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Blairism Reheated

This week's Labour conference saw the party lurch further towards the centre – but where 1990s Third Way politics came with a swagger, Keir Starmer's 'moderates' look increasingly insipid.

(Leon Neal / Getty Images)

At the height of their public jousting over the Iraq War, George Galloway denounced Christopher Hitchens for having performed ‘the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug.’ Something similar could be said of the Labour Party on display in its new incarnation in Brighton this past week. The restorationist regime of Keir Starmer sought aggressively to turn back the clock not merely to the years before Corbyn but to those preceding Ed Miliband too. From the botched attempt to reimpose the electoral college for leadership elections to the largely contentless speeches of the Shadow Cabinet, the tone and tenor was a species of sub-Blairism – but lacking any of the unarguable swagger of the original. One of the consequences of having an ideology beached by history is that the dominant register of centrists has gone from the ebullient future-claiming hubris of the Third Way at its height to the nastiness, victimhood, and self-pity of the Labour Right today.

It may be satisfying to them from a factional point of view, but a recipe for government it is not. Warmed-over technocratic centrism is no match for the challenges of our times, in which economic and climate crises are interacting with the Covid pandemic and the rise of a neo-populist right to create an ‘Age of Anger’ in which perceived apologists for the status quo are given short shrift by electorates. The best that the Starmerites can hope for is to once again secure the position of the Labour Party as a rampart of the British state, made safe for the interests of capital and the ruling class – and therefore back in business as a revolving door into well-remunerated jobs in lobbying, the privatised industries, and the nonprofit-industrial complex.

To be fair to the Labour Right, they’ve had a difficult few years. If the old joke was that politics was ‘show business for ugly people’, then the ugliness revealed in Brighton this past week goes deep on the inside. Having almost lost control of the Labour Party as well as their amour propre, they arrived at Conference dead set upon vengeance, re-sealing the tomb on the Left and eradicating all traces of Corbynism. It made for an unedifying public spectacle. Waspishly vituperative but cowardly anonymous press briefings, transparently from the Leader’s Office or by right-wing figures on the NEC, may have become their stock-in-trade, but this reflects poorly on them – if not to the enabling journalists who collude in such smearing, then at least to the wider public.

Couple this with the apparent inability to stop themselves from saying the quiet part out loud—the culmination of this tendency being Starmer’s astoundingly ill-advised admission that he will lie in pursuit of power—and there’s little wonder Starmerism has been so electorally unsuccessful. Since taking over the Party leadership, it has failed the test of contact with the voters at every juncture, from local elections to parliamentary byelections, and continues to poll poorly. Starmer seems to make himself less and less popular the more the voters see of him, so it would not be at all surprising if this Conference produced a further polling dip for Labour, rather than the traditional bounce.

Starmer is now out in the open regarding his abandonment of the policy platform on which he sought and won the Labour leadership, publicly reneging on his commitment to the ‘ten pledges’ that underpinned his leadership campaign. The one-sided factional war against left-wing activists which the Party bureaucracy has been aggressively pursuing for months should have meant that this came as little surprise. But far too many people on the Labour Left who should have known better have been ostriching as to the true nature and meaning of Starmerism, through a mixture of appeasement and denial. This will no longer be possible for all but the most deluded or politically compromised; if anything, it is probably for the best that the battle lines are now so publicly drawn.

As of the Brighton Conference, Starmerism represents a clear repudiation of the policy programme developed by the Left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, itself the work of many hands inside and outside the Labour Party and drawing on some of the best left-wing thinking from across the country and around the world. In his Leader’s speech—a long and meandering affair, part cloying personal testimonial, part faux-‘State of the Union’ speech that suggests a continuing Labour Right obsession with the trappings of The West Wing—he deliberately junked the 2019 manifesto, saying Labour would ‘never again go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government’. (The role his second referendum Brexit policy played in 2019’s defeat is, of course, never acknowledged – although it was helpfully brought to Starmer’s attention at the appropriate point in his speech by a Conference delegate.)

