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The Starmer Illusion

Keir Starmer promises to unite the party and appear prime ministerial while sticking by Labour's left-wing policies. But if elected, he would be forced to choose between these priorities - and it's clear which one would lose out.

December’s general election was undeniably as a hammer blow to Labour activists. It’s fair to say that most probably weren’t expecting to be beaten as badly as we were. Since the election of 2017 all the talk had been about what a socialist-led Labour government would do in office, and although a Commons majority always looked unlikely, many Labour members will have at least fancied their party’s chances of forcing a hung Parliament.

These heightened expectations make the scale of the defeat that materialised, and another five years of Tory government, all the more bruising. Now the Labour Party is facing up to the question of how to respond. Some aspiring leadership candidates have toured the TV studios volunteering to abandon high-profile policies from the 2019 manifesto – not because they’re unpopular, which they aren’t, but implicitly bargaining with the media and offering them the chance to set the boundaries of Labour policy in return for more favourable (or just less vituperative) coverage.

Regardless of this, support for existing Labour policy remains strong among the party’s rank and file, shortly to be voting for a new leader, and the prospect of any drastic retrenchment from the current manifesto is unlikely to be favourably received. Hence the different tack taken by Keir Starmer in his leadership campaign, positioning himself as the unity candidate working to bring Labour’s draining four-year civil war to an end and take the party back into government on a left-wing programme at the next time of asking, presumably in 2024. 

This, to be sure, is an appeal which might hold some allure to Labour members – among them many erstwhile supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – especially those still disorientated and demoralised after last month’s election. But there are major problems with it, not the least of these being that a sizeable minority of Labour MPs have no intention of making the kind of compromises Starmer appears to be asking of them.

The Mirage of Unity

What is the core of Keir Starmer’s pitch for the Labour leadership? It is, essentially, that as leader he would uphold the bulk of present Labour policy, using something like the 2017 manifesto as his baseline. The implication is that Starmer would be able to take the current Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) with him, reconciling them to these left-wing policies by providing them with a more conventionally acceptable and presentable leader – a sharp-suited former Director of Public Prosecutions at that – than Corbyn.

Clearly, there are plenty of people in the Labour Party who might well be receptive to such a pitch. Contrary to common misperceptions, there are very few Labour members who relish internal factional warfare purely for its own sake, and Labour members could be forgiven for being tempted by someone who comes along apparently offering them most of the policies they want, and the chance to implement them, without even more years of upheaval and aggravation.

However, this appeal is a fallacy. The unfortunate reality is that a substantial proportion of the PLP is likely to be either outright hostile to any left-wing platform, or lacks the will and determination to reliably defend it in opposition and carry it out in government, in the face of the relentless press attacks these policies would inevitably attract. The popularity of existing party policy, as the recent polling already noted has indicated, is not the issue. The bind Labour finds itself in is that anyone advocating such a programme can expect to be vilified in Britain’s overwhelmingly reactionary press.

The most right-wing rump of the PLP would be encouraged by a Starmer win. It would suspect, fairly or not, that Starmer is less committed to the left-wing policies which some rightist Labour MPs wasted no time in attacking as the election results were pouring in last month. By recruiting former Corbyn advisers including Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher, Starmer is doubtless aiming to reassure the left about his intentions. Less reassuring, however, is the appointment of Matt Pound – former national organiser for the right-wing Labour First – to Starmer’s campaign team, a move hardly likely to dissuade the PLP right that he could be dragged further in its direction once installed as leader.

Nor will appointments like that of Pound do much to reassure those left-wing Labour members tempted by Starmer, but apprehensive about the prospect of a right-wing purge, or an attempt to reverse ‘one member, one vote’ for leadership elections. In appointing Pound, a self-proclaimed “full-time” organiser against the “hard left”, Starmer was (presumably deliberately) sending out a message to the Labour right that its concerns would be heeded and its interests tended to if he became party leader. 

With Jess Phillips’ leadership campaign seemingly a non-starter, much of the Labour right will be looking to Starmer as a more viable route to reclaiming the party. Perhaps Starmer thinks he can play both sides off against each other while rising above the fray, but this is not how it’s likely to work if he were to secure Labour’s top job. As Michael Walker has pointed out, the Labour left (for all its support at the base) remains only a small presence in Parliament and lacks the easy media access enjoyed by the right. The most acute pressure would come from the latter.

It is unlikely that Starmer himself has any intention of presiding over a purge of the party membership. But he will come under real and persistent pressure to marginalise the Labour left, and jettison the detritus of Corbynism – including a good number of its supporters. Thangam Debbonaire’s politically illiterate demand for the expulsion of Ash Sarkar suggests that Starmer would be subject to continuing demands to sling left-wingers out of the party, and not solely from the Blairite right. If he refused to accede to those demands, they would be used as a cudgel against his leadership, with the full support of the media.

