation than ever before.
Or we could radically redesign our economy to make possible a fairer, greener, more equal society, with a renewed public-health and care system, free for all, and jobs for all who can work.
To go the second way, we will have to fight for it. The question is how.
The Tories will, of course, again be the party of austerity.
But will Labour take the other side? Deny the need for austerity and work for a better future, as the Corbyn project once promised?
Well, not based on what we’ve heard from Keir Starmer so far.
On the contrary, the new Labour leader seems to be hell-bent on purging his party both of the policies and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. As it was in the days of Tony Blair, socialism is fast becoming a dirty word in the new Labour Party regime.
Seventy or more officers of local Labour parties have been suspended for even allowing their members to discuss anything supportive of Jeremy Corbyn. Unspecified numbers of Corbyn-supporting ordinary members have been suspended or expelled under cover of the lockdown.
Angry or demoralised, many have, understandably, resigned. Others have decided to hibernate in the hope of better days to come. And some have put their hopes in building a new party.
But I don’t think we’ve got time for that.
A new party is a massive time-consuming undertaking and the risks of failure too great. But, more importantly, we still have thousands of people in the Labour Party who supported the Corbyn cause, people who brought a new sense of purpose and direction to the party. It makes much more sense for them to reset their own party than try to create a new one.
This, as it happens, is the driving aim of a new group called Labour In Exile Network (LIEN) of which I’m a founding member. LIEN includes not only people who have been suspended, expelled and otherwise excluded by the new Starmer regime, but many still in the party and fighting on for the policies and principles that Corbyn championed.
LIEN is not a faction, it’s a network for all who want to bring true grassroots democracy to the Labour Party. We face a battle with a right-wing leader, a right-wing bureaucracy and a band of right-wing and centrist MPs. They have power on their side. We have numbers on ours. If we stick together, we can win.
Some on the left pour scorn on this enterprise. Based on history, they don’t think the Labour Party is worth the candle. They believe the party will revert to the timid, fraudulent outfit it has been for the greatest part of its existence — 1945 being an aberration — promising much and doing little.
We currently have in the Labour Party large numbers of activists for racial, social and environmental justice, many with fantastic records of grassroots campaigning. It would be a tragedy to see them disillusioned and sidelined or burying their activism in factional strife or squandering their energies working for Labour MPs who will almost certainly betray them.
Instead they need to take their party back. The question is how. LIEN is recommending the classic method of the labour movement: collective action.
A group of black Labour members are showing the way. Labour Black Socialists are saying they will not campaign for candidates who don’t sign up for anti-racism. But this is only the start.
Why should we campaign for candidates who don’t sign up for democracy and free speech in the party? Or the reinstatement of unfairly suspended members? Why shouldn’t we picket and embarrass the Starmer leadership until they stop the outrageous purge currently under way in the party?
The vast majority of members still support the Corbyn cause. The people in the party on the other side of the argument are far fewer and have little to contribute. If we stick together and act together we can win back the Labour Party for socialism. And what’s at stake is much more important than the future of the Labour Party: it’s the future of us all.
Norman Thomas was chair of South Thanet Labour Party until December 2020, when he was suspended. His “crime” was to allow the constituency party to debate and pass a motion calling for the restoration of the whip to Jeremy Corbyn. In the same month he became one of the founder members of Labour In Exile Network (LIEN).
LIEN is open to all those who were mobilised and enthused to support Jeremy Corbyn for leader. This includes those who are still in the Labour Party; those who have been unfairly suspended or expelled in the last five years and those who have resigned from the Labour Party in despair.
The driving aim of LIEN is to transform the Labour Party into a truly democratic party accountable to its grassroots members.
LIEN will have its founding conference on Saturday February 27. Speakers will include Tosh McDonald, Chris Knight, Graham Bash, Leah Levane, Roger Silverman and Jackie Walker. For more information visit www.labour-in-exile.org.
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