Labour: does 'Unite the Left' point the way forward?

By Paul Hunt, Socialist Alternative Political Committee

Around 400 people attended an online rally last Friday entitled ‘Unite the Left’. Hosted by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), it involved a number of key figures on the left of the Labour Party. The speakers included MPs such as Zarah Sultana, Claudia Webb, John McDonnell and Bell Ribiero-Addy. Former MP Laura Pidcock and trade unionists including Ian Hodson of the BFAWU and Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU who chaired the event also spoke. There were former parliamentary candidates, speakers from Young Labour and activists from groups such as Labour for a Green New Deal.

Graphic, Yaara Cliff

Speaker after speaker made hard hitting points about the impact of Covid-19 on working-class communities, the disproportionate effects on people from a BAME background and on how the Tory government is not interested in the welfare of ordinary people. The Tories will always put big business and profit first, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of working class people.


It was emphasised by many at the rally the hope that had existed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and how the anti-austerity policies that had been put forward inspired people who had previously been abandoned by New Labour, and how close Corbyn has been to winning the 2017 election.

Speakers commented about the disappointment of the 2019 election result, and correctly pointed out that despite not winning, 10 million people had voted for a radical Labour manifesto.

Labour under Starmer

The recent victory of Keir Starmer in the Labour leadership election was a massive setback for the left. In this time of Covid-19 and acute economic crisis, with worse to come, Starmer has shown why he had the backing of the political establishment. Determined to appear as the ‘constructive opposition’, i.e. not real opposition, he has shown his willingness to be seen as a responsible leader in the eyes of the capitalist class. However, this was barely alluded to in the rally.

How did things reach this point?

Despite the left having been in leading positions in the party and hundreds of thousands of people joining on the basis of Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies there was no clear analysis put forward as to how things had reached the point where the left was in retreat in the Labour Party. John McDonnell stated “that we need to be honest with ourselves about our failures”, but did not then outline his views on this in any detail. In fact no speakers went into any detail in terms of a balance sheet of the last few years, and what these failures may be.

Unite the left?

The main feature of many speakers was that the left needs to unite for internal elections in the Labour Party, such as the National Executive Committee (NEC). This is of course a valid general point, but just as important is the question of what programme this unity would be based on.

We see the bitter fruits of the ‘unity’ with the right wing of the movement that has been promoted by the leaders of the left in recent years. Instead of waging a struggle based on clear socialist policies and the mass mobilisation of the membership against the right wing, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others have recommended conciliation with the right. Any ‘unity of the left’ must avoid the mistakes of the last few years and rather than extending an olive branch to the right, must go on the offensive.


The period between 2015 and 2020 will in large part be the story of constant concessions to the right in the Labour Party, whether on the anti-semitism smears, the need for mandatory re-selection, the role of Labour councils in implementing cuts and much more. Rather than placate the right, these concessions, as Marxists warned, would only serve to embolden the right wing. For example the left candidate for the leadership election, Rebecca Long-Bailey, signed up with her opponents to the 10 pledges from the Board of Deputies which would restrict further criticism of the actions of the Israeli state in terms of the oppression of the Palestinians.

The results of these concessions have tragically come to pass and Socialist Alternative believe there are key lessons that must be drawn out and applied urgently to future struggles.

The importance of a socialist programme

The question of what policies the left should stand on also needs to be discussed. Whilst the anti austerity nature of Corbynism should be defended, Socialist Alternative also believe that these policies did not go far enough. This is especially true in this time of capitalist crisis. We support the bringing in to public ownership of sectors like rail, water, gas and electricity, but believe the left needs to go further. For example the FBU produced a very good pamphlet in 2012 calling for the banks to be brought into public ownership. This should form a key part of the left’s programme, as part of nationalising the commanding heights of the economy under democratic public ownership and workers control and management. The left should say clearly that we need to break with capitalism and fight for a socialist future.

Don’t leave, stay?

Virtually every speaker talked of the need for disillusioned left wing Labour supporters to stay in the Labour Party. This is too late for many people who have already made a decision to leave and are looking for other avenues to fight for the political representation that working class people so badly need.

The left in Labour only stands a chance of pushing back the tide if this is done on the basis of an understanding of and break with the mistaken strategy and conciliation with the right pursued over previous years. The fact that no clear leadership is currently being offered on this question by any of the leading figures and organisations on the Labour left means that thousands are looking for alternative avenues. Key in the next period will be the drawing together of mass struggle to fight back against the Tories' attempts to make workers pay for the Covid crisis. Such movements will inevitably require political representation - and it is by no means a principle that such representation must come through Labour. Those seeking to push back against Starmer's right-wing leadership from inside Labour must be prepared to take a lead on involvement in and initiating of campaigns and struggles - uniting those currently inside and outside the party. It's also necessary to wage a committed fight for democratic policies like mandatory re-selection and to put bold and far reaching socialist policies on the agenda. The need for a mass and serious mobilisation against the right wing in the Labour Party and trade union movement has been proven by events.

There are huge struggles coming around jobs, the economy, climate change, the NHS and much more. The need for political representation for working class people is as urgent as ever.

As we wrote in a recent article,

“...we also need to fight for such struggles to have a political voice. Socialist ideas – of public ownership of the major banks and monopolies and democratic planning of the economy to meet people’s needs without destroying the planet – can articulate the demands of working-class people and point towards the transformation of society that is necessary.

There should be no fetish made of the exact organisational form political representation for workers takes. It is right to continue to demand mandatory reselection of Labour MPs for example, and to fight to push back against the right as they attempt to reassert control at every level. But it would be wrong to argue that Labour is the only vehicle through which political representation can be achieved. Nor would it be right for those on the left to commit to loyal opposition to Starmer’s new right-wing leadership, potentially over a period of years. Political representation for working-class people is an urgent necessity, not a distant aspiration.

New parties and formations can also emerge in the next period – perhaps coming out of the struggles that will inevitably develop in response to this crisis and perhaps building upon the core of people previously mobilised around Corbyn. But crucial in the ultimate success of any such venture will be that it is built around a clear set of socialist ideas.

Socialist Alternative is appealing to Corbyn supporters to join us in the wake of Starmer’s victory. Because we believe that crucial is the building up of a core of people who understand the necessity of breaking with the broken and crisis-ridden capitalist system and the transformation of society along socialist lines. We are not what you would call a ‘rival’ or ‘alternative’ party to Labour in that sense. Rather, we represent a strand of thought which has been part of the workers’ movement throughout its history…..

…….To that end, we want to build an organisation made up of the best and the most audacious campaigners and working-class fighters. We want to build a genuinely democratic organisation, so that the best insights of those from all walks of life can be brought together to help us formulate our demands and ideas in a way that speaks to working-class people and points a way forward. We want to build an organisation that learns from history and which draws on the experiences of all those who have gone before us in the fight against capitalism. And we want to build an organisation that can ultimately play a decisive role in bringing about the transformation of society along socialist lines – both in Britain and internationally.”

If you agree with us, we urge you to join Socialist Alternative.