This is a transcript of Roger Silverman’s talk to the LLA Conference, 30th January 2021
Welcome to what could well prove a landmark conference. Hearty thanks for your support for the candidates of the LLA, and for my candidacy, in the recent elections for Labour’s National Executive Committee. In these elections we were opposed not just by the right wing, but also by the official left, which exerted persistent pressure on us to stand down, on the false grounds that we risked “splitting the left vote”; an obvious fallacy, since the votes were “transferable” – and our transferred votes did in fact help elect their candidates. I am proud to say that, against the combined opposition of both the right and the left, I was nominated by 65 Constituency Labour Parties, winning a total of 3,473 votes, and remaining a contender in the race right up to round 30 out of a total of 37 ballots. I’m especially proud that 2,072 Labour activists actually put my name right at the top of their list. This was a victory for all of us. We showed the support for a socialist challenge.
The ruling class has always depended on a right-wing leadership to contain the aspirations of the Labour movement. What is different about this latest attack is the ban on any discussion of it, the wholesale removal of constituency parties for daring to question it, and the outrageous and disgusting smears that have been hurled at its victims. To dare to accuse the most prominent contemporary fighter against racism of any kind of anti-semitism is the most breathtakingly vile slander imaginable. The victimisation of the party’s most popular former leader is a declaration of war on the hundreds of thousands of party members who had surged into the Labour Party to support him. It is a brazenly unconstitutional act of spite and provocation by the leader and general secretary.
The clearest sign of how desperate they are is the use of utterly grotesque lies in this purge. In the past the charges levelled at party activists at least made some sense. In the 1980s, for instance, members of Militant were expelled from the party for being Trotskyists – but at least that was true! They were – not that that was any grounds to expel them. Although the wholesale expulsions of the left in those days were vindictive, malicious and unconstitutional, they were at least frankly political. The pretext for their expulsions was that they organised to promote their ideas – as if the right-wing officials infesting party headquarters were not themselves constantly scheming and plotting behind the scenes: to what a vile extent is now exposed by the recently leaked secret report, which proves that paid officials of the party were hell-bent on outright sabotage of the party’s prospects.
So the word “witch-hunt” has sometimes been bandied about rather loosely. But this is literally the closest parallel in modern times to the original witch-hunts of the seventeenth century. Anyone accused then of witchcraft was thereby condemned without trial; just like now, for anyone accused of anti-semitism. Prominent anti-racist campaigners are indiscriminately accused of racism. Once accused, the victim is already branded, reviled, condemned. Anyone protesting at this injustice, anyone defending them from the charge, now as then is automatically condemned in turn. There is no means of legitimate defence. Even being Jewish is also no defence: many Jews have found themselves too branded anti-semites; the witch-hunters get around that paradox by contriving the absurd and hypocritical accusation that they are “self-hating Jews” – an avalanche of slander if anything more horrible and ludicrous than the McCarthyite purges of the 1950s. This is Alice-in-Wonderland justice: first the sentence, then the verdict, and only then (if at all) the trial.
I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for most of the last six decades. I’ve seen nine successive leaders come and go. We’ve had plenty of right-wing purges and crackdowns before: but NEVER on a scale like this – not under Gaitskell, Kinnock or Blair: wholesale expulsions, suspensions, constituency parties put under special measures… And all without charge or due process.
The party machine is hell-bent on driving out the half a million members who surged into the party to support a socialist leader – first, by demoralising the membership and plunging them into despair, and where necessary by mass expulsions, suspensions, special measures, shutdowns of party branches. As Angela Rayner has spelt out in so many words: we will expel thousands of party members. They know that for every member they suspend, a thousand will walk out in protest or drop out in despair. Members are leaving the party in their tens and hundreds of thousands.
More than 100 CLPs have defied instructions and passed resolutions in support of Corbyn or of no confidence in Evans/Starmer – including, two days ago, mine. They are being systematically suspended or put in “special measures”. At least 60,000, and probably a couple of hundred thousand, have left the party in disgust.
At my local CLP this week, we passed a motion of no confidence in the party leadership by 61% to 25% with 14% abstentions. We had been warned that this was “not competent business”! Under what rule is it unconstitutional to move a vote of no confidence in the leader? If our current leader can on his own personal initiative unilaterally remove the whip from his predecessor as party leader, when the elected national executive of the party has unconditionally reinstated his party membership, then on what possible grounds can a motion of no confidence in the current leader, moved at a legitimate party meeting, be ruled out of order?
