The political and economic aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to be severe. Johnson’s government is already signalling that it will follow the 2008 script: yes, when disaster strikes you have to carry out a little “socialism” — state intervention, doling out money to bosses as much as you can and workers as much as you have to. But so that no-one gets the wrong idea, after this half-”socialism” the bill must be presented and paid through austerity.
When Johnson’s Tories (if they are still with Johnson by then) come to implement their own austerity they will learn from David Cameron’s Tory blitzkrieg methods of overwhelming opposition by cutting and sacking as quickly as possible. By his 2019 “prorogation” coup, Johnson signalled that he and his circle are happy to subvert democracy in a pinch to get their way.
Our side, too, needs to learn the lessons of the last ten years. Cameron was up against Ed Miliband, who mostly opted for a “small target” strategy, of saying as little as possible and looking “statesmanlike”. Miliband accepted the government’s assumptions. The deficit needed cutting, strikes were wrong — but the Tories were doing too much, too roughly, too fast. The message: swap me in for the Tories, and you’ll get “normalcy”, but those were and these are times when the “normal” looks unsustainable. Starmer is heading on a similar tack. First he wants to beat and demoralise the Corbynite left into submission.
Against both the Tories’ plans and Starmer’s “small-target” collusion with them, the left needs to present a coherent political alternative. But that alternative needs to be truly coherent. And we need to overcome some of the left’s political defects which will make Starmer’s job easier.
We can’t give up the fight on party democracy. Against Starmer’s “off-with-their-heads” regime of summary suspensions of leftwingers for even discussing “banned” topics, we need to assert party members’ right to discuss politics openly, free from disciplinary threats — even where some party members’ views are reactionary or objectionable.
We also need to assert that the left’s representatives — be they left MPs or members of “left slates” for Young Labour or the NEC — are not above criticism. The left-tribalist attitude, that being a leftwinger means deferring to “senior” left-wing figures, and that “loyalty” comes before politics, rots the brain.
One acid test for all “left” leaders is that of strikes. Workers who strike against a ruling-class offensive in the coming months must have the political support of Labour and its left. The left must hold our leaders to that standard rigorously.
No doubt some have picked up on complaints of antisemitism in a hypocritical, demagogic way. But they can get anywhere with only because the problem is real. The real enemy for the left is antisemitism itself, not the demagogy of the Blairites, or the hypocrisy of Tory racists. We need a political drive against the antisemitism which does exist on the left — primarily and centrally, a drive of education and discussion.
In orienting in politics, anywhere in the world, our starting point must always be the working class and its freedom. To be coherent, consistent socialists and democrats means that the left must champion human freedom around the world: not back “left” politicians here and tyrants in other countries just because they oppose the US. Assad; the Chinese regime and its genocide against Uyghur Muslims; the Iranian regime: these are enemies of the left. What faith can a left inspire if it excuses such butchers and jailers?
Against the rise of poisonous nationalism and ever-more-murderous border regimes at home and abroad, we have to proclaim internationalism. Not — like Miliband and the Tories’ cuts — accept nationalism in principle, but differ only in degree. There is no “left” nationalism any more than there was a “left” austerity. Nationalism isn’t an electoral gimmick that clever leaders can pick up, use, and put back in its box. We have to oppose it with a thoroughgoing programme: organise the unorganised, tax the rich to provide for all, defend and extend the freedom of movement that the Brexiters inveigh against.
In short, a coherent, convincing political alternative in the period ahead needs to be an internationalist alternative. The politics of internationalism — of freedom of movement, of opposition to the Brexit agenda, of repealing the anti-union laws, of a socialist Green New Deal — dominated the agenda of the 2019 Labour Party conference. The internationalist left which largely won the day at that conference was always only thinly and loosely organised. It has been battered and demoralised by the year since then, during most of which (under pretext of lockdown) local Labour Parties have not even been able to have online decision-making meetings. But it is still there. We need to regroup the internationalists.
A regrouped internationalist left can and will ally with other “left” currents on the party, issue by issue, but first it must reassemble itself.