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Why the Labour Left is Purged


If you want to know how the ordinary politician will act, look to the state of their interests. They are no different from other persons in that they will, in general, follow the course which assures them the greatest quantity of pleasure, the least quantity of pain. The disregard of this elementary principle, has been one of the most injurious errors of the British Labour Left.

The purge of the Left from the Labour Party, conducted by Sir Keir and his faction, is notorious. Though it was formerly denied that the Left suffered injustice, and that the perpetrators were actuated by factional enmity, it is now admitted by all except the party itself, that factional considerations have been the chief determinant of Labour’s internal proceedings.

The latest manifestation of this fact, was the prevention of two more or less Left-wing parliamentary candidates from standing for Labour in the general election: namely, Faiza Shaheen, and Lloyd Russell-Moyle. Conformable to the principle referred to above, that politicians act according to their calculation of costs and benefits, it was easy to predict that this would happen: the Labour leadership has had powerful inducements to continue to repress the Left, and only very weak inducements to do otherwise. The blame for this state of things must be borne by the Labour Left, because it has never inflicted political punishments on the Labour leadership for its wrongdoing. The independent campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North, supposing, as is likely, that he will win the seat, may be the first time that such a penalty is imposed on Sir Keir and co.; but even this has come much too late to have an appreciable effect. The Left, instead of pursuing retaliation against the Labour Party, has taken every blow, and never returned a blow in exchange. That such a strategy is bound to fail, is obvious from the mere statement of it.

It may be said that, since Parliament is dominated by two parties, the Left cannot risk retaliation against Labour: the consequence would be expulsion from the party, and thus debarment from meaningful democratic participation. To this there are two answers:

First, meaningful democratic participation is already impossible in the Labour Party. If statements of common Left opinion are penalised; if Left candidates are blocked from standing, one by one; if a pretext can always be found to impede the Left’s political progress; then what is the value of participation in the Labour Party? Either Labour membership is employed as a means to an end, or it is an end in itself. If Labour membership is an end itself, then all debate with the proponents of Labour Leftism must be considered futile. If, on the other hand, Labour membership is a means to an end—a means to the advancement of Left politics—then it must be admitted, at least in this period, that there are better means available. Campaigning outside the Labour Party affords far greater strategic freedom; it permits Leftists to state their opinions explicitly, forcefully, and sincerely; and it therefore has a much higher chance of augmenting the Left’s popularity. The present strategy of the Labour Left, instead, is to give Sir Keir and co. a perpetual veto on the Left’s activities: they have agreed to use the worst methods to advocate their ideas; and they have agreed to remain in Labour by sufferance, instead of fighting.

Second, it is wrong to suppose that the dominant parties are the only door to political influence. This notion is refuted by the composition of Parliament, where many candidates win seats who belong to neither of the dominant parties; and it is refuted by political experience: experience both very recent, and historical. The Liberal Party, which, alongside the Conservatives, dominated politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was eventually displaced by Labour. If the necessary standards of political organisation obtained, the parties which now dominate the country could also be displaced. More recent national experience confirms that even parties which are not well-represented in Parliament, can have the most profound influence on politics, when they enjoy popular support, and strive to win selected parliamentary constituencies.

If the foregoing reasonings are correct, it follows that it is right to impose political punishments on the Labour Party, which apart from increasing the Left’s influence and authority nationally—itself an object of paramount importance—may induce Sir Keir and co. to diminish the severity of their purges. A necessary part of punishing Labour is to threaten its control over parliamentary constituencies; Sir Keir and co. must face an indisputable political consequence for their conduct.

It is often assumed that the Left, with its present resources, cannot win, or even make a strong challenge to the dominant parties, in parliamentary seats. Nothing could be more mistaken. The Left has the money and the activists required to win, or to launch impressive challenges, in some constituencies. It has been demonstrated in a shrewd article by Edmund Griffiths, that the Left could make real progress in elections, if it did not spread itself so thinly, and concentrated on winning, or taking a large share of votes, in a very small number of selected seats. If there were reasonable cooperation between Left groups, and hundreds of activists were allocated to each seat, the Left would have a real chance of success. That this has not hitherto happened, is a symptom of the Left’s shameful disorganisation; but it is evident that this circumstance can be changed.

It remains for us to consider why the Labour Left has never developed the willingness to retaliate against the injustices it has suffered. One explanation, which explains the conduct of only the parliamentary members of the Labour Left, is simple careerism. The pecuniary and reputational inducements to remain a member of Parliament are both intense and certain: to oppose the actions of Sir Keir and co. is to risk the loss of those advantages, with no obvious compensatory gain. What might be best for the Left as a political movement, therefore, does not always seem best when viewed from the situation of a comfortable legislator. The conviction of these MPs, that they must remain members of Parliament, to give the Left a voice and an influence it would otherwise lack, is a formidable auxiliary to the aforementioned inducements. But what use is a voice that may be silenced by Sir Keir at any moment? What use is an influence that will allow its own destruction, without the least perceptible resistance?

A further reason for the lack of retaliation is, that those who now hold leadership positions in the Labour Left, are mostly those who endured the years of Sir Tony Blair’s ascendancy, and continued to remain Labour members despite their insignificance. These were persons of timid dispositions: persons who were accustomed to defeat, and willing to accept it again and again. In short, they were the last group who could be expected to wage a skilful fight against Sir Keir and his faction.

The Labour Left is purged because it refuses to defend itself. Paradoxical as it may seem, the survival of the Labour Left requires that there be powerful opposition to Sir Keir and co. from the broader Radical Left outside the Labour Party.