Lindsey German on the election of Sir Keir Starmer and the continuing Covid-19 crisis
The Labour leadership result is a defeat for the left. I don’t think it can be seen in any other way. The hope and enthusiasm for real change which marked the election of Jeremy Corbyn more than four years ago have gone, to be replaced by gloating from much of Labour’s right, a sense of relief from the majority of MPs and their supporters in the party’s centre, and a misplaced optimism from some on the left that it’s all going to work out ok because Keir Starmer is going to stick to Labour’s left wing policies.
But this is a time when we have to look at reality. None of us can predict the exact course of politics over the next few months, given the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, but we can judge what is likely to happen, given Starmer’s record so far. He is a truly establishment figure, not just because of his knighthood (although this surely should be disqualification for leader of the Labour Party), but because of his role as Director of Public Prosecutions, central to the British state. His involvement in the misnamed People’s Vote campaign, and his responsibility in large part for Labour’s adoption of its second referendum policy, helped to lead it to defeat in December’s election.
He has tacked to the left during his election campaign because he needed to win a sizeable number of votes from those who had supported Corbyn previously and who still wanted left wing policies, but this shouldn’t make us think he will continue in this direction. His victory speech was careful to make clear that he had no intention of rocking the boat in a time of crisis, despite the fact that the actions of this government have so far contributed to, not ameliorated, the scale of the crisis. There is far more criticism of the government’s handling of this from right wing media like the Times and Telegraph than there is from him. His speech also contained a section on how he will root out antisemitism inside Labour, a nod to those who have weaponised this issue to attack Corbyn. He has also sent a letter to the Board of Deputies as one of his first acts as leader.
The argument in response to all this – often put more in hope than expectation - is that Starmer is electable in a way that Corbyn wasn’t, and that he will position himself on the left of centre. I’m sceptical about the electability bit – already he’s been called a rich north London lawyer by the Sun and he is unlikely to appeal to those who voted to get Brexit done in December - but who knows? Given the political situation, all sorts of outcomes may happen. However, there is little sign that he is going to stand out as an opposition leader. Parliament is not going to be the central arena of politics in the coming period. The Tories have a big majority and although they will, in my view, soon be in trouble over their handling of the crisis, they are already moving to shore themselves up (the Queen giving a broadcast, the BBC no longer their enemy but in full Pathé News mode).
There is talk of him being part of a national government. I doubt that’s going to happen straight away, but the Tories will definitely stroke Starmer in a way they never could with Corbyn and try to draw him close in order to muffle criticism. He will also be under pressure from them and from Labour’s right to witch-hunt the left further and to root out any influence it has. The list of demands from Blairite John McTernan was one example of that when he said: act immediately; act ruthlessly; punish the losers; ignore party members; and take back the unions. Starmer will, whatever his own personal instincts, move in the direction of sacking and removing officials, including general secretary Jenny Formby.
The left in Labour is in a much weaker state than it should be. The left candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey won fewer than 30% of the votes, and Richard Burgon came a close third for deputy leader, but it is clear many who supported Corbyn last time voted for Starmer. This is partly because of demoralisation after the election defeat, but it means that there is no continuity Corbynism.
For much of the Labour left, the argument will be to stay and fight. But fighting will be constrained and may well end with more expulsions and administrative measures. The right will ensure that the witch-hunt continues and that there is no prospect of another left leader for a generation. The other alternative is for the left to recognise that trying to transform Labour into a transformative and fighting organisation was a valid project but, as with previous attempts, it failed precisely because of the nature of Labour, whose right will rather lose elections than accept such transformation.
Jeremy Corbyn was – as the right-wing journalist Peter Oborne admitted last week – right on all the big issues. His ideas for public ownership, proper well-paid jobs and a four-day week, were ridiculed only 4 months ago, but are being adopted by the Tories. He was a man of principle who opposed war and capitalism, and this was too dangerous for the establishment. He will continue his campaigning, but it will be mainly outside, not inside, parliament, as he always has done.
The present crisis shows us there has never been more need for a fighting left. It is going to have to be built independently of Labour, and that starts now.
Coronavirus: no return to business as usual
What a scandal this government is – constantly changing its story about supplies of tests, ventilators, PPE, but in every instance shown to have acted too little, too late to deal with coronavirus. There is still no prospect of testing for most cases. The figures for deaths in Britain over the last two days have been larger than in any other country.
Three points stand out for me this week.
The first is that the crisis exposes an NHS at the point of collapse anyway. We have now had over a decade of relentless cuts, of underfunding, privatisation and terrible shortages of staff. The crisis would have put huge strains on any system, but the NHS is having to cope while already under huge strains not related to medical expertise but to profit