Or, “I really think we need to take a break”.
By Paul Halas
After several months of running on empty I’ve finally decided to leave the Labour Party. It’s a wrench, to put it mildly. For the past few years the party has been very central to my life, occupying much of my time and providing a circle of friends and comrades I value greatly and who’ve broadened my horizon immensely. So leaving the organisation, even if it doesn’t automatically entail losing contact with a host of great people, doesn’t come very easily.
I was one of the Corbyn influx. Up until his accession as party leader I’d never been part of any political organisation, always finding some reason or other not to engage with the process. In the 1970s the true left was too fragmented (and in truth I was probably too stoned much of the time), in the 1980s I couldn’t see beyond my visceral hatred for Margaret Thatcher, in the 1990s none of the Labour leaders ignited any sort of enthusiasm in me and in the Noughties New Labour fulfilled its remit of slyly continuing Thatcher’s neoliberal (a word not in general circulation back then) crusade… God, for a while even Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems advocated a more radical platform than Blair and co. Fast forward another five years and the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader coincided with my being found surplus to my publisher’s needs as a comic strip writer (in fairness I’d had a pretty good, forty year innings), meaning that not just was there a political leader I truly believed in, I now had the time to devote myself to the cause. Of course I rushed to join.
Corbyn arouses mixed reactions, to say the least. But for me and thousands like me he represented a storm-force blast of fresh air in politics. He had his flaws but he was sincere, he cared, he stood up to the Establishment, he convinced us that even within our tired old parliamentary system we could actually achieve something better – something far better. Until the media concocted an evil narrative against the man he was derisively known at “Saint Jeremy”. Within my local party the influx of Corbynistas received a mixed reception.
Here a tip of the hat to all those who’ve worked for years – decades – within the Labour Party to keep the wheels of society turning and strive for the betterment of all. Leaders have come and gone, but indefatigable Labour councillors and activists have put their all into their roles and we’re far better off for it. I have no doubt the vast majority of them have done far more for their fellow humans than I ever have. Locally, some of them welcomed the newcomers with open arms, others took a dimmer view of all the “entryists”.
I had no experience whatsoever of functioning within any sort of organisation, and had no expectation of “upward mobility” within the local party. Having been a scriptwriter I was useful as a “messager”, writing a stream of press letters and leaflets, and I took to activism like a duck to water. But those newcomers with far greater political and organisational ability than me, who could have made a real contribution in more executive posts in the party, frequently encountered a high degree of resistance. In the local party things were done a certain way and by certain people. The newcomers were useful as activists, fetchers and carriers, but to go any further than that they had to adhere to a very well established template – one that pre-existed the Corbyn phenomenon. And that, in microcosm, appears to encapsulate most of the Labour Party machinery.
While the Labour Party can and frequently does work to improve matters at local level – even under a kamikaze Tory government – the evolution and ethos of the party at national level is of paramount importance, but how often that appears to be ignored at CLP and branch level. For over two decades, and some would say far longer, the Labour Party has adhered to the neoliberal consensus that underpins the economies of much of the developed world. A system that’s been shown to be increasingly dysfunctional, unless you’re a hedge fund manager or oligarch. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour rejected that path (well, not the PLP and a whole bunch of party workers, as we now know) – and that’s why so many of us loved him… or certainly what he stood for. In a world where everything and everyone is viewed as a commodity, he wanted to put human beings before the sacred market.
He had to go, and he was dealt with.
In the run up to the 2019 general election we campaigned with feverish intensity. For nearly six weeks I helped run a high street Labour stall in all sorts of beastly weather, fielding all sorts beastly comments from a public versed in beastly anti-Corbyn invective by a beastly media. Perhaps our intensity was fuelled by a subconscious foreboding that we were dead men walking, or maybe that’s just hindsight speaking. Certainly we can now look on that time as Corbyn’s last stand, because we knew that if he lost he’d inevitably stand down, and there was no natural successor. The feeling of numbness from that defeat has stayed with me ever since.
In the Labour leadership ballot my vote was unsurprisingly for Rebecca Long Bailey – by default really. For me the other candidates were unthinkable. At the CLP meeting in which our membership chose Keir Starmer by a two thirds majority my post election gloom grew several degrees darker. I didn’t trust Starmer and I didn’t like him. Maybe I could’ve given him the benefit of the doubt – many did and many are now having second thoughts – but I didn’t want to give him the time of day and for once I was right. For all his “forensic” intelligence, I saw him as completely untrustworthy, as often on the dark side as on that of the angels. That probably marked the death knell of my party membership, the intervening time just an agonisingly long farewell.
Going into yet another bout of Starmer-bashing is probably pretty boring by now, so I won’t go too much to town on it. I think anyone still believing he’ll stick to the Labour Party’s ten core pledges is living in Narnia – his “direction of travel” is crystal clear and he has another four years to dilute them further. His conduct over the whole antisemitism issue is deeply dishonest and shameful. The loss of freedom of speech within the party is shameful. The party’s purge of the left isn’t going to stop until the notion of democratic socialism is a whimsical memory. And as if all that ain’t enough, he is deeply and completely enmeshed in “the Establishment”. You don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to realise that no member of the Trilateral Commission – an international neoliberal “think tank” founded by David Rockefeller in 1973 – could ever hold socialist views… and Starmer belongs to that very elite group.
Neoliberalism hasn’t provided any answers for society, but then that was never its aim. Rampant disillusionment with the status quo along with an increasingly meagre trickle of trickle-down is what helped fuel right-wing populism in a host of countries, and a swing back to centrism – underpinned by a continuing adherence to the same old tried and failed economic framework – is only a recipe for more of the same, and in all probability still worse, in the future.
Starmer is desperate to occupy the “centre” ground to boost his much vaunted electability, and he sees ditching the left as his means of achieving that. Quite possibly he’ll win the next general election, although the proposed boundary changes may well jam a spoke in his wheel. But if he wins I don’t believe his new New Labour will provide any answers. The corporate elite will still hold sway, inequality with continue to grow, the environment will continue to be ravaged and resentment will continue to fester – ripe for the unscrupulous with their gruesome easy answers. That’s how fascism takes root.
Plenty of friends and comrades – most – have urged me to stay in the party and fight, but for me the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn was the final straw. Except of course for Starmer that was just another step along the way. My feeling at the moment is that staying and fighting for the soul of the Labour Party while Keir Starmer is leader is like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teaspoon. It’s a painful decision, and I’m aware that for many the idea of leaving the party is unthinkable – like a Catholic choosing excommunication. It’s just a matter of how much one can bear to see the party one has loved move away from its core ideals. George Monbiot recently said the best hope for the left is a populist movement harnessing the same degree of passion and simple messaging that so invigorated the right. It nearly happened in 2017. But I don’t see how that’s going to be repeated while Starmer and the current PLP are in charge (whatever the make-up of the NEC); the powers that be are absolutely determined that no such thing should reoccur. Maybe a mass rebirth of the left will have to take place outside the Labour Party, at least initially. However, if I’m completely wrong and the party veers back to the left I’ll recant my apostasy and happily beg to be re-admitted, pretty please. In the meanwhile, I remain an ardent Corbynista. I’ll be happy to help out with volunteering for this and that (such as leafleting), but I really cannot continue my membership while Keir Starmer leads the party.
A last thought. Would I want to join the Labour Party as it is now? The answer is a definite no.
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.