One year ago Sir Keir Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader after winning a decisive victory in the leadership election. While the left’s candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey lost, the majority of the left decided to “Stay and fight” and to “hold Starmer to account” on his soft left policy pledges.
One year on and Starmer has shifted the party to the right. He has cosied up to big business, the police and security apparatus, dumped radical action on climate change and thrown working class people under the bus during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Corbyn isn’t even a Labour MP anymore. And the response from the Labour left’s leaders? A lot of staying, but not much fighting.
What explains this sorry state affairs? The whole turnaround from Corbyn to Starmer raises important questions about the Labour Party.
What is the point?
Some point to Starmer’s failure to live up to his own promise of “electability”. Writing in the Guardian, Moya Lothian-McLean, asks “What is the point of Starmer? After a year we still don’t know”. She highlights the declining number of Labour voters who felt that he was doing ‘well’ – a drop of 14 points since last December. Despite the criminal incompetence and corrupt cronyism of the Tory government’s handling of the pandemic, Starmer’s Labour has been unable to lay a glove on them. The latest You Gov poll shows the Tories 10 points ahead of Labour and Johnson ahead of Starmer in the PM stakes by 6 points. Not a happy first anniversary!
On effective opposition to the Tories, he has on numerous occasions been at pains to support them during the pandemic and has failed to call out their corruption in the handing out of NHS contracts. Even arch Blairite Alastair Campbell accused him of being weak.
Given that Starmer promised to make Labour re-electable through competent leadership and an end to factionalism these figures have caused many of his staunchest supporters to get the jitters.
Paul Mason in the New Statesman writes that although he voted for Starmer and would do so again, it is unclear that people know what he stands for. Martin Kettle, a Starmer apologist, in The Guardian writes of the “ghostly strangeness of Starmer’s first year” and that largely because of the pandemic he “remains an unusually unknown and untested Labour Leader”.
A balance sheet – back to Blairism?
But to claim Starmer is either an untested or an unknown factor is to be too generous to him – and it is simply not true. His actions as Labour leader reveal what he stands for in three important respects:
- His commitment to “loyal opposition” (with more emphasis on the former than the latter) to the Tory government.
- The abandonment of the bulk of the policy programme that led him to get elected.
- A concerted attempt to witch hunt the left and erase the Corbyn legacy.
In the leadership election Starmer committed himself to ten policy pledges based on the 2019 manifesto. He won the leadership election comfortably, and it is estimated that the scale of this victory was in part explained by the fact that at least 50% of Corbyn supporters voted for him. Many cited the ten pledges as the basis for their support.
In addition to the pledges on policy he promised to make Labour electable, to end factionalism and promote pluralism in the party.
On electability the polls speak for themselves. The logic of liberal commentators who told us anyone but Jeremy Corbyn would be enjoying a super lead over the Tories has been proven to be false. It is remarkable that with the favourable media courage, some polls have Starmer doing worse than Corbyn was in the run up to the 2019 election. This despite all the attacks that were directed at Corbyn over Brexit, antisemitism and more.
On ending factionalism and promoting pluralism, Starmer has unleashed a wave of suspensions and exclusions on the left, and undermined any kind of democratic accountability. The stand out facts of this assault could not make his trajectory clearer.
David Evans is now General Secretary of the Labour Party. Evans – who Starmer appointed – is a party apparatchik from the Blair years, who sent written instructions to Party branches banning any discussion of Corbyn’s suspension as being ‘not competent business.’ When many branches defied his ruling, a whole swathe of suspensions ensued. The publication of the Forde report – which revealed dirty tricks by Labour staffers to undermine Corbyn in the 2017 election – has been delayed.
The nominating process for Liverpool mayor was cancelled to prevent the possible election of Anna Rothery – a left winger who had argued for Corbyn’s reinstatement – and the three short-listed candidates were replaced with two who were more acceptable to the leadership.
This was followed more recently with his support for the Tories sending in commissioners to run parts of Liverpool Council. The symbolism of siding with the Tories against Liverpool – a Labour city if ever there was one – was not lost on many. The feeling was that Starmer was telling left wing, working class Labour supporters that they had nowhere else to go.
When it comes to Starmer’s ten pledges the situation is, if possible, even worse. Even the most cursory analysis shows that he has broken or rowed back on most of the pledges.
The Labour Party is now firmly entrenched in centre ground politics closer to Blairism than Corbynism – from flying the union flag to opposing the Tories’ raising corporation tax.
The millstone of Labourism
So how have we got here? The problem isn’t simply that Starmer isn’t “genuine” or “true socialist” unlike Corbyn, although he is of course far to the right of his predecessor. What we’re seeing with Starmer—the flag-waving and sheer opportunism, the obsession with boxing clever in parliament and working within the status quo—isn’t an anomaly. This is what the Labour Party has been about. This flows from “Labourism”, the idea that what happens in parliament is most important to winning changes rather than working class struggles.
The problem flows from a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Labour Party. While the party articulates working class people’s hopes of a better world, it aims to take the reins of the British state and rule in the “national interest”. The problem is that there is no such thing as a national interest between bankers, bosses, landlords and working class people. When politicians and pundits talk about it, they really mean the class interests of big business. Have you ever heard anyone say it’s in the “national interest” to pay people a living wage? No. But going to war or austerity always are. Any attempt to rule in a national interest means working within the parameters of what the rich and powerful will allow and leaving their class power untouched. And crucially, the British state is a capitalist state, which works to protect their system. Its structures cannot be used to win socialist transformation.
The contradiction within Labour leads to the party’s left right divide. The left will emphasise standing up for workers while the right lecture about the need to show Labour is “respectable” and “responsible” enough to run the British state. That, for example, is precisely why Starmer ordered Labour MPs not to oppose the Overseas Operations Bill, which gives immunity to British war criminals. But pull of showing respectability doesn’t just infect the right—both wings of the party are wedded to “Labourism”.
