150 days ago, Keir Starmer assumed the leadership of the British Labour Party. Jonas Patrick Liston assesses his time in charge, and argues that despite his early left-rhetoric, it didn’t take long for him to show his true colours.
Only nine months ago, Boris Johnson’s Tories won the 2019 general election convincingly, and were poised to bask in the glory of finally getting Brexit done. Instead, his government has presided over the most catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. On their watch over 65,000 people have died, the third highest after Trump’s USA and Bolsonaro’s Brazil. One of the last nation states to effect a lockdown, Britain has now entered “its worst recession since records began”, with an ongoing employers’ offensive likely to create mass unemployment and evictions.
All attempts to get sufficient control over the spread of the virus have suffered from a 40-year weakening of state capacity, the short-sightedness of elected state managers, and above all else, the prioritising of profit over the protection of lives. Witnessing this scale of unnecessary devastation, it’s hard to avoid temptation and not wonder, like so many on the Left, “what if Corbyn had won?”
Stealing the Left’s Clothes
There is no doubt in my mind that had Corbyn’s Labour won the 2019 general election, even the most restrained Left government would have led with a public health response which prioritised the conduits of life-making over the circuits of profit-making. But the painful lashings of yesterday cannot determine the political interventions of tomorrow. The Left was defeated beyond doubt in the last general election and in its wake Keir Starmer is now Labour leader. 150 days into his reign, what have we learnt?
Although Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign sought to adopt the Left’s clothes, evoking his radical past as a supporter of striking miners and defender of civil liberties, his initial period as leader has been anything but radical. So far, Starmer has at every opportunity set aside the “opposition for opposition’s sake” he claimed characterised Corbynism and proceeded instead to nitpick over the details of Tory action. This at precisely the time when the country has been screaming out for an effective, comprehensive, and radical opposition.
For Labour’s current Shadow Cabinet, the overriding emphasis has been to ensure they are seen – by capital, state managers, the establishment media and the haunting spectre of sensible middle-England – as a safe pair of hands. To achieve this, they understand that they must put clear water between them and what came before.
Take two examples.
Equivocating on Black Lives
The first was Starmer’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. After initially emulating the emotionless and co-optive responses of progressive capital, the new Labour leader quickly reversed his stance. Declaring the anti-racist insurgency a “moment” and castigating the Black Lives Matter UK organisation for its support for “defunding the police”, Starmer showed his true colours.
By championing the decades of work he had done with the police as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), he was exhibiting just how quickly liberal defenders of the system can switch from projecting a progressive veneer to seeking to discredit the possibilities of the black freedom struggle.
As the very conventional leader of a party which has always acted as a mediator between classes – often articulating capital’s interests vis-à-vis labour and social movements far more vociferously than the other way around – Starmer was also seeking to put the genie back in the bottle by delegitimising the radicalism of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Moving against the Left
The second example was Keir Starmer’s sacking of the Labour Left’s leadership contender, Rebecca Long-Bailey. He had been reluctant to assign Long-Bailey a position in his Shadow Cabinet after defeating her in the leadership race, and the few months she spent as Shadow Education secretary were routinely frustrated. Frequently supporting the demands of the teachers’ unions to not send children back to school whilst the virus infection rate was still high, Long-Bailey was refused media appearances and repeatedly undermined by her Cabinet colleagues.
In mid-June, the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, Jess Phillips, told Robert Peston, “I want the children to go back to school now.” In May, Shadow Business Secretary Lucy Powell claimed she would “feel confident” sending her children back to school. Even as early as April – only a month into lockdown – whilst the National Education Union (NEU) was demanding an end to the government’s speculation that schools might open soon, Keir Starmer was publicly arguing that “schools should be amongst the first things to go back”.
In this context of clear marginalisation and exclusion, it is no wonder then that the Labour leadership jumped at the chance to rid themselves of Long-Bailey. After retweeting an interview with the Labour supporter and actor Maxine Peake, in which Peake claimed that Israeli police taught US police the particular chokehold they used to kill George Floyd, Long-Bailey was sacked.
Despite the fact that Peake’s error was only a marginal one (Israeli police do train their US cohorts in a whole host of repressive techniques, despite the US having its own unique history of racist and repressive practices), Starmer utilised this tenuous retweet as grist for the mill. He “accelerated the move against the left he was always going to make”, sacking Long-Bailey in the process.
Starmer’s use of the Labour establishment’s entrenched defence of Israeli settler-colonialism and its dishonest use of antisemitism as a “foil to defend power” served to further erase the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom, whilst simultaneously belittling the increasingly urgent fight against antisemitism. For Starmer, the ends justify the means, and the ends are precisely the disempowerment of the radical Left and all it holds dear.
Starmerism & Corbynism
Even if elements of Keir Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet have pretensions to representing the centre-left of the political spectrum, there exist overriding impulses which negate those ambitions. Whether it’s throwing renters to the wolves, couching criticism of the Tories in conventionally neoliberal terms, or compensating former party apparatchiks complicit in political sabotage with millions of pounds of members fees whilst equivocating on those staffers guilty of racist abuse, the Starmer leadership are quite clearly prioritising demarcating themselves from the discontents of Corbynism rather than elaborating their own programmatic alternative.
There is no doubt that Starmer’s rise was contingent on him convincing thousands of Corbyn supporters that he represented a more credible chance of putting Labour back in office. This is a truth that will pain many on the Left. Yet a great deal of effort has gone into playing up the commonalities between both men. This thinking, which is common among Starmer supporters, as well as some of his sceptics, asserts that a romantic nostalgia clouds the judgement of Corbynites. They are scrutinising the current leader with a metric they never once applied to his predecessor, the argument goes.
As Ciaran McGurdy puts it over policing and nationalism, Keir Starmer represents a “more convincing continuation of what were often regarded as insincere attempts to speak the language of an average Labour leader under Corbyn”. Yet, this line of argument totally ignores that Corbynism was constituted by countless individuals who, in spite of their limited institutional power, expressed discontent and divergence with the leader’s tendency to compromise and conform, particularly over issues pertaining to race, nation and the state.
Ad-hoc characterisations of Corbynism exist among all the discontents of this defeated moment – there are undoubtedly those who read into the 2017 election a policy radicalism which never occurred. Until 2019 for example, despite Corbyn’s language of solidarity and compassion towards migrants and refugees, Labour’s immigration policy barely transcended the triangulation of the Miliband period; the leadership repeatedly avoided arguments critical of police powers and bemoaned police cuts; and it often adopted a national cloak to articulate class politics. Corbynism’s unwillingness to confront the racialised and statist contours of Labourism unquestionably left room for the germs of Starmerism to grow and spread.
Yet there are those who use these weaknesses – reflections of a fraught, unstable and isolated socialist leadership unsure of its resonance and full of political shortcomings – to insist on the similarities between Corbyn and Starmer in order to justify their support for the anti-Corbyn restoration. It is unlikely, however, that anyone who adheres to this view can imagine Starmer laying the responsibility of the Manchester bombings at Western imperialism’s door. Nor, I reckon, could they imagine the current Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds calling the Grenfell tragedy “social murder” and demanding “requisition”. I don’t think, either, that they could imagine Starmer inspiring a wave of mass counter-cultural insurgency, as Corbyn did in 2017.
The reason for this lie is the simple, but obvious, fact that one is a socialist and the other is not. One was constrained by the ideological and structural tendencies of a Labourism that had long rejected him, and the other embodies those traditions and desires their recalibration back into centrist normalcy. It is beyond doubt that Starmer’s initial leadership campaign was funded and accompanied by figures with firm economic and political interests in placing the Labour Party back on the side of the establishment. In a world enthralled by contending crises of a transformational nature – ecological, biological, economic, social and political – Starmer’s inclinations to tail the government and articulate only piecemeal criticism represents an existential problem for Labourism. The absence of any meaningful claim to the future runs the risk that this historic party of the working-class jeopardises any future chance it might have of entering government again.
In this sense, Ed Miliband can make nods to a green recovery, and Keir Starmer’s Head of Policy Claire Ainsley might propose that Labour embrace Britain’s low-income, multi-ethnic working-class, but this bears little significance to what happens in the party itself.
Over the long-term, the leadership’s emphasis on purging all memory of Corbynism will threaten the inevitability that those voters in the metropolitan centres who embraced Corbynism out of a desire for a revived social-democracy will vote Labour again. At the same time, its inclinations to embrace right-wing talking points over political and cultural questions will win it no friends in deindustrialised towns where the Tories represent the politics of reaction far more convincingly. If the centrist class is experiencing a political rejuvenation on the backs of a defeated Left, there is little reason that will translate into replenished electoral support. It seems the long process of “Pasokification” was only briefly interrupted.
For those remnants of the Corbyn project, scattered to the winds but unwilling to cosy up to the Starmer leadership, we ought to embrace the cold reality that the electoral, Labourist road to socialist advance is now closed off. This peculiarly-British intimation of reform had a final flirtation with social-democracy before it consigned itself once again to slow decay. To embrace the possibilities of organisation outside of Labour isn’t vacating a field of class struggle, it’s quite straightforwardly the recognition that there are many more, dramatically important, ones out there.
The emerging battles: over the character of a world ravaged by pandemic and climate catastrophe; of working-class kids demanding their life opportunities aren’t shattered by the disciplinary categorisations of a ruling-class algorithm; of a multi-racial working-class insisting that black lives do matter, as well as the lives of everyone else victim to racism; and of workers and the unemployed demanding that the rich pay for their crisis. Some of these struggles will face setbacks, and like Black Lives Matter and the A-Level students, some have already won significant advances.
There should be no doubt however, that these are the questions to which the Left should turn, and it should do so under no illusion that Keir Starmer will be on our side.