In place of the main planks of the economic programme of the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos—public ownership of rail, mail, energy, and water; state-led investment in a green industrial strategy; the greatest expansion of trade union and workers’ rights in living memory; and democratisation of the economy through alternative models of ownership and bottom-up Community Wealth Building strategies—we find a return to the supply side politics and economics of Blairism, including an emphasis on ‘education, education, education’ (‘It’s so important I’m tempted to say it three times,’ Starmer warbled) and skills, traditionally the refuge of the centre left whenever it lacks the courage or confidence to take on the real issues of ownership and control, wealth and power.

As laid out in his speech, Starmer’s agenda has next to nothing to say about the job creation that would be necessary to put the precariat generation on any kind of pathway to economic security. Nor is it clear how the enduring wage stagnation that has afflicted British workers for the longest period since the Napoleonic Wars would miraculously be lifted. On public spending, Starmer is a neo-austerian, and appears not to have noticed that we are now in an era of fiscal and monetary heterodoxy, with central banks pumping money into the propping up of asset values and directly financing government expenditures. (Contrary to Rachel Reeves’ unhelpful pronouncements, there is a magic money tree – it can be found on Threadneedle Street, and is called the Bank of England!)

Starmer also seems to think that simply invoking a partnership between government and business (why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?) and changing the rules on company directors will be enough to reorient the UK—among the most financialised and short-termist of any of the advanced economies—in the direction of long-term investment and productivity growth. Where there were still glimmers of a continuity with what came before, on local procurement and national preference and industrial policy, they were denuded of their former radical intent. Perhaps most infuriatingly, given the role he played in imposing Labour’s disastrous second referendum position, Starmer seems to have forgotten that he once considered ‘making Brexit work’ a heretical notion, leaving us with the bitter prospect that we will end up with ‘Lexit’ after all – but such a downgraded and ineffectual one that it will scarcely make any difference.

All in all, the economics in Starmer’s speech amounted to a retread of technocratic centrism, a pale 1990s tribute act that stands no chance of bending the curve on the long-running negative trends afflicting Britain’s economy. Not that it matters much in practical terms. This is not an agenda that can ever win a general election. Johnson and the Tories must think that they have died and gone to Heaven to be faced with such a leaden, uninspiring, and unfailingly wrongfooted Opposition. Indeed, every instinct on the part of the Starmerites seems to misfire, leaving the field to the Conservatives more or less unencumbered. Rachel Reeves, for example, was to be found in Brighton declaring that ‘This is not the moment to be looking at nationalising companies’, only for the government to announce the public takeover of the failing Southeastern rail franchise the very next day. It is not inconceivable that the Tories could even hike the minimum wage beyond Labour’s paltry offer, outmanoeuvring Starmer once again, and threatening to solidify their hegemonic national-popular bloc for a generation.

What really matters, then, in the grand scheme of things, is not the dead-end politics of Starmerism but how the Left responds to this shrinking of the political horizon. The real opportunities, as many of us have been arguing, lie not in ongoing hand-to-hand combat in Westminster or at the national level on a terrain now firmly under the control of our enemies. Instead, it lies in building power out in the country at the local and regional level, through unions and community organisations.

Unlike the rule changes, the policy fights in Brighton were all won by the Left – on the Green New Deal, a £15 per hour minimum wage, public ownership, and more. The Community Wealth Building motion proposed by the Communication Workers Union went through overwhelmingly, on a show of hands, without even requiring a card vote. The problem is that there is no way to hold the leadership to account on these policies. Only by getting to work on the deep base- and movement-building we have long known we need to do—in workplaces and communities and through organising and local action—will we keep our programme of economic transformation alive and ultimately make it irresistible.

And then, at that point, there can be a reckoning. There is an old principle of the community organising movement in the United States: ‘If you can’t get your leaders to change, change your leaders.’ That day will eventually come.