This grave result is at loggerheads with the dictates of our present reality, observes Alex Snowdon
Keir Starmer’s election as leader of the Labour Party represents a significant shift to the right. He won with 56% of the vote, slightly more than double the vote share of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left-wing candidate. After an interminably long leadership contest - which has largely immobilised Labour during a critically important crisis arising from the spread of coronavirus - Starmer immediately replaces Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
Starmer’s victory came out of the widespread demoralisation and disorientation that followed Labour’s heavy defeat in December’s general election. Such defeats typically encourage a move to the right. It was successive general election defeats for Labour from 1979 until 1992 that facilitated the long march to the right that reached its apogee in Blairism.
The results indicate that many Labour members and supporters have drawn the conclusion that the party needs to shift to the right to become electable. This doesn’t mean that they have drastically changed their ideas or political positions - polling indicates there are still high levels of support for Corbyn’s policies among Labour members. Nor is it to suggest that Starmer represents the hard Right of the Labour Party - he is no Tony Blair. But it is obvious that many party members feel that a partial shift is required.
This impression is reinforced by other results. Angela Rayner comfortably defeated socialist Richard Burgon, who came third, in the deputy leadership race. The three positions on the national executive were won by candidates backed by the right-wing factions Labour First and Progress. It is also noteworthy that Long-Bailey only came third (behind Lisa Nandy) among affiliated supporters, who are mainly from the trade unions.
These defeats for the left depended on candidates - Starmer and Rayner - standing who, while not from the left, are not clearly associated with the party’s right wing either. Starmer was very careful to reassure people that he was supportive of Corbyn’s policy platform and he gained credibility, among those who had been broadly supportive of Corbyn, from having served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
But there should be no illusions. Starmer represents a shift to the right - and to a greater extent than many Labour members are expecting. The scale of victory - with a larger winning gap than most commentators has predicted - will substantially embolden the party’s right wing. The removal of key left-wing figures from senior party positions (Ian Lavery as Chair and Jennie Formby as general secretary, for example), a transformation of Leader’s Office personnel and a weakening of the left in the shadow cabinet are all expected.
Policy changes will no doubt follow too. There is also the important matter of strengthening the witch-hunt of socialists that accompanies the weaponising of antisemitism. Starmer used his acceptance speech to talk up his intolerance of antisemitism, buying into the long-established but erroneous narrative that antisemitism has been endemic in Corbyn-led Labour.
Of more immediate importance than any of this is Starmer’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. He has been extremely quiet and timid in recent weeks, as the crisis has accelerated. In his victory speech he emphasised his desire to work constructively with Boris Johnson’s Tory government - something which the prime minister was unsurprisingly quick to welcome.
The Labour leader should be leading the opposition to this government’s disastrous handling of the crisis, demanding mass testing, systematic contact tracing and more ventilators and personal protective equipment, and highlighting the systematic underfunding of the NHS that has crippled this country’s response to the outbreak. Instead Starmer is being painfully moderate and propping up a failed elite consensus.
This is particularly underwhelming when we consider the bold actions being taken by the government, under massive pressure of events, to protect the economy and to cushion the impact of the crisis on people’s jobs and livelihoods. The types of state intervention and support we were long told were impossible or unthinkable are now happening under a Tory government. Now more than ever we can see the vindication of so much of what Corbyn stood for.
Unexpectedly, Starmer’s moderate social democratic platform now looks woefully inadequate even by the standards of mainstream politics.
This timid consensual approach is a sign of what’s to come with Starmer’s Labour. It is important we face that reality honestly, without illusions. The opposition to the Tories, over the coronavirus crisis and so much else, will not come mainly from the top of the Labour Party. Rebuilding at the base of the labour movement, especially thorough the trade unions, combined with combative protest movements and serious, independent socialist politics is essential. Starmer is certainly not the answer
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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