Protest outside Labour Party headquarters, London, July 2021: all photos by Guy Smallman
Well, no-one could have accused Starmer of hiding what he was about. From the day he got Jeremy Corbyn suspended, it was obvious that he had his sights set on one thing and only one thing: the destruction of the Labour Party he had become leader of.
He had to destroy the Labour Party because under Corbyn it had changed so much. It had gone from under 200,000 members to over half a million. It had become the biggest political party in western Europe.
It had become a party that really believed in the NHS, in fairness in housing and education, in full employment, in world peace, in equality and anti-racism, and in tackling the biggest problem of our times: the threat to the planet. This was a party that was not just paying lip service to these things — but really believed in them.
Neither the establishment in the UK or the US could ever allow the leader of such a party to come near to power in this country or, shudder the thought, even have a role on the world stage.
The early days after Corbyn became leader calmed their worries. With so many of his own MPs in open revolt against him, and the mainstream press finding every trick in the book to demonise him as a friend of terrorists, a Russian spy and, of course, an antisemite, the global establishments told themselves that he wasn’t going to last long. The next election would sweep him to oblivion.
But the next election was in 2017 and, far from sweeping Jeremy Corbyn to oblivion, it brought him within a few thousand votes of parking his rickety bike outside No 10.
Shockwaves shook the establishments so hard that you could almost see the little pieces of the ceilings of palaces and state rooms coming down on the heads of the rich and powerful.
That’s why they redoubled their efforts to discredit the Labour leader. By this time it was clear that the totally unfounded smear of antisemitism was by far the most effective way of dealing with Corbyn. What better way to attack a lifelong campaigner against racism than by accusing him and his allies of racism against Jewish people?
Here Corbyn’s establishment enemies received sterling — and secret — assistance from a fifth column in his own party: the paid bureaucracy charged with maintaining Labour’s disciplinary and organisational systems.
While, in theory, politically neutral, like the civil servants in Whitehall, most of these right-wing characters are in fact dedicated to the dream of one day installing as Labour leader a new Tony Blair — David Miliband? Blair himself? Hugh Grant?
To them, socialism is a dirty word, believed in only by loony Labour volunteers who they call Trots and who they spend their time fighting every which way they can. To these Labour bureaucrats, you don’t have to be particularly radical to be a Trot — just a little to the left of Gordon Brown is enough.
Our Trot-bashing bureaucrats were fighting Corbyn right from the first leadership election that he won so spectacularly, trying to keep his supporters out of the party — and if they did join, trying to stop them gaining influence in the local parties.
But after the scary result of the 2017 election, they went into overdrive, using every dirty trick in the Guinness Book of Dirty Tricks to stop Corbyn-supporting local parties from getting Corbyn-supporting candidates elected to Parliament.
I suffered personally from all this. At the time I was chair of South Thanet Labour Party. After a hard-fought selection process we chose as our parliamentary candidate the exemplary Corbyn-supporting Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt.
We were happy — for about a couple of days. Then we discovered that the Labour Party’s national executive committee (NEC) had decided to withhold its endorsement of Rebecca on the usual — totally spurious — grounds.
We fought for months to get Rebecca endorsed as our candidate, and finally we had to rerun the selection process. Rebecca won again but this time by a much bigger majority.
We hardly had time to celebrate than we were catapulted into the 2019 election campaign. If our shortage of time to prepare wasn’t enough of a handicap, we now found our bureaucrats busily diverting resources and supporters from Thanet to the campaign to keep Rosie Duffield, darling of the right, in her Canterbury & Whitstable seat.
Like so many other Labour candidates who found their own party’s hierarchy tougher opposition than the Tories they were supposed to be fighting, our Rebecca lost.
But it was after Starmer became leader that the attack on the left came out in the open. Starmer stood for leader as the “unity candidate”. He lied. His idea of unity was to kick out everyone except the people who agreed with him.
Expulsions and suspensions rocketed. My partner was expelled for wishing good luck to the Corbyn-supporting MP Chris Williamson. Even saintly Jeremy himself was suspended. The NEC unsuspended him, but Starmer refused to let him back in the Parliamentary party. He’s still not back.
Corbyn’s treatment caused fury in the party — even among many on the right. By the end of 2020, over 70 officers of local parties were suspended simply for allowing their members to debate Corbyn’s punishment beating. Over half of them remain suspended. I am one of them — and proud to be so.
Since then, Starmer’s storm troops have suspended and expelled so many more members. They’ve even suspended whole local parties, such as the neighbouring left-wing parties of East Ham and West Ham. They have rigged and sabotaged and subverted local parties’ annual general meetings — anything to stop the “wrong sort of members” sending the “wrong sort of delegates” to Labour’s national conference. That’s another way of simulating “unity”.
Now, as I said, they’re banning the groups who have tried to fight back against this onslaught on the left. They’ve started with a handful, but this is just the thin end of the wedge. Many more are in the firing line.
We held a protest against the purge outside Labour Party’s head office in London. Hundreds of members turned out to express their anger about what’s happening. A statement was read out from the film director Ken Loach, a man whose films have offered the most searing exposes of the social justices of our times.
He said: “The destruction of democracy in the Labour party is shameful … Local parties are closed down, their officers replaced or suspended, meetings cancelled … And all this takes place without a word from the mass media. Why? Because Starmer is their man. They know he will change little or nothing. He makes small debating points, but on the big principles – ending privatisation, rights at work, protecting the environment, a foreign policy based on human rights and international law – he is silent …
“He wants a smaller party— with no troublesome activists. This attack on party democracy is driven by a determination to appease the power of the establishment … It is a return to the opportunism and support for corporate power of the Blair years …
“Keep telling the truth of what is happening, it is our strongest weapon!”
Is this the end for the left in Labour? Is it the end for the Labour Party?
I don’t think so. Not if enough of us fight back, it isn’t. Not if we fight hard enough. Not if we can break the media blackout and get this story to the outside world. There have already been protests outside Labour offices led by suspended members in Bristol and London. But now we need to do much more, and we need the support of all on the left to pull it off.
We need to take direct action to show Starmer up for the cut-price Kinnock he really is: a miserable hitman brought in simply to clear the way for the next Tony Blair. Wherever Starmer goes, every public appearance he or his Parliamentary cronies make, the left needs to go, sticking up for the Labour people he has expelled, suspended or bullied out of the party. We need to shadow him, confront him, speaking out for the socialism Starmer is dedicated to rooting out.
We have to show the world we are the real Labour Party, the true opposition people desperately need to protect them from the Tories. This is our Labour Party: why on earth should we abandon it to an unrepresentative right-wing clique led by an unremarkable idea-free political non-entity?
But this is much more than a struggle inside Labour. This is a battle for the future of left-wing politics everywhere. If we lose, I fear, all the left lose.
If you’re interested in getting involved in the battle for the left, make a date to come to the Rialto Theatre in Brighton on the last weekend in September. There we’ll be holding an alternative Labour Party conference at the same time Starmer’s holding his “official” tea party on the seafront. This could be fun. More details on www.labour-in-exile.org.
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