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Labour Disconnected

This week's Labour conference speech was the clearest indication yet of Keir Starmer's intention to retreat from socialist principles – and the radical transformation that this country desperately needs.

This week’s conference speech was the clearest indication yet of Keir Starmer’s intention to distance himself not just from December’s election defeat but from five years of Corbynism.

In recent weeks, Starmer’s team have rolled out a number of themes that they hope will define his tenure. And, true to form, both competence (the effort to portray Labour as a safe pair of hands against a bungling Tory government) and leadership (contrasting Starmer’s role as Director of Public Prosecutions with Boris Johnson’s dilettantism) played a role in his remarks.

But these weren’t the headline acts. Before the speech began, journalists were briefed that patriotism was its centrepiece – with Starmer seeking to rebrand Labour as the party of “flag, forces, family.” Within twenty-four hours of the speech, we discovered what this meant. The Labour leader instructed his MPs to abstain on a bill which would make it far harder to prosecute war crimes – and sacked members of his shadow team who refused to accede.

It’s all quite a long way from the leadership campaign, when Starmer promised that “radical socialist traditions” would remain at the heart of the Labour Party and talked up his record of “marching against the Iraq War” and “standing alongside trade unions as a human rights lawyer.” But it is consistent with Starmer’s broader trajectory of abandoning Corbynism’s more radical elements in favour of a message of moderation.

The reasoning behind this is clear. “It’s time to get serious about winning,” Starmer told us in his speech, “and that means we have to change.” Whereas in recent years Labour sought to win by promising to transform society, Starmer is in many ways promising the opposite — stability and security, a prime minister who will return British politics to normality.

That is certainly the logic informing the appeal to competence, which extends far beyond excoriating the government to describing the “grown-up way” Labour intends to approach politics. The leadership theme is about defining who that grown-up is: a man who “prosecutes terrorists” while Boris Johnson is writing about “bendy bananas,” a statesman who can be trusted on national security and who represents the right values.

If the premise of Corbynism was that the rules of politics were failing working people and had to change, Starmerism is its refutation – a belief that these rules are mostly fixed and that Labour has to win within them. Corbynism saw injustice at the very heart of Britain’s institutions, and sought to build a movement to change them; Starmer’s themes foresee shallower problems and shallower solutions.

Even when the speech mentioned great social ills, it shied away from their remedies. We got a line about the climate emergency, but nothing about the Green New Deal; the “national scandal” in care homes was referenced, but not the National Care Service which might actually change things.

This was made manifest in the run-up to conference, when all manner of assurances were dealt out to the powerful that Labour would pose no significant threat – from press briefings that Labour had abandoned ambitions to be a mass membership party to the decision of shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, to write an op-ed in The Sun alongside a banner proclaiming that the party was “under new leadership.”

Starmer’s patriotic message seemed designed to appeal to the Murdoch press and the political landscape it creates. It is possible, of course, to imagine far higher climbs. There is a patriotism that guided the likes of Michael Foot and Tony Benn, which traces this country’s radical traditions from civil war to Chartism, the birth of organised labour to the suffragettes – peaks from which the best things in Britain can be seen. Such a trek may even hold out some hope of a patriotic message which is plurinational, recognising the social and cultural contributions of Scotland and Wales as distinct nations.

To believe that people can only be proud of this country when it is covering up war crimes is to demean the reality of their connection to their communities. In recent months, we have seen what makes this country a home – the medical workers who overcame the cutbacks to their hospitals to save lives at the frontline, the carers who looked after the vulnerable every day even as their employer paid poverty wages, the binmen and bus drivers and council workers who kept vital services going amid widespread anxiety, the community volunteers who organised food deliveries when people couldn’t leave their homes.

These are the real patriots; the people whose everyday acts stitch our social fabric together. Their concerns for Britain run far deeper than the pursuit of terrorists. Their enemies are not immigrants or refugees, benefit scroungers or woke teenagers, but those forces which tear our communities apart – transnational corporations who replace decent jobs with permanent insecurity or tax-dodging billionaires who starve public services of funding.

This, however, is not the terrain on which Keir Starmer has planted his flag, and when his newfound friends in The Sun begin defining the enemies of the nation, it will be their game that he is forced to play. His silence over the question of refugee rights this summer makes perfectly clear where the Labour Party will end up.

The charitable observer will interpret Starmer’s decision to jettison socialist messaging for competence, leadership and patriotism as an attempt to win permission from the electorate to pursue radical policies in the future. His shadow cabinet members might be discarding his campaign pledges like sandbags from a hot-air balloon, but once trust is rebuilt with the electorate Labour can speak once again about transformative change.

Unfortunately, this has never been how progressive reforms are won. Yes, you need trust – but you also need to win consent for the changes you hope to bring about. Starmer is fond of citing the post-war Labour government as a model for his own leadership, but there could hardly be a better example of a party which built a new consensus across society before being elected to lay the foundations of the welfare state.

Labour’s 1945 manifesto was certainly patriotic, but it was not a hollow exercise in flag-waving. It situated itself clearly on the side of working people and set about indicting the wealthy for profiteering from the social crises they create:

“The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own bureaucratically-run private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.”

This language would be totally alien to the Starmer project. Its contrast with Corbynism is defined by the absence of any mention of the rich, the wealthy, the elite – in fact, any semblance of class politics – from its rhetoric. Society’s real villains make no appearance in this production, they have been written out of the script.

Starmer’s team have received praise for their political communication, and some of it is deserved. But when you communicate political messages, you don’t only identify a problem – you identify who is responsible for it. Here, perhaps more than any other area, is where Starmer’s messaging does such damage. By indicting only government incompetence or a lack of leadership rather than broader social conditions, he is abandoning a battle we will need to win to stand any chance of saving the welfare state that the 1945 Labour government built.

Whatever its flaws, there is one question on which Corbynism was undeniably correct: the scale of the challenge facing left-wing politics. The decline of social democracy which we have seen for decades is not a blip or an aberration; it is existential, international and rooted in deep, structural factors which cannot easily be overcome. Unless the Labour Party tells this story compellingly, names those responsible and wins consent for changing society’s direction, it stands little hope of reversing these trends.

At its height, social democracy raised the floor for working people – it delivered higher wages and better conditions, decent housing and public healthcare, educational opportunities and a sense of security about a family’s future. But these things were not handed down from on high, they were won in a great struggle for a better day; a struggle waged by labour against capital.

Since the 1970s and ‘80s, we have been losing that battle. This is obvious on almost every count: the proportion of workers in trade unions has almost halved; labour’s share of the national income has fallen by more than ten points; the gap between wages and productivity has steadily risen. In fact, wages flatlined for more than a decade between 2008 and February of this year – and that was before the pandemic hit.

This victory of capital over labour is the fundamental phenomenon of our age. It is behind the growing inequality in our societies, not just in Britain but across the West. It is responsible for the loss of stable jobs and security in our lives. It is behind the decline of public services and the privatisation agenda. It is present in every line at a foodbank and every zero-hour contract. It is the reason Serco and Sitel can prey on our test and trace system and how private companies can profit from our care homes.

If Corbynism fell from a great height in December, it did so while climbing the mountain that confronts anyone with aspirations of rebuilding the welfare state in this century. Every centre-left leader, not only in Britain but across the West, who has tried to find a path around it has instead discovered a dead end – whether in or out of office.

For Starmer’s team, Corbyn’s radicalism was a mistake. It’s time to return to safer ground, to messages that won’t upset the Murdoch press or frighten big business interests. But the reality is that only by confronting these forces can social progress be achieved. That is what real leadership would look like.