This mean the Labour left seeks unity with the right in the name of having a united party that can win elections. We saw this ugly process under Corbyn. Over Trident nuclear weapon, Brexit, Palestine solidarity and whole array of issues, the left leadership made concession after concession to the right. The Labour Party is a trap for socialists.
Lack of response
The response to Starmer’s assault has lacked national co-ordination and focus. Individual activists have spoken out and a significant number have been disciplined for their pains. But the prevailing view is articulated by James Schneider, a founding member of Momentum and former Corbyn advisor, who has produced a six-part strategy for the left. Despite declaring that there should be “no more retreat and apology” he then argues, “realism not exodus is our answer. There is no promised land in a new left party. Nor will movements alone win the 2020s. They need a political party to unite them and seek state power”. He finishes by saying this is a party that the left “may yet get another chance to reform”. A clear case of stay in and bide our time.
One of the problems with this approach is that it underestimates the impact and scale of Starmer’s shift to the right. If there is no concerted attempt to confront him now the parameters of the debate will be shifted further and further to the right.
But an even bigger problem is the failure to address the nature of the state and its institutions – something which is becoming much more important. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements, the upsurge against the sexist system after Sarah Everard’s murder, the police violence in Clapham Common and in Bristol and the police bill means people are asking questions about the state’s role.
The key elements of the state – the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the civil service, and the ideological apparatus of the educational system and the mass media – are not neutral. These are all not only hostile to the kind of transformation Schneider would like to see, but actively resist and sabotage it.
It would be more accurate to say that when Labour has been in government it has been in office but never in power. It has never been in control of the state. Schneider argues that states institutions need to be transformed. But, unless they are totally dismantled and replaced with institutions that arise out of struggle from below, they will continue to block and obstruct any real change. If they perceive any real threat to their power, they will respond with the utmost ruthlessness to repress it.
A large part of Schneider’s programme for challenging the state involves prioritising elections to local government for Labour activists. He argues that this would enable local councillors to cut their teeth on political office in preparation for national government.
What is missing from this strategy, however, is any acknowledgment of the reality of the constraints that have been placed on local authorities particularly through lack of funding and the inequitable way in which it is distributed. Underfunded Labour councils find themselves unable to run public services effectively and the Tories are more than happy to make them the scapegoats for this failure and the focus of the anger of local communities.
More than this, many Labour councils have happily imposed cuts rather than opposing them. This is one of the explanations for the defections of the so-called ‘Red wall’ of Labour seats that fell to the Tories in 2019.
Elections or struggle?
A new crop of left wing councillors will find the same problems as Aneurin Bevan, a hero or the Labour left. After the defeat of miners in the 1926 general strike, Bevan stopped looking to workers’ struggles as a way of winning socialism. “From then on,” he wrote, “the pendulum swung sharply to political action.” By political action, he meant a focus on parliament and worked to grasp political power.
So Bevan was elected onto the district council and sought to cut his teeth there. But, he explained, “I discovered when I got there that power had been there, but it had just gone. I learned that power had slipped down to the county council—so I worked very hard and I got there and it was gone from there too.”
And as Bevan told this story to the House of Commons in the 1940s, he was discovering the real power had gone from there too. Unfortunately, by this point, he saw no alternative to the parliamentary road.
This again raises the question about the state and where does power lie within capitalist society.
Of course parliament isn’t irrelevant, but real power doesn’t lie within the House of Commons. It’s a small island of elected MPs in a vast sea of unelected bureaucracy within the capitalist state, which protects the status quo. The major economic decisions are not made by parliament, but by the corporations that are totally outside of democratic control.
The alternative to counter capitalist class power lies outside parliament. As we’ve learned during the coronavirus pandemic, society couldn’t run without workers. And without working class people, the bosses would have no profits. That’s why the Tories and big business were so desperate to herd people back to work and open up the economy before it was safe. If the profit system couldn’t run without workers, that gives workers immense power shut it down.
In an attempt to provide some theoretical credence to his strategy Schneider references the work of Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas, Andre Gorz and Leo Panitch. To a greater or lesser extent all of these acknowledge the importance of working class self-activity and struggle but subordinate it to electoralism. In many respects they are part of revival of a theoretical tradition associated with Karl Kautsky and pre First World War German Social Democracy, in which revolutionary language served as a mask for reformist practice. This strategy has already been adopted more recently with predictable results in Greece and Spain. Syriza and Podemos began as radical alternatives to discredited social-democratic parties and achieved some electoral success. But then abandoned the extra parliamentary movements from which they derived their credibility to become absorbed into mainstream politics with disastrous results.
It is undoubtedly the case that many Labour party members don’t see a home for themselves outside it despite the trajectory Starmer is set on. A number of justifications are put forward for staying in. Many believe that genuine reform can be enacted through parliament and even those who don’t are sceptical of other political forms of organisation. But an estimated 100,000 members enthused by the Corbyn insurgency have left it and many more are disenchanted or demoralised. It is vital that all of us who want to stand up to the political ideological offensive of the Tories stand together in engaging with all the campaigns of resistance.
The challenge is immense. But the opportunities arising out of support for grassroots opposition to the Police and Crimes Bill, the defence of the right to protest, the renewed urgency of the Black Lives Matter campaign and defence of the anti-racist agenda are immediate and can’t be squandered. One thing is clear, however, Starmer and his supporters will not be on the right side of these struggles. The thousands of Labour members who do fight on these questions will do so in defiance of their own party. The logical decision is to look towards organisations that prioritise these struggles over the electioneering and rightward drift of Labour. The battles to come will be a great test of the political allegiance of those inspired by Corbyn but repulsed by Starmer.