openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Starmer has broken promises and gone to factional war. How will Labour respond?

Shifting to the Right has been shown to be a failed, out-of-date strategy. Will the party leadership accept the new political realities before it’s too late?

Jeremy Gilbert
9 May 2021, 9.26am
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
PA Images / Alamy

This week’s local election results have been bad for Labour, and bad for Keir Starmer’s standing as the party's leader. It may be that no one in his position could have expected anything but defeat under present circumstances; we’re living through a global crisis with no peacetime historic precedent, at least not during the era of universal suffrage. It will not be clear for some time whether a relatively successful vaccine roll-out really was the overwhelmingly deciding election factor that some pundits assume it to have been.

What is evident, though, is that nothing Starmer has done since taking over leadership of the party from Jeremy Corbyn has contributed to any kind of recovery of Labour’s position. Let’s be absolutely clear. Starmer was last year elected leader on an explicit promise to maintain Corbyn’s radical, popular programme while giving it an electable face. He also solemnly pledged to end internal factionalism in the party.

He has openly and unhesitatingly broken these promises. He has engaged in ritual humiliation of the party’s Left, with the egregious and entirely unnecessary withholding of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, and the removal of Rebecca Long-Bailey and other prominent left-wingers from the shadow cabinet. His hand-picked appointee for the party's general secretary, David Evans, a notoriously sectarian figure of Labour's Right, has overseen repeated, large-scale interference in the party’s democratic structures across the country, in order to prevent left-wing members from being selected as candidates or elected as local party officers.

Yesterday’s sacking of Angela Rayner as party chair was only the latest expression of this recurrent tendency to attack the Left and remove its representatives from office. This move has come as a shock even to some of Starmer’s most consistent cheerleaders.

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It is very clear that the election results cannot be laid at Rayner’s door. And the optics of an older man with a knighthood trying to shift the blame onto a much younger, working-class woman are disastrous.

Rayner, who stood for her position as deputy party leader with the backing of Momentum and much of the organised Left, is one of the most popular figures in the parliamentary party, with a personal mandate far exceeding Starmer’s. She has always been the person most likely to challenge him for the leadership. But in her role as party chair, she has in recent months been preoccupied with matters of internal organisation and obliged to play the role of the loyal deputy. As a result, her standing with the Left had been steadily declining.

In one stroke, Starmer has made a martyr of Rayner, and almost certainly boosted her status as a credible challenger to his leadership, while making himself appear panicky and cowardly. That he could have made such an idiotic move is only further proof of how lashing out at the Left has become a mindless habitual reflex for those on the Right of the party. This reflex, a hangover from a previous epoch, cannot be allowed to go unchecked. Doing so would lead only to further episodes of comparable political self-harm.

It’s not Rayner, but Starmer, who is to blame for the fact that the party has offered nothing by way of a compelling vision of what Britain’s future could be with him as prime minister. Instead he chased the votes of socially conservative ‘working-class’ voters (who are actually mostly retired homeowners). It’s a strategy that always had a weak intellectual basis, and was formulated before the Tories themselves decided to abandon late Thatcherism for populist, dirigiste nationalism.

Neither Starmer nor any of his team has shown the slightest curiosity about some basic strategic questions posed by this approach. What is the sense in pursuing a ‘Blue Labour’ strategy in opposition when the government itself is already committed to a combination of authoritarian social conservatism and targeted public spending to shore up its new support in ‘left behind’ communities?

‘Blue Labour’ was an idea formulated by right-wing Labour thinkers in the days of the Cameron administration, when the Tory party was still led by committed cosmopolitan neoliberals. This was also the period in which the research for Claire Ainsley’s 2018 book 'The New Working Class' was largely undertaken. (Ainsley is now Starmer’s head of policy and, it is widely assumed, his main political adviser.) The idea informing both Ainsley’s book and the general Blue Labour project was that Labour could occupy the symbolic territory of socially authoritarian communitarianism that the Tories had vacated in their enthusiasm for global free markets and austerity.

But it was obvious from the beginning of Theresa May’s premiership in 2016 that the Tories knew they had reached the end of that road, and this was the eventual basis for Johnson’s 2019 landslide.

Rather than addressing this issue, or the obvious question of how to replicate Labour’s success at the 2017 election while tackling the factors that nonetheless kept it out of office, Starmer has prioritised a factional war with the party’s Left wing. There is no evidence that the public, aside from committed Conservative voters, wanted any such thing to happen. (And, of course, members of Labour’s right-wing bureaucracy, who would rather work for a party of permanent opposition than risk losing their jobs to rivals from Labour’s Left.)

Labour has shifted rightwards at many points in its history. What it hasn’t done before – at least not for a very long time – is to shift rightwards and shed votes dramatically. Most of today’s Labour MPs and councillors belong to a generation that has inhabited a political universe in which the basic truism was, Labour loses if it moves Left, and wins if it moves Right. But this doesn’t hold up any more.

These people spent most of the period of Corbyn’s leadership in denial about the social and political changes that were happening all around them, constructing excuses for themselves – such as the absurd claim that Corbyn was personally guilty of racism – rather than adapting. The question is now: what more will it take for them to accept that the nostrums and common-sense maxims, with which they have been raised and grown old, no longer apply in any meaningful way?

If these MPs and councillors want to keep their own seats, sooner or later they will have to accept that the only way to do so is to replicate the energy and enthusiasm of Labour’s 2017 campaign, not by trying to recreate a ridiculous caricature of its 1997 one. If they actually want to form a Labour government, they’ll also have to accept that Labour can win from such a position only by cooperating with other non-Conservative parties.

If we’re very lucky, then maybe, enough of them to make a difference will stop denying these realities. If not, then many will undoubtedly be removed from office soon enough: if not by Labour Party members, then by the electorate themselves.

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