Britain: Starmer, the left, and the war – time to make a stand

‘Sir’ Keir Starmer has cynically used Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an excuse to attack the anti-imperialist left, and to prove his loyalty to the establishment. The labour movement must fight the enemy at home, not the ‘enemy within’.


Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Britain’s capitalist media and politicians – the mouthpieces and representatives of the ruling class – have launched into a veritable war frenzy.

This comes on top of weeks of sabre-rattling rhetoric. But now war is here, the dial has been turned all the way to 11 on this bellicose, pro-imperialist propaganda.

The Tories have obviously been particularly aggressive in their banging of the war drum, as they have been for the last month, with Johnson threatening a “decisive response” and announcing fresh sanctions.

Senior Tory MP Tom Tugendhat has even raised the possibility of expelling Russian citizens from the UK.

Jingoism

‘Sir’ Keir Starmer and other creatures of the Labour right wing have once again fallen over themselves to prove their establishment credentials – desperately competing with the Tories to prove to the ruling class that they are the more serious, more unwavering, more patriotic party of British imperialism.

starmer british flag Image Socialist Appeal‘Sir’ Keir Starmer and other creatures of the Labour right wing have once again fallen over themselves to prove their establishment credentials / Image: Socialist Appeal

Starmer’s jingoistic rhetoric – following on from his recent stomach-churning love letter to NATO – has reached new lows.

In the House of Commons, Starmer called for the UK to implement harsher sanctions to cripple Russia’s ability to function; to provide greater weapons, equipment, and financial assistance to Ukraine; and to “reinforce and reassure NATO allies”.

Her Majesty’s Most Loyal ‘Opposition’ has also talked of standing united with other political parties in the ‘national interest’, and has called for the strongest possible response.

Worst of all, Starmer’s primary line of attack against Johnson and the Tories is that UK sanctions against Russia thus far are “not strong enough”!

Censorship

In a series of tweets, Starmer sickeningly states – in true Cold War – rhetoric that: “All those who believe in the triumph of democracy over dictatorship, good over evil, freedom over the jackboot of tyranny must now support the Ukrainian people.”

But what of democracy in Starmer’s own party?

The onset of war has often been accompanied by politicians cracking down on democratic rights, in order to whip workers into line behind the ruling class. This means clamping down on freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.

Most of these rights have already been curtailed in the Labour Party, however. So it has not been much of a leap for Starmer and the Labour bureaucracy to go even further in trampling on party democracy.

Following the signing of a petition by the Stop the War coalition – a broad campaign of trade unionists and anti-war activists – by eleven left-wing Labour MPs, Starmer immediately responded with his own threat of sanctions: all were to have the party whip withdrawn unless they rescinded their signatures.

Such a threat is punitive and draconian. It would mean expelling these MPs from the Parliamentary Labour Party, and all but guaranteeing their future deselection as Labour candidates – as is already the case with Jeremy Corbyn.

But this is not the first time Starmer has threatened anti-imperialist left-wingers within the party, who he and the right wing paint as ‘the enemy within’.

This latest move follows on from his aforementioned letter in the Guardian, where he refers to the Stop the War coalition as giving “succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies”.

It is clear – both from his words and actions – where Starmer and the Labour right wing stand. For these loyal servants of the establishment, opposition to Western imperialism is tantamount to treason.

Capitulation

How then did these MPs respond to Starmer’s crack of the whip? Unfortunately, by obediently and immediately falling in line.

Within 45 minutes of the threat being made, all eleven had withdrawn their names from said petition. Rather than taking a stand, mobilising members, and defending their professed principles of anti-imperialism, these MPs cowered to ‘Sir’ Starmer’s censorship.

“Labour is under new management,” a party spokesperson arrogantly asserted. “With Keir Starmer’s leadership, there will never be any confusion about whose side Labour is on – Britain, NATO, freedom and democracy – and every Labour MP now understands that.”

This sets a dangerous precedent. Grassroots activists will now rightly ask: How far back will the left be pushed? Where will the line in the sand be drawn? Will it be drawn at all?

The Labour right wing will only be emboldened by this capitulation, feeling confident to repress dissenting voices in the PLP and the wider party when it comes to all future votes – whether this is on war, austerity, anti-trade union legislation, or anything.

By retreating at the first sign of trouble, the few left MPs that remain in the PLP have allowed Starmer to grip them by the throat.

Instead of standing by basic socialist principles – those of internationalism and anti-imperialism – these MPs chose to back down, without even attempting to put up a fight and rally rank-and-file activists.

As John McInally, former PCS vice-president and socialist stalwart, wrote recently: “Nothing tests socialists as does the question of war”. And these left MPs have sadly failed this test.

Clampdown

But this was not the end to Starmer’s threats against anti-war sentiments within the party.

Outrageously, earlier today, the party HQ unilaterally took over Young Labour’s social media accounts. In stern language, an official party statement declared that the YL “has recently become actively detrimental to the party’s core objectives”.

Access to the YL twitter account by the youth wing’s elected leadership is “suspended until further notice”. Speaking to LabourList, one party insider put it rather more paternalistically: “Their twitter has been taken off them until they sort themselves out.”

This refers to the Young Labour national committee, which had publicly criticised Starmer’s “unshakeable” support for NATO. This clampdown is the Labour leader’s response to such criticism.

Others on the Labour right have joined in with this chorus of admonishment, with David Lammy MP describing the YL leadership’s stance on NATO as “lazy” and “knee-jerk”.

Sanctions

Unfortunately, it has not just been the right-wing Labour leaders who have muddied themselves over this question.

‘Left’ journalists and ‘socialist’ organisations have also shown their true colours – parroting the belligerent rhetoric of the Tories, and allying themselves with reactionary Ukrainian nationalist forces.

Owen Jones, for instance, has vocally backed UK sanctions put forward by the Tory government, including suspending Russia and its allies from the SWIFT system of international financial transactions, and cutting air, rail, and shipment links with Russia. But Jones does at least draw the line at deporting Russian nationals from Britain!

Going a step further, Paul Mason – a self-proclaimed anti-fascist and radical socialist – has called for arms to be sent to the Ukrainian government; arms that would no doubt end up in the hands of far-right nationalists and fascists in Ukraine.

On 26 February, meanwhile, the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign – backed by an assortment of sectarian so-called ‘socialist’ groups – hosted a demonstration outside Downing Street, with speakers such as John McDonnell MP and Paul Mason advertised.

This campaign also calls for the introduction of sanctions, whilst failing to address the role of NATO aggression and Western imperialism in this conflict, with their expansion to Russia’s borders and stubborn refusal to negotiate.

Such ‘solidarity’ protests, far from supporting workers in Ukraine or anywhere else, are more likely to draw the attendance of reactionary Ukrainian nationalists and anti-communists, as has been seen in the past.

We must be clear: Marxists oppose this war. But sanctions will not stop it. Ultimately, their effects will be felt worst of all by the working class – both in Russia and across the world.

Those most affected by this economic squeeze on Putin’s regime will not be the oligarchs and bankers, who will lose a few rubles, but ordinary Russian workers.

Likewise, sanctions, alongside the war itself, will also impact workers internationally by further destabilising the world economy and compounding the crisis of capitalism.

Energy and food prices are set to rise even higher as a result of this conflict, pushing up inflation and exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis for workers everywhere.

Enemy at home

These ‘lefts’ jump in line behind Starmer and the Labour right wing. The Labour leadership jumps in line behind the Tories. And Boris Johnson and the Tories jump in line behind Washington. The result is that all, ultimately, end up falling in behind US imperialism – the most reactionary force on the planet.

biden johnson putin Image Socialist AppealFor workers in Britain, our main enemy is at home: the Tories, NATO, and our own rotten ruling class / Image: Socialist Appeal

The Marxists, in contrast, are absolutely clear on where we stand. Of course, we stand opposed to the invasion of Ukraine. But no amount of jingoism from Western imperialism – and its supporters, conscious or otherwise – will prevent the death and destruction of war.

Only the working class in Russia can remove Putin and his capitalist gangsters.

For workers in Britain, our main enemy is at home: the Tories, NATO, and our own rotten ruling class. It is against them – and the imperialist interests they defend – that we must first-and-foremost direct our attacks.

We stand for peace, but we are not pacifists. As revolutionaries, we stand for war between classes, not peoples.

Above all, we stand opposed to the root cause of war and imperialism – capitalism itself. As long as this decrepit system stumbles on, bloodshed and slaughter will always be a sad fact of life.

As Lenin remarked: Capitalism is horror without end. Only by eradicating this barbaric system, responsible for so much misery and death, will we establish truly-lasting peace and prosperity across the world.

Originally published on 25 February at socialist.net |