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Priorities for Labour activists

By Alan Gilbert

Labour activists need to do three things now:

• Confront the strands of antisemitism within Labour which the EHRC report has indicted – and without anyone much being confident enough to argue that Labour should challenge the report in court – by political argument, debate, and education

• Oppose the suspension mania being used by new general secretary David Evans and by Keir Starmer, in effect (at least) as a substitute for a political response on antisemitism; defend democracy, free discussion, and due process within the Labour Party

• Stick in there and remobilise the left to combat Starmer on the suspensions and on many other issues: Brexit, skycaps, the pandemic, replacement of Ofsted and an end to high-stakes testing in primary schools, and more.

To do those things we need to dispute and confront two drifts: both the drive to giving up in disgust, and the drift to compliance.

Some of the left have quietly supported compliance with the suspension-mania. Some even argue that more suspensions are needed to get rid of antisemites.

A flood of suspensions without due process, and without any effort from the Labour Party leadership to confront “coded” antisemitic political cultures through political argument, will not “root out” antisemitism, but will destroy the democratic processes we need to improve the political culture.

On another wing of the argument, Tariq Ali has written on the newly-launched blog of New Left Review to raise hopes of a positive outcome from lots of people quitting Labour.

“An Independent Labour Party with even half a dozen MPs and a membership base of perhaps 50,000 – that number have left already since Starmer took over – could mark a real advance”.

Ali suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s “Peace and Justice Project” could be a step forward towards that, although Corbyn is clear he’s not trying for a new party.

The Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893, and was one of the main forces in launching the Labour Party. It operated as a Labour-affiliated “socialist society” after 1900. In 1929-31 there were 37 MPs in the ILP subgroup of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The ILP was disgusted by the experience of the 1929-31 Labour government, and in 1932 voted to disaffiliate. Not all its members joined the split, but it had some 17,000 members and five MPs. It was a major active force on the British left, maybe three times the size of the Communist Party.

If it could have consolidated a clear and consistent socialist program, and reoriented back to the trade unions and the Labour Party, it could indeed have produced a “real advance”.

In fact it declined steadily from the time of the split. By 1938, it was down to 2,000 members. It sounded out the Labour Party on reaffiliating, and was turned down. It jogged along, and was the biggest if not the most active of the “left groups”, for decades. Eventually it renamed itself “Independent Labour Publications” in 1975 and rejoined the Labour Party as a tiny subgroup.

It would be wrong and dogmatic to deduce iron laws about all outside-Labour political initiatives being doomed. But the net effect of the ILP’s disaffiliation was to divert and disperse thousands of activists who might otherwise have learned and helped others learn within the development of the broader labour movement.

And the ILP in 1932 had a lot more going for it than Tariq Ali’s hoped-for initiative. It had a large number of active local groups of its own. In the early 1920s it had been the dominant force in the broad Labour Party. In 1936 it was still strong enough and organised enough to be the main force in mobilising for the famous anti-fascist “Battle of Cable Street”. Tariq Ali has been out of active politics (as distinct from occasional appearances as a “celebrity speaker”) for 40 years now, since he quit the International Marxist Group in 1980. (On an issue he was right about, as it happens: Afghanistan).

The ILP’s “Socialism in Our Time” program of 1928, whatever its insufficiencies, was much clearer and more left-wing than either the Peace and Justice Project or Tariq Ali’s recent political pronouncements.

Even George Galloway’s Respect in 2004 – launched at a time when tens of thousands were quitting Labour over the Iraq war, and yet still active in and around local Stop The War groups – had more going for it than Tariq Ali’s speculation.

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