The demoralisation of grassroots Labour.

Stroud Labour canvassers November’19

By Paul Halas

The Stroud Labour CLP meeting to nominate its preferred leadership candidate back in January was packed, yet the atmosphere was sober and subdued. Members were permitted a two minute slot to talk up their choices, with the majority speaking for Starmer, citing his electability, his dependability, the fact that he was a safe pair of hands. Strong and stable, was the message. He proved to be the CLP’s outright choice, gaining twice as many votes as Rebecca Long Bailey, his nearest challenger. What had happened? Many of the people speaking up for Starmer I knew as Corbyn supporters; together we had spent the past five years passionately extolling the gospel of Corbynism – we believed a fairer, more equitable society was a real possibility.

Stroud is an atypical constituency. Stroud itself is smallish Cotswold market town with an industrial heritage more in keeping with a northern mill town than its more genteel, green-wellied neighbours. It has strong “alternative” credentials, being the cradle of Extinction Rebellion and home to many green socialists and socialist Greens. There are a couple of smaller towns, with similar characteristics, within the constituency borders, but the rest of it is true blue rural. Over the years it has ping-ponged between Labour and the Conservatives, and at the last election Labour was defending a majority of under a thousand.

During the weeks leading up to the general election Labour ruled the streets. We had the numbers; there were hundreds of us. We had stalls, we had teams of canvassers roaming the towns and many of the villagers. Being a marginal, help poured in from all over. Momentum was magnificent, doing what it does best: getting droves of activists out. We knew the Greens were a threat and they fought a dirty campaign, but we outnumbered them and carried the narrative. As for the Tories, their candidate and a few councillors were seen seen in Stroud High Street for a couple of hours every weekend, but largely they kept to the smaller villages and estates where their support was the strongest. They had the money but we had the people. Surely we’d done enough to hang onto the seat; as for the country as a whole, we tried not to think too hard about that.

During the weeks leading up to the general election Labour ruled the streets. We had the numbers; there were hundreds of us.

We lost. We lost the nation and we lost Stroud. Some of us blamed the Greens, but no matter: we were saddled with a vanilla Tory MP who didn’t appear to know which county she had been parachuted into. As a hyperventilating commentator babbled after Norway beat England in a World Cup qualifier many years ago, “…Winston Churchill, Maggie Thatcher, your boys took one hell of a beating!” We’d been licked. Like countless thousands of us up and down the country, we’d taken a hell of a beating. Again. Party members were demoralised and fed up with it. Fed up with losing.

At our CLP meeting we chose Keir Starmer. Good friends of mine said give the man a chance. He’ll appeal to a wider demographic, he’ll bring the party together, he’ll heal the wounds. With his fine legal mind he’ll take Boris to the cleaners. The argument that as a member of the Trilateral Commission he’s embedded in the Establishment cut no ice. Nor that he was part of the failed “Chicken Coup”, nor that he’d so far refused to disclose the backers of his leadership campaign, nor that his insistence on a Remain stance had been an electoral millstone. Trust him, we were urged. His policies were mostly leftist, and even if it meant the dilution of some of our cherished ideas, surely that was a price worth paying to get back into power?

Since that time, Starmer’s credibility has suffered blow after blow. Not only has he agreed to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ unconstitutional “Ten Commandments”, he has also okayed Labour staff training on anti-Semitism by Jewish Labour Movement members. Neither organisation represents or has the legitimate authority to speak for all UK Jews.

The biggest issue, however, the motherlode of dismay on the political left, is the internal report on anti-Semitism

Nearly all Corbynistas have been sacked from the shadow cabinet; the front bench has been steered sharply to the right. Starmer has been quick to distance himself from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, giving rise to the fear that economically his instinct will be to follow Milliband’s “austerity lite” policies, rather than the large scale investment advocated in Corbyn and McDonnell’s Green New Deal. Those expecting a large scale return to public ownership will probably see those plans watered down over time. And now that the full official list of Starmer’s backers has been belatedly revealed – oh my! With friends like those…

The biggest issue, however, the motherlode of dismay on the political left, is the internal report on anti-Semitism intended for submission to the EHRC… which was leaked when it became plain that Starmer was going to ignore it. Is there any need to go into the nitty-gritty of it? It is seismic, the biggest scandal to hit British politics in decades. The UK’s own Watergate. And Starmer’s every instinct is to cover it up: the make up of the panel investigating its contents and release gives ample evidence of that. And while a great number of instances of malefaction will no doubt be revealed, many wider implications, such as the consequential electoral fallout, and all the connections between the rogue staff and the lobbyists, politicians and backers they were in league with, is tellingly not part of the commission’s brief. If members are not outraged some vital part of their DNA is missing. Hundreds of thousands of activists were betrayed – not to mention our country’s political process and electorate.

If members are not outraged some vital part of their DNA is missing.

Trust in Starmer, many colleagues insisted. As far as I am concerned any trust that existed between Keir Starmer and the Labour membership has been broken. He never gave any clue as to what sort of vision he had and now we know he has none – bar gaining power, without losing the support of the highly suspect figures who are backing him. I consider that he has made a Faustian pact. And part of that arrangement is to ditch the left.

Left wing members are leaving the party in droves. At local level control freakery and the centrists are in the ascendancy once more. And if the activists, the ground troops who flock out at election time, are culled, the party will be in a position to emulate the Tories and use copious amounts of wealthy donors’ money to fight the next election.

Some of those who backed Starmer back in January are having second thoughts, though many still cling to the hope he’ll come good. I suspect that as his leadership progresses that optimism will erode further, but for the time being it will make little difference. Like it or not, barring cataclysms Starmer will be Labour leader for the next few years. There are no simply no viable alternatives at present, although the signs are positive regarding possible young leaders from the left in the future. Presented with the dilemma of whether to stay in the party or quit, I’m staying while Labour still has a left wing to fight for. Whether that remains in my hands or not is another matter.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

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