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The Unbearable Lightness of Keir

Keir Starmer's decision to abandon the transformative economic policies of the Corbyn era is not just disappointing for the Left – it leaves Labour completely unprepared for the social crises we face.

Keir Starmer’s speech yesterday on the British economy is a measure of how far and fast the Labour Party has travelled backwards under its celebrated ‘new management’. Billed as setting out his vision for the future, and the grounds on which Starmer is staking his claim to be a future Prime Minister, it was underwhelming to say the least — mostly made up of unobjectionable boilerplate that would not have been out of place in a speech by previous Labour leaders such as Ed Miliband, Neil Kinnock, or even (with its emphasis on ‘a new partnership between an active government, enterprising businesses, and the British people’) Harold Wilson.

Something of an improvement over recent months, during which he has been either largely invisible or, when he has made an appearance, a cheerleader for the government’s disastrous pandemic response, Starmer’s speech did at least set out a rhetorical critique of inequality, and of Britain’s failed economic model, highlighting the need to build a new economy to meet the needs and challenges of the future. But the real problem lies not in what he said but in what he didn’t say. And it is here that we can measure all that has been lost in the transition from Corbynism to Starmerism.

Quite simply, this is no time for politics-as-usual. We are in an unprecedented moment of multiple overlapping crises. As Janet Yellen, no radical but President Biden’s newly-appointed Secretary of the Treasury, wrote in her Day One message to her departmental staff, we are facing ‘four historic crises’, of which Covid-19 is just one: ‘In addition to the pandemic, [the US] is also facing a climate crisis, a crisis of systemic racism, and an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years.’ The same is true of Britain.

Starmer appears to acknowledge the historic significance of this challenge, with analogies in his speech to the ‘wartime generation’ that ‘rebuilt Britain from rubble of the Blitz’. But like the man himself, the speech ultimately lacked courage in its own convictions. Barren of policy and even of politics, it had practically nothing to offer in terms of plausible responses to such a period of deep crisis and change.

It did not have to be this way. Starmer assumed the leadership of the Labour Party after one of the most fertile and productive periods of economic policy development in the history of the British left. During the past five years, and for the first time in decades, a cohort of new left-wing thinkers began to chart a viable political-economic path forward, through and beyond the multiple crises of our decaying neoliberal order.

Dubbed ‘Corbynomics’, this policy agenda was the culmination of years, perhaps even decades, of new thinking about a left political economy, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It matters not because it represents the political platform of a particular wing of the British Labour Party, but because it is the most advanced version yet to appear anywhere of a deep strategic response to our overlapping crises, and a powerful vision of what can and must come next.

It certainly remains incomplete, with important gaps to be filled, as well as an overall need to renovate and augment the programme in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it nevertheless represents an important body of work, an ambitious agenda commensurate with the scale of the present crisis. Nowhere else in the advanced industrial world has such a programme been developed in such detail.

This is what Keir Starmer was elected to preserve, with his de facto promise to continue ‘Corbynism without Corbyn’ — and this is what he has since largely abandoned.  The result of his backtracking from such an analysis is plain to see in Starmer’s speech.

His rhetorical gestures towards the broken nature of Britain’s economic model produce a Cheshire Cat of systemic analysis, with nothing to back it up. All that remains is the ‘toothy grin’ of a superficial structural critique that lacks any actual substantive programme capable of delivering the transformational economic changes it requires.

A core insight of Corbynomics was its recognition that our deepening crises are not accidental or merely the result of poor policy choices, but the predictable outcome of the organisation of the economy. Addressing these problems thus requires more than reforms that merely tinker around the edges, or seek to correct negative economic outcomes ‘after the fact’. Instead, what is required is the delivery of fundamental structural changes to the everyday functioning of the economic system itself.

The details of Labour’s programme under Corbyn and McDonnell have been set out many times before, and do not need re-rehearsing here. As laid out in the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos (and accompanying policy papers and reports), Corbynomics represented a necessary and credible approach to undoing the damage wrought by four decades of neoliberalism in order to make the British economy work better for the majority of ordinary people.

It drew upon a wealth of actually existing democratic economy models and experiments to advance a new way forward.  It incorporated elements of economic democracy, industrial strategy, participatory economic planning, ecological economics, localism, community wealth building, and much more. Collectively, the policies and strategies set out the mosaic of a new political economy, of which it is the exemplar internationally.

The core components of this agenda represent a deep response to overlapping crises of economic and regional inequality, climate change and financialisation (to which we would now need to add Covid recovery). Key among them was the overhaul of Britain’s concentrated and extractive financial system, with proposals for a new top-to-bottom public financial system built around a postal bank, regional development banks, an ecosystem of social purpose banks (including community and local cooperative banks) and a national investment bank.

An ambitious green industrial strategy included a £250 billion spending programme committed to a just transition to an environmentally sustainable economy.  Alongside this was a radical plan to decentralise power, expanding community energy and bringing utilities, water, the railways, and Royal Mail back into democratic public ownership in ways that would have enhanced public participation, accountability, and transparency. This tied to Labour’s support for Community Wealth Building and the ‘Preston Model’.

In sum, Labour’s economic strategy presented a dramatic shift and rebalancing of power, away from corporate finance and the City of London and in favour of held-back regions and communities and ordinary working people.

When we recall this agenda, the contrast with Starmer’s speech could hardly be starker. The ‘institutional turn’ of Labour’s thinking of recent years would appear to be over. The big structural planks of the Corbyn economic programme have disappeared, with only the battle-smoke of a residual rhetoric of change still hanging in the air.

Beneath the cheap talk about inequality that could have been delivered comfortably by anyone from the Queen to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the only concrete proposed interventions in Starmer’s speech were the provision of start-up loans for 100,000 new businesses that would be financed by a new national recovery bond, which (whether it is a good idea or not) would principally serve to benefit savers in cash-rich households.

It will not be enough. Not even close. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s government has been busy plundering the Corbyn programme for ideas and elements, from industrial strategy to insourcing, as part of an attempt to consolidate their 2019 national-populist political bloc and establish Conservative hegemony for years to come.

As a result, we can expect much more in the way of ‘Crony Keynesianism’ from the government — and we should not discount its potential popularity. Against such a backdrop, the choice of the bland, insipid, overly-cautious Starmer as Labour leader looks ever more dangerously mistaken. The question now becomes how long we will have to live with it.