Given all this, Starmer’s appeals to end factionalism in Labour are, if not knowingly dishonest, at best woolly-headed. Considering the complexity of the Labour coalition between socialists, social reformers and trade unionists, with deep and fundamental differences between them on the nature and extent of the social change required, it is impossible to resolve the contradictions within it simply by instructing people to behave themselves. Such calls tend to translate as demands that the Labour left unilaterally disarm itself, and stop pushing so hard for its candidates and policies.

Furthermore, surely one of the crucial lessons of Ed Miliband’s leadership is that without an active, motivated and organised base of support either in the PLP or among the grassroots, any Labour leader is likely to find themselves a sitting target for the party’s right wing and its media allies. This is why alliances between the Labour right and its ‘soft left’ tend to result in the eventual triumph of the former – the right is clear about what it wants and fights hard to get it, while the soft left is less clear, and finds the unavoidable dirty work required to lead the party distasteful.

People-Powered Politics

In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the Labour leadership promising a ‘people-powered politics,’ but he only brought this to very limited fruition. The Labour Party still remains largely unreformed, with little structural change to show for the last four years beyond a slightly expanded Socialist Campaign Group in parliament, three new constituency seats on the National Executive Committee and a trigger ballot system the Labour left was unable to make effective use of.

Labour’s apparent proximity to office in the period after the 2017 general election led the outgoing party leadership to more or less relinquish any aspirations to radical party reform, most probably for fear of triggering a substantial split. The breakaway of Change UK in February last year seemed to seriously spook Corbyn and John McDonnell, who doubtless felt responsibility to alleviate the impact of a decade of austerity and hoped to do so with the minimum of internal strife.

Nonetheless, any aspiring Labour leader serious about defending the central aspects of the current party programme (let alone advancing on it in key areas) has to be prepared to face down the minority of malcontent MPs that still opposes it. The alternatives to doing so are either capitulating to the pressure from those MPs or being undermined by them with the eager assistance of the press. Starmer might fancy himself as a unifier, but as party leader would find himself with a choice: does he sacrifice party unity (in other words, the acquiescence of the PLP) or contentious aspects of the manifesto?

Were Starmer to be elected as Labour leader in April, given the nature of his pitch for the job, it is difficult to see how the process of party democratisation would advance any further. Instead, it is more likely that it would go into reverse gear, just when the need for a reformed and rebuilt Labour Party should be obvious to all. Labour needs not just to shore up and reconstruct its fragmenting popular base, but also to solidify public support for the kind of measures needed to undo the damage of years of cuts and, moreover, to help avert the threat of catastrophic climate breakdown. In its current form, it is unfit for either purpose.

There is a wealth of talent and energy among Labour’s rank and file, itself vastly larger than in the pre-Corbyn years. The excellent maiden speech delivered to the House of Commons by Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana, until recently part of Labour’s Community Organising Unit, again indicates that the PLP would be far more dynamic (not to mention diverse) than it currently is were more of Labour’s countless grassroots organisers and campaigners present in its ranks. 

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left candidate and the other frontrunner for the Labour leadership, will also have to grasp this nettle if she beats Starmer to the job. Encouragingly, she has in recent weeks alluded to the need for a strengthened and enhanced party democracy, but has yet to elaborate on the details of any changes she wishes to see. 

In her combative opening pitch, written for this publication, Long-Bailey rightly acknowledged popular discontent with “the British state’s distant and undemocratic institutions”, but the labour movement has some distant and undemocratic institutions of its own. She is also on record as having previously expressed scepticism about open selection of MPs, for fear of reselection battles “diverting their attention away” from their work at Westminster.

This is an opinion Long-Bailey would do well to reconsider in this leadership contest. In any case, diverting MPs’ attention away from Westminster – and all the stultifying chumminess and fetishism of ritual contained therein – is part of the point. Open selection is necessary both to allow for greater harmony between the party leadership, the membership and the PLP, and more importantly to ensure that these MPs are held effectively to account by their constituency party, one of the few ways working people can exercise some semblance of genuine accountability between elections.

As Labour leader, Long-Bailey would have to be prepared to go much further in democratising the party than her predecessor was able to. This isn’t simply a matter of overhauling the rule book, but more importantly of bringing Labour’s political culture decisively into the 21st century. This must encompass creating our own (physical, offline) spaces for socialising and meeting, getting serious about developing and supporting new left media, expanding the work of the party’s fledgling Community Organising Unit, and participating in trade union organising drives.

Though some have derided her for it, Long-Bailey is right to insist that complex, long-term processes of deindustrialisation and consequent class recomposition have made a crucial contribution to weakening the party in many of its old, now former post-industrial heartlands. Only a drastically changed, campaigning Labour Party with bold and firm socialist leadership can hold out any serious hope of addressing these weaknesses, and in doing so pave the way for the far-reaching social, political and economic transformation which is so badly needed across Britain.