By Hugh Caffrey

Britain is now officially in recession, as the economy shrinks under the hammer-blows of a world economic crisis and the Covid pandemic. Working class people in Britain are facing the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s. It is clear to millions that the Tory government has made the effects for ordinary people far worse than they needed to have been.

So, we’re in recession, but Labour isn’t in opposition. Under Corbyn, the Tories were attacked from the left, with an attempt to expose their agenda of privatisation and cutbacks and profiteering for the ‘wealth extractors’. Under Starmer, the Tories are supported from the ‘centre’, except when they’re attacked from the right, as when Starmer argued for them to lift the lockdown sooner. At the time when opposition is desperately needed on behalf of the millions facing losing their jobs or homes, and the millions more facing pay cuts, the Labour leadership is determined not to provide that criticism of the government.

Returning Labour to safe ground for the Establishment

From the start, Starmer has sought to turn Corbyn’s Labour back into Blair’s New Labour, when it was a reliable party of the establishment with a tiny marginalised left. In SA, we warned when Corbyn stood down that this is what the right-wing would try to do, and argued for the left to organise a major bottom-up campaign to win the leadership for Rebecca Long-Bailey and turn the Labour Party towards struggle rather than just the next general election. Unfortunately our warnings have proven completely accurate. The shift to the right has been accelerated and has become clearer under the pressure of the pandemic, with Starmer openly supporting the government. A resurgence of Covid cases is underway due to the government putting corporate profits ahead of public safety with a reckless opening of the economy in the absence of the necessary health and social care services. Clearly a Starmer-led Labour party is not going to campaign for the necessary renationalisation and expansion of health and social care and the development of a publicly run and owned response to the pandemic.

Scotland and self-determination

In Scotland, support for independence is rising. No wonder, as working class people see independence as a route to some political distance from Tory-run Westminster and the social catastrophe this means. Socialist Alternative stands for the right of the Scottish people to choose their own future, including through a new referendum on independence, and supports the right of self-determination up to and including an independent Scotland. We equally stand for working-class unity, for struggle by working class people across these islands against the politicians, employers and capitalist system, and for a free voluntary federation of socialist nations across these islands as part of a socialist Europe and a socialist world. Many socialists and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn would agree with us. Tragically, Labour under Corbyn failed to take a clear stand in defence of Scottish self-determination, with many senior Labour figures openly ruling out any future referendum to block moves towards independence even if it has majority support in Scotland. Starmer has reinforced that position, defending the unity of the British state among the establishment and the bosses.

After Corbyn the right fight back: the way forward for socialists

Inside the Labour party, the right wing is tightening its grip. Rebecca Long-Bailey was removed from the shadow cabinet after originally being appointed by Starmer as a token gesture. Rather than attacking the right-wing party officials and journalists who worked to sabotage Labour’s 2019 general election campaign, Starmer and his allies are rewarding them! While generous financial settlements are given to the friends of capitalism, a purge of left activists has been renewed. While Corbyn was leader, the left made minor changes to the rules but ultimately failed to carry out the fundamental transformation of the Labour structures necessary for a genuinely democratic mass party – not least when mandatory reselection of MPs was blocked by right-wingers and the union bureaucracy at Labour conference 2017. By contrast, Starmer and Co have not hesitated to change the rules for the election system for the NEC, which will make it harder for the left to win seats. Scenting blood, ‘Labour to Win’ has been launched out of a merger of the two Blairite trends ‘Labour First’ and ‘Progress’.

The reaction from part of Labour’s membership has been to leave. “Stay and fight” is the argument of various groups within the Labour left, but how is this fight to be waged? The most basic point is that it must be seriously organised among the membership, and the second point is that it must be linked with struggles outside Labour such as Black Lives Matter and the NHS pay protests. Unfortunately it appears that the main strategy among the leading Labour left figures is more of the same, which proved insufficient before – no mass campaign, no link with struggle, instead raising money for Corbyn’s possible court case and standing in NEC elections as if nothing had changed. We encourage all supporters of Corbyn who are still in the Labour party to vote for the left candidates, but this is nothing like enough by itself.

There must be a serious discussion about how to orientate towards struggle, about policies such as socialist support for Scottish independence, and about what a mass party of the working class would actually look like and how it could be achieved. Groups of lefts in and around Labour should use the NEC elections and all local organisations to pursue these discussions while turning outwards to connect with struggle. All this will have to be done in the face of renewed opposition from a newly-confident right wing inside Labour, and under a Starmer leadership which will have no appeal to youth, BAME people and workers in struggle as a party which they should join to help them in their struggles.

The need for struggle and and for a political voice

Working people and their organisations are under vicious assault by the employers who seek to make us pay for their system’s crisis. Huge job losses need to be resisted with coordinated industrial action by the trade union movement. Union leaders who had hoped for an easy life under a Corbyn-led Labour government will need to be pushed to a different focus, on building determined action against the employers. Labour ought to be there in support, and the Labour leadership ought to be challenging the government over this, but clearly under Starmer it won’t be.

Many Labour members in the unions will be looking now towards struggles in the workplaces, and many in the communities will be looking towards struggles against evictions. In SA we argue for, and are helping organise, conferences of resistance to bring together different movements and struggles at a local level to discuss how to link up, and how to bring together ideas of what we’re all fighting against. Some people at these events will be in Labour, some will have recently left, and many will never have been in it. Trade unionists will be essential to these conferences, and the Labour left groupings would be very welcome. Such conferences are also the basis for having a discussion about what kind of political organisation we need, and how we can get it. There will be differing views on this.

Fight for socialist policies!

In these conferences Socialist Alternative will explain our perspective that the most important thing about mass political organisation is that it is a party of struggle, based on struggle, a tool for struggle, and based on a democratic structure within which groups of people in struggle can organise themselves and find support. We do not believe that this is at all likely to come from Starmer’s Labour, or the various very small initiatives from different left groups that have emanated in recent months. Forging a mass party of struggle will be a process, and we will explain how we think that process can develop while seeking to help speed it up. We will put forward essential policies for discussion, on public ownership, on a socialist independence vision for Scotland, on working-class internationalism and solidarity with workers’ struggles in other countries, and on a Marxist understanding of socialism as a fundamental break with capitalism and a democratic society based on democratic planning by working people to meet the needs and aspirations of all.