We also had another motion on the agenda: for free speech – and that too was ruled out of order! Yes, you heard that right! NEVER before has the right of free speech itself been explicitly and in so many words refused. That being so, what’s the point of the Labour Party? The Labour Party was created precisely to defend trade unions: the right to organise and the right to free speech! We have demanded that the bureaucrats tell us – we have a right to know – under what rule in the party constitution are we forbidden even to call for free speech?
We’re told that the purpose of this crackdown is to ensure that the Labour Party remains a “safe and welcoming space”. Yet more Alice-in-Wonderland logic! Is this how you make it safe and welcoming? By refusing us the right of free speech? By threatening to shut us down? As a Jewish member of the Labour Party, I am grateful for Mr Evans’ concern to ensure that the Labour Party remains a “safe and welcoming space” for Jewish members. I just wish he could be trusted to keep it a safe and welcoming space for socialists.
But unlike in the New Labour years, it is they who are out of step with the times. Starmer thinks he can repeat the experience of New Labour, but Blair came to office with the wholehearted support of the ruling class at a time of prolonged boom. New Labour was awash with big business donations and the support of the Murdoch press. Its role was to carry forward the programme of Thatcher once the Tories themselves were too discredited. But in the boom conditions of that time, New Labour was still able to carry through some reforms: the minimum wage, the Good Friday agreement, a programme of capital investment (albeit under the so-called private finance initiative). When the crash came in 2008, they quickly dispensed with the services of New Labour.
But today, in this period of unprecedented crisis, there is no room left for Blairism, New Labour, “moderation”, a “third way”. There is no “middle way”. The choice is between a capitalism red in tooth and claw, or a socialist solution. That is why Starmer will never succeed in his doomed attempt to follow in Blair’s footsteps.
So a split in the Labour Party is not just a distant prospect – it’s already happening now. That’s not due to wrecking tactics by the left; it’s being pursued with the utmost vigour and determination by the right. They are determined to drive the left out; to transform the Labour Party back into a tame network of aspiring careerists. This is a one-sided civil war. As usual, the left are pleading for unity, while the right are ruthlessly driving the process to its conclusion. Since there’s no clear left leadership with a strategy and a perspective, it is proceeding blindly, in fits and starts. But there’s no other conceivable outcome. The split in the Labour Party has already begun. Let’s make it clear: I am not calling for a split. Starmer and Evans and Rayner are making one.
That’s why for individuals to simply drop out in despair without any plan is a disastrous mistake. Don’t do Starmer the favour of leaving without a fight. The suspended CLPs have to link together urgently. That is the only way forward. They must not fragment or dissipate their forces, but join together as the real backbone of Labour: to join up the suspended CLPs and individual members into a national network, and to call for support from the party’s trade-union base. Congratulations to Labour In Exile for making a start.
If we in West Ham CLP are shut down, we will create a new movement under the name Newham Socialist Labour, to which all labour activists, whether still LP members or unfairly suspended, will meet and plan and campaign and build mass support.
But a new party will not be created out of thin air. No individual, no matter how charismatic, has succeeded in launching a new mass socialist party – not James Maxton and his fellow members of the ILP, who were after all giants with a proud history in founding Britain’s first mass workers’ party; not Arthur Scargill, who had led the biggest strike in British history since the general strike; not George Galloway, who had at least defied Labour to win a historic bye-election as an independent; to say nothing of the myriad ultra-left sects.
The key to building a mass workers’ party lies as always with the trade unions, who formed the original Labour Party. That’s where the fight has to be taken. But what do we see? The very same people who were blaming us for standing in the NEC elections, falsely accusing us of “splitting the left vote” (a completely spurious charge) themselves brazenly split the left vote in the recent UNISON election and gave the right wing an easy walkover victory. That must not be allowed to happen again in the forthcoming elections in UNITE.
It is up to the trade unions either to reclaim the Labour Party or replace it to found a genuine socialist party of labour. This is not an unrealistic prospect. In 2004, the railway union the RMT and the fire fighters’ union the FBU disaffiliated from Labour, and as recently as 2015 UNITE threatened in effect to launch an alternative party. And just recently it cut its funding to the Labour Party in protest at its direction.
It is through the trade unions and the newly insurgent Labour branches and militants that the millions of victims of capitalism will find their true voice: the workers without a job, the families without homes, the youth without a future. We have the potential to build a mass socialist movement to challenge this government of the speculators, hedge fund sharks and black money launderers. The time has come!