Sir Keir Starmer in parliament, April 2020. Photo: Flickr/Jessica Taylor Sir Keir Starmer in parliament, April 2020. Photo: Flickr/Jessica Taylor

Lindsey German on the bad-to-worse of Labour’s benighted leader and what this means for socialist voters

The corruption engulfing Boris Johnson’s government is being revealed as ever more extensive. Expect that to continue as Dominic Cummings will delight in spilling the beans on his old boss, blaming him for the number of Covid deaths in the second lockdown. The combination of Greensill, the various contracts handed out to friends and family of the Tories during the Covid 19 crisis, the help offered to Sir James Dyson over tax, and the labyrinthine not to mention lucrative connections between government, the civil service and big business, all make the case that the government and political system is rotten to the core.

There is a widespread perception that politicians are for the most part corrupt, but only occasionally does it become a major item of news and discussion. That it does so now during elections for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and London mayor, as well as the Hartlepool by-election, should be bad news for the Tories. But so far it isn’t if the polls are anything to go by. While nearly 40% think the Tories are corrupt, the party has an 11-point lead over Labour. That can of course change, but Labour has been lagging a long way behind for a while now.

An important part of the reason for this lies in the abject failure of its leader, Keir Starmer, to land any punches on the Tories, or indeed even to try and punch the Tories. Unlike his erstwhile left supporters turned cold warriors like Paul Mason, I was always extremely sceptical about Starmer, not just because of his politics but because of his obvious lack of abilities and character. However he has undershot even my low expectations. Perhaps the lowest point in the last week was his being pressured by the Jewish Board of Deputies to pull out of an iftar (which celebrates breaking of the fast in Ramadan) because it was being attended by someone who supported boycott of Israeli dates. That will have been seen as an insult across the Muslim community.

There is not much sign that his urge to appease right wing former Labour voters is having an effect – indeed use of the Union Jack and St George’s flag are only likely to reinforce ideas of nationalism and patriotism. At the same time, many on the left are finding his politics too much to stomach.

The left inside Labour – many of whom voted for Starmer in the expectation that he would be at least in part a continuity left candidate who would also appear electable – feel utterly betrayed by him. They are not wrong. His ten pledges are paper commitments which do nothing to guide his practice, his Remainer fanaticism which was a major contribution to Labour losing in 2019 has been abandoned without a backward glance. His whole inclination is to be the loyallest of loyal oppositions. Even over the serial corruption scandals, Labour’s intervention is to demand a senior minister answers questions in the House of Commons. 

So there is a great deal of anger about him and about Labour with some on the left arguing that it will be good if Labour loses Hartlepool and elsewhere because that will be a blow to Starmer and will lead to a leadership challenge from the left. I think this is mistaken. If Labour loses Hartlepool it will be to the Tories, not anyone else, and that will be a boost to the government. The same is true for the elections overall. Labour cannot blame other candidates – such as the socialist former MP Thelma Walker – for splitting the vote. If it loses what was once a very safe Labour seat then the fault lies with Labour itself.

But more importantly than who wins on 6 May is to understand what is happening in electoral politics in Britain. And here Starmer is not the most important question. Labour’s decline is long term. The north east was home to many Blairite MPs, including Blair himself, who took big Labour majorities for granted, implemented policies which did little for working class voters, presided over deindustrialisation and worsening of working conditions. Labour councils have implemented wave after wave of austerity.

The decline in Labour’s vote nationally has continued apace throughout this century. When we look at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership we can see it as an attempt to break that decline, which partly succeeded in 2017 by offering new and more radical policies which appealed to working class voters. The 2019 election failed to follow through on that, mainly because of the disastrous Starmer-inspired second referendum policy. A return to the status quo as we now have clearly isn’t going to do the trick.

Corbyn failed because the establishment – from the media and civil service to the right and centre in the PLP – was determined to ensure that he failed. It will do anything to prevent another left leader of Labour succeeding. My guess is that if Starmer is replaced it will be with a centre or right figure, not someone from the left. That is the direction of travel for Labour. Which is why if Labour does badly on 6 May, the explanations will still blame Corbyn and argue that the party has to move further away from his policies.  

How people vote on 6 May is not the most important thing – although I would always vote Labour in preference to the Tories because it still represents a party with connections to the trade unions and working-class organisation. The Tories are the openly big business party of the ruling class and a victory for them always demoralises the best militants and socialists. I would guess that there will be a very low turnout on 6 May and that will be in part a degree of apathy and lack of enthusiasm for the different parties but also because many on the left will not be voting or even canvassing in a lot of cases.

But we should also be aware that millions will vote Labour in expectation that they will be slightly more humane than the Tories.

The task for socialists surely is to argue that Labour will not be turned into a fighting socialist party – the vilification of Corbynism has made that clear – and that the key to social transformation does not lie in the politics of parliament but in the actions of resistance on the streets, in workplaces, and in campaigns. It is this resistance which changes the political agenda.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.