A left in thrall to Starmer's Labour risks irrelevance, argues Chris Nineham
The messaging of Starmer’s Doncaster conference speech was almost embarrassingly clear.. There was the ‘new leadership’ sign on the podium, the repeated themes of opportunity, family and security, the introduction by Corbyn opponent Ruth Smeeth and the keynotes of patriotism and the national interest.
The extent of the shift from last year’s conference surprised even some of those most sceptical about Starmer. It wasn’t just that he was distancing himself from the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The speech signalled more clearly than ever that Starmer is taking the party down a completely different road.
The short speech was almost entirely free of concrete proposals, but stress on patriotism and security and the ‘tough on terrorism’ line’, pointed to a sharp social and foreign policy shift. Commitment to ‘opportunity’ was clearly aimed at signalling an embrace of aspiration as against redistribution. Endless references to family evoked traditional values over the fight against oppression of the Corbyn years. Even for a right wing Labour speech this one was remarkably low on references to inequality or even fairness.
On the Coronavirus crisis Starmer restricted his criticism to incompetence, rather than calling out Johnson for the business-driven rush to open society up. And despite the government’s failings, Starmer once again offered support for government measures, such as they were, in the so-called ‘national interest’.
Road to ruin
Many people have commented that as an electoral strategy, the Starmer turn is mistaken. Embracing your opponent’s arguments and attitudes will not to win votes from them. It will more likely confirm their positions and shore up their support. If people want a government that puts the free market, business and traditional values first, why vote for the imitation when they can have the real thing?
This certainly was the lesson of Labour’s fortunes through most of the Thatcher years. Neil Kinnock responded to Thatcher’s two election wins in 1979 and 1983 by dragging the party to the right in a turn that came to be called ‘new realism’. Like Starmer, Kinnock took the focus away from unfairness and divisions in society and stressed the national interest, “The days of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ are gone”, he argued. In the 1987 election campaign he said, ‘We are all in this together and it is only together that Britain will make its way in the world.’
He lost that election, and the next, to John Major. And this was despite 13 years of vicious Tory attacks, including the Poll Tax fiasco that brought down Thatcher.
Adaptation, however, is not just disastrous electorally. Perhaps more importantly, it damages the wider movement. The failure of the Labour leadership in the 1980s to back the great popular struggles of the miners, printers and others contributed to their defeat, with terrible and long term consequences, not just for those concerned, but for the working class movement generally. Embracing the free market in the 1980s deepened demoralisation and confusion, playing to Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’ shtick. The result was that, by 1995, Tony Blair was able to win the leadership on the basis of an open embrace of the market.
Whatever Kinnock said, even in the darkest days, most working people were not taken in by Thatcher. A trawl through the British Social Attitudes surveys from the time shows there was always widespread opposition to Tory policies. In the run up to the 1987 election, leading pollster John Curtice concluded ‘within the working class there is a large majority with radical or egalitarian views’. The problem is they had no leadership to turn to.
States of mind
Starmer’s capitulation to Tory values is inexcusable. For years opinion polls have been showing big majorities for radical policies on tax, renationalisation, trade unions and foreign policy.
The New Normal? a recent, in-depth opinion survey previewed in the Financial Times on the weekend shows that most people in Britain and many other countries think the government ‘cares too much for big business’ and ‘wealthy people’. Close to 90 per cent want an end to corporate tax avoidance and guaranteed ‘fair wages for all workers’. A large majority back the Green New Deal.
Even the FT has been forced to admit, ‘this study suggests a lurch leftwards’ in political attitudes. There is a significant risk that this mood, if it is ignored in favour of internal Labour Party politics, will dissipate.
There are a number of reasons to believe that a long fight to regain control of Labour is the wrong priority for the left. Corbyn’s fate showed that the coordinated efforts of the PLP, the party bureaucracy, the media and other sections of the establishment all but rules out any possibility of a left-led Labour Party. This is true even in the most favourable circumstances. That is why the wider political and social situation is the most compelling and immediate argument for another strategy.
Johnson’s government is leaking credibility because it is facing an unprecedented series of crises. The economy is tanking, coronavirus is surging again and a damaging no-deal Brexit looms. The NHS and a welfare system decimated by Tory cutbacks clearly can’t cope. The government doesn’t have a clue how to respond on any of these fronts. Meanwhile as well as a general anger at austerity and inequality, there is widespread concern over levels of racism in British society as well as alarming threats of climate change.
Re-rooting the left
While Starmer focusses on leading a loyal opposition, people’s anger has found expression in protests and campaigns in the streets and workplaces. The government’s famous thirteen U-turns from the closure of the schools in April to the retention of free school meals and the scrapping of the exam algorithm in the summer had nothing to do with Labour. They were forced on the government by public opinion and campaigning. The Black Lives Matter protests kicked off a society-wide debate about racism.
Now there are signs of a growing movement in workplaces pushing back against the government’s mishandling of Covid on the one hand and employers’ attacks on jobs and conditions on the other. Lecturers around the country are starting to campaign through their UCU union against forced in-person teaching. Teachers and parents are pushing for proper safeguards in schools. Trade unionists in various local councils, at British airways, at the Tate galleries and elsewhere are fighting redundancies and the spread of the fire and re-hire ploy. Nurses and other healthworkers are pushing for a proper pay rise.#
At the moment these are only shoots of resistance. With the active involvement of what is still a very big left, they could coalesce into a powerful national movement helped by initiatives like the People’s Assembly day of protest on 17 October
If the left remains in thrall to Starmer’s Labour this will be made much harder. Labour will ignore or take the wrong position on almost all of these struggles, just as they opposed the teachers’ call to keep schools closed in June. Key struggles in places like Croydon and Tower Hamlets, shockingly pit key workers against Labour-led councils. If the left is trapped in a party indifferent or hostile to demands and campaigns like these it is in danger of being irrelevant, or worse, resented.
It is a commonplace that the left has a credibility problem amongst whole sections of the working class. It can only overcome this by throwing itself energetically into supporting and generalising working class demands and campaigns. This isn’t just a question of individuals hunkering down in their trade union or renters’ group, or volunteering at a foodbank, useful though such actions are. There needs to be a concerted effort to sustain and link struggles against the government. For this we need the most effective and dynamic possible extra-parliamentary left focussed on building resistance. We need a new left focussed on winning the battles this Tory government is forcing on us.
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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.
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