Labour members in Bristol West have been suspended for confronting Starmer’s witch hunt against the left. This is a fight for all of us, argues Tom Whittaker
On Monday night Bristol West CLP members overwhelmingly passed a motion in support of Jeremy Corbyn at a meeting attended by close to 200 people. This was done in defiance of the regional secretary Phil Gaskin, who had told them they were forbidden from discussing the issue and who warned of suspensions should they proceed to do so.
Following the vote, both the chair and the secretary of Bristol West have had their membership of Labour suspended, as have a number of other key labour left activists in the constituency.
At the same time, members of the neighbouring Kingswood CLP voted to donate £3000 to the community and tenant's union ACORN and to local food banks in the area.
Again, the Labour regional office intervened, this time to tell activists that this was an inappropriate use of funds. A big row has subsequently erupted with both further suspensions and some resignations of Labour activists in Kingswood and beyond.
These arguments come off the back of considerable anger over the recent candidate selection process for the West of England Metro Mayor election in 2021 which was stitched up to ensure a right wing candidate. A shortlist drawn up by Labour head office excluded all the left candidates including Leslie Mansell who had come close to winning the West of England mayoralty for Labour in 2017.
Moreover, there is continued frustration at the role of Bristol's right wing Labour MPs. For instance, Thangam Debbonaire – MP for Bristol West – joined the protests against Corbyn back in 2016. More recently, as shadow minister for housing, she has prioritised protecting the incomes of landlords as opposed to ensuring that tenants can keep a roof over their heads without being pushed into debt.
If these are some of the local factors at play, the big picture is Keir Starmer's assault against the left of the party and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn. It is appropriate that Bristol West CLP should emerge as a centre of resistance to this within the party.
For most of the 20th century the generally affluent Bristol West constituency was a safe Conservative seat, only going to Labour in 1997. Following Blair's war on Iraq it went to the Liberal Democrats before Labour took it back in 2015, beating off a strong challenge from the Greens. Following Corbyn's election as Labour leader in 2015, membership of Bristol West CLP surged to over 4,000 and in the 2017 election the constituency had the biggest swing to Labour anywhere in the country.
The left in Bristol Labour know that it was the politics of Corbynism that delivered this electoral success. Over the past couple of years, they have tried boldly to maintain the early dynamism of the Corbyn moment through events like the Bristol Transformed festival.
However, with the Starmer's counter-revolution now clearly at the gates, a generation of activists who have pinned a considerable proportion of their hopes on achieving a social transformation through the Labour Party now face a choice as to whether they fight for socialist politics or prioritise staying in Labour.
Thus, the Bristol West members should be commended for their actions. They have given a lead to the resistance to Starmer and have helped break the silence surrounding Corbyn's suspension, at a time when too many on the left are still in a state of muted acquiescence. It is to be hoped that other CLP's rapidly follow their example by passing similar motions in defiance of the Labour leadership.
At the same time, the suspended members should be encouraged to fight their struggle out in the open and to look for solidarity across the whole movement and not just within the party's ranks.
Even as they were being witch-hunted out of Neil Kinnock's Labour party in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Militant Tendency helped deliver the coup de grâce to Thatcher through their crucial role in the anti-Poll Tax movement. Figures like Glasgow's Tommy Sheridan were able to build a considerable public platform for themselves outside of the Labour Party.
At a time when there is still a very large audience for socialist ideas in British society, Labour left activists should pursue their confrontation with the Starmer establishment with a high degree of confidence.