Keir Starmer in the House of Commons chamber Photo: Flickr - Uk Parliament / Jessica Taylor / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article Keir Starmer in the House of Commons chamber Photo: Flickr - Uk Parliament / Jessica Taylor / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Starmer’s stampede to the right means that socialists will need to reach beyond the Labour Party to build a fighting left, argues Chris Nineham

It is now beyond reasonable doubt that Keir Starmer and the new Labour leadership is out to bury all trace of Corbynism. This is the meaning of Labour’s payout to the makers of the Panorama programme smearing Corbyn. Taken together with the summary sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey, the rule changes to the NEC elections and inaction over the gross abuses revealed in the Labour Review, the direction of travel is unmistakable.

It is absolutely clear too that Starmer and co are firmly in the driving seat. The attacks on the left are going to intensify. The legal defence fund for Corbyn against the Panorama programme makers is a great initiative, but given the hold that the right has in the cabinet, the Parliamentary Party, Labour HQ and on the National Executive Committee, there is little chance that the left in Labour can retake the initiative any time soon.

Turning back the clock

This isn’t just a matter of internal Labour Party politics. It affects the role that Labour is now playing in society more generally. What it means is that Starmer is taking us back to the situation before Corbyn when Labour was widely regarded as being completely out of touch, even hostile to the concerns of working people.

Always looking to bridge the interests of the elites and the working class, Labour has a poor record when it comes to supporting the struggles of working people. Progressively in the post war period this record tended to get worse as British capitalism declined.

This process reached a climax in the Blair years when Labour’s historic commitment to compromise morphed into a belief in straightforward accommodation to the neoliberal nightmare. Blair came to office in 1997 on the back of a wave of revulsion with the Tories, but his ‘modernisation’ project aimed at bending the Labour Party decisively to the priorities of big business at home and later the US neoconservatives abroad. It is no coincidence that this is the direction that has been taken by social democratic parties across Europe and beyond. Challenging the economic priorities of contemporary neoliberal capital involves a level of courage and confrontation that doesn’t come naturally to them.

Helped by a mini-boom, Blair promoted the marriage of globalisation with a progressive-seeming social agenda. At the heart of all this was the belief, novel even for Labour, that there was actually no contradiction at all between the interests of globalised capital and those of working people.

Finance was further deregulated, the Bank of England was made independent and the outsourcing of public services accelerated. The Blair government imported business ‘expertise’ into government to a degree unprecedented in peacetime. Domestic inequality soared. On the international stage, Blair dragged Britain into a cycle of US-led foreign wars that caused catastrophe in the Middle East and beyond.

The result of the New Labour turn was that millions of working people were deeply alienated from Labour, leading to devastating electoral defeats in 2010 and 2015.

No half measures

The surge of support behind Corbyn’s 2015 leadership bid was precisely a response to the sense that Labour had sold its soul. In the Labour hierarchy, Corbyn was regarded as a fringe figure. He was buoyed by the support in the wider movement, amongst trade unionists, anti-war campaigners and the hundreds of thousands who joined the anti-austerity demonstrations and protests from 2011, and who wanted a sharp break from neoliberal priorities.

In the 2017 general election, the Corbyn ascendancy led to the biggest surge in Labour support since 1945. Over the next two years the Labour machine, backed by the media and aided and abetted by the wider establishment, faced down this insurgent challenge. Corbyn was demonised, Corbynism mocked. Failure to stand up to anti-semitism claims and confusion over Europe were ruthlessly exploited. By 2019, the insurgent excitement of 2017 had gone and Labour no longer looked like a vehicle for radical change. The election result was correspondingly miserable.

When such a major defeat takes place, it doesn’t just move things a few degrees to the right. Keir Starmer’s ruthless treatment of the left is not just a product of hostility to Corbynism. It is part of the process of turning Labour back into a business-friendly party. The danger is that parts of the left can get trapped by these events.

Class and coronavirus

The election result was a serious setback for the left. But the anger and alienation caused by the neoliberal regime has not disappeared with the defeat of Corbyn. Far from it. The Coronavirus has provoked widespread solidarity with key workers in the NHS and way beyond. Tens of thousands have joined unions, particularly unions like the NEU that have stood up to the government. Hundreds of thousands marched in in the middle of lockdown in support of the Black Lives Matter upsurge in the US.

Nurses, postal workers, firefighters have all gone out of their way to show solidarity with the anti-racist struggle. On the buses, on the tubes, in universities, amongst cleaners there have been disputes about health and safety, casualisation and cuts. Tower Hamlets council workers are currently in the middle of a campaign of strikes against a Labour Council that is using the Coronavirus as an excuse to impose new contracts. London tube workers look set to ballot against the cuts package proposed by Transport for London. They are also opposing an alternative plan hatched by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Meanwhile, every popular poll shows there is a strong rejection of Boris Johnson’s ‘back to normal by Christmas’ blather. People don’t want to be forced back to work when it is not safe and they don’t want to see a return to business as usual in general. According to one poll, an astonishing 73% of people want to see jobs permanently guaranteed for everyone.

Taking sides

All this provides the basis for refocusing the left, for taking forward the legacy of Corbynism in a new form. But under Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour will not just fail to play this role, it will be a block on this process because it is already on the wrong side on many of the key issues.

Starmer has positioned Labour as a loyal opposition during the coronavirus crisis despite the government’s shameful and shambolic response, refusing even to demand Dominic Cummings’ resignation over his lockdown breach. Instead, his leadership has actually been pushing to get Britain ‘back to business’ in direct contradiction to the popular mood.

Starmer opposed the teachers’ campaign against the premature opening of schools on 1 June, and one of the reasons for sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey was almost certainly because she was regarded as being too close to the NEU.

While taking the knee in his office, Starmer has insisted on calling Black Lives Matter a ‘moment’ rather than a ‘movement’, advised that it shouldn’t get ‘tangled up’ in concerns about the police, and reassuring us that his support for the police is ‘very, very strong’ and that he has worked with them to bring ‘thousands of people to court in England and Wales’. On foreign policy, Starmer’s Labour is leading the charge against Russia and China, pressing the Tories to toughen up against both countries, including imposing sanctions.

The left we need

Given these positions, there is no way that Labour can be a vehicle for supporting and encouraging the growing mood for resistance in workplaces and beyond. A Starmer-led party will be hostile to strikes, militant trade unionism and radical protest of all kinds.

Priority number one has to be building a left that focuses relentlessly on building the widest possible resistance to this government, on delivering support and solidarity to workers fighting new contracts and job cuts, demanding better pay and conditions and proper health and safety. To have a hope of success, it will have to be a left that utterly rejects the big business orientation of the Tories now being echoed by the Labour leadership. It will need to be a left that seriously pursues the popular yearning for a sharp change in direction in society. It is a left that can only be built out of the struggles that are starting to develop on the ground. Counterfire is committed to helping build this left. We urge you to join us.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.