The Disappearing Party

With the objective of a mass membership party now abandoned, Labour is returning to its recent past as a Westminster political machine – but members can still have influence, if they organise.

Since Keir Starmer became Labour Party leader in April, his primary concern has been to emphasise at every opportunity that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. So far, this has worked: a soft-soap reception from most of the media and a generally quiescent (at long last) parliamentary party have enabled Labour to catch up with the Tories in the opinion polls.

In his speech to ‘Connected’ – this year’s online replacement for party conference – and in a subsequent party political broadcast, Starmer was at pains to emphasise his ‘new leadership.’ What that leadership actually intends to do if it wins government office remains opaque, and it’s unlikely we’ll know too much on this point until shortly before the next general election (by which time any watering-down of policy will be a fait accompli).

But what is clear is that centralised managerialism is once again the order of the day in the Labour Party. In fairness to Starmer, this was signalled clearly enough during the last leadership election; the main basis of his pitch was that he’d keep the bulk of existing policy, while complementing this with a more disciplined and professional approach to party management. After such bitter infighting, most Labour members proved receptive to this.

What it means, however, is that their ability to influence and shape the direction of the party will be very limited in the coming years. This is the meaning of Starmer’s “new management”: all the initiative is supposed to lie with the leader’s office (and the press), while party members are there to serve as dutiful, door-knocking, leaflet-delivering foot soldiers.

What ‘New Management’ Means

Starmer has so far prioritised mood music over policy detail. His immediate aim is to win back ‘socially conservative’ voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’, which crumbled last December. Here he perhaps feels a need to overcompensate, having just months ago been an ardent supporter of a second referendum on Brexit; this is something the Tories won’t let him forget in a hurry.

Some of Starmer’s recent appeals to social conservatives have set alarm bells ringing on the left. Most recently, last week he instructed his MPs to abstain on the second reading of the sordid Overseas Operations Bill, designed to make it much harder to prosecute British armed forces personnel for war crimes by imposing a five-year statute of limitations. The British state is already a past master at dodging accountability for decades on end.

Only 18 Labour MPs (Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn among them) broke the whip to vote against the bill, a bare majority of the Socialist Campaign Group. Starmer’s allies, in a display of remarkable cynicism, briefed journalists afterwards that they were quite satisfied to have “created a dividing line between the past and present leaders.”

All of this is a far cry from the touchy-feely talk of party unity and ending factionalism which Starmer made the cornerstone of his leadership campaign, and indeed his own past as a human rights lawyer, which he was keen to highlight when seeking votes from Labour members. It suggests that he sees some electoral utility in defining himself against the left of his own party, picking fights with it for the approval of the press.

Bridget Phillipson, shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, gave an indication of the low priority now accorded to Labour Party members by implying they were an “echo chamber.” (This same “echo chamber” elected Starmer leader with 56 per cent of the vote just under six months ago.) Phillipson was signalling that Labour no longer had any real interest in growing its membership, vastly expanded during the Corbyn years.

Certainly, if anyone knows anything about echo chambers, it ought to be the middlebrow wonks, bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists of the parliamentary Labour set; any lectures from this quarter should be laughed out of town. But Phillipson is at least candid about how she and her colleagues view the party members to whom they owe their position.

Where Corbynism Went Wrong

By contrast, for Jeremy Corbyn, a mass Labour membership was an asset to be carefully cultivated. With the best will in the world, Corbyn was never likely to receive a favourable reception from the bulk of the media, and so had to find other ways of getting his message out: an empowered, expanded party membership could, it was suggested, serve as a counterweight.

To an extent, it did. The campaigning effort in 2017 was hugely impressive, with Momentum’s own machine filling in the gaps left by an unenthusiastic if not actively disruptive party bureaucracy. Labour thus not only won seats it had never taken before, including Kensington and Canterbury, but also took 50 per cent of the vote in the ‘Red Wall’.

Despite increasing the Labour Party membership to over half a million at its peak, however, Corbyn’s leadership ultimately made few changes to party structures. The National Executive Committee (NEC) was enlarged, as was the Socialist Campaign Group. But crucially, open selection of sitting MPs was passed up in favour of a reformed trigger ballot, which party members made little use of.

Such modest tweaks can be either neutralised or rolled back quite easily. Starmer wasted no time in making a demonstration of intent in this regard: by changing the electoral system for constituency representatives on the NEC, in one fell swoop the incoming leadership made it much harder for the Labour left to ever win a majority on the Executive again.

Furthermore, for many members who were inspired to join Labour by Corbyn’s rise to the party leadership, the ‘new politics’ they had expected was often notable by its absence. Constituency parties were frequently either unwelcoming or simply set in their ways, while local councils – a number of them long notorious as bastions of cronyism and petty corruption – also proved largely impervious to left-wing challenges.

The 2017 general election was both the high water-mark of Corbynism and the beginning of its end. With the prospect of forming a government seemingly looming, any ambitions for fundamental party reform fell by the wayside. The heavy defeat in 2019, meanwhile, paved the way for a restorationist regime to re-establish the primacy of the Parliamentary Labour Party and put the membership back in its box.

Can Starmer Be Swayed?

A recent article in New Socialist from George Peacock suggests that Starmer’s strategy is not one likely to be susceptible to pressure from below, at least as exerted through Labour’s traditional channels. As Peacock notes, the Tories’ recent attacks on Starmer have revolved around the theme of ‘same old Labour’, implying that he is trying to sneak through a Corbynite policy agenda while hiding it behind a superficial rebrand.

This is, Peacock suggests, the sort of pressure that Starmer might prove vulnerable to, potentially prompting him to make a point of jettisoning totemic left-wing policies. Likewise, Starmer has been quick to distance himself from the trade unions, embarking on a charm offensive of rich donors with a view to reducing Labour’s reliance on union funding. These people rarely give money out of altruism, and policy concessions will inevitably be expected.

In Peacock’s analysis, the strategy favoured by Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s director of policy, accepts the basic parameters of political possibility as already set: all we can do is adjust ourselves to them and try to eke out gains that way. Thus there is no need, as there was under Corbyn, for an active, engaged and empowered party membership to mount a persuasive ideological campaign.

All this indicates that, rather than lobbying a leadership that has no interest in their views, party members might be better off working to build power elsewhere, looking outward to the working class. For example, the mobilisation of renters’ unions and mutual aid groups, along with the revival of Black Lives Matter, have been among the few sources of encouragement in an otherwise dispiriting period.

Socialists can still be effective through the Labour Party. We can organise to transform Labour councils, win parliamentary selections and perhaps change the party’s rule book to prevent it from becoming a plaything once more for tycoons and spivs (they have enough of those already). But the new circumstances mean that successful internal campaigns will be difficult – and require concerted efforts towards unity and organisation on the left.

Keir Starmer promises a better managerialism after a turbulent and traumatic few years, but this is not how lasting social change has ever been delivered. For that, we need real counter-power coupled with an assertive, self-confident socialist politics capable of rising to the major challenges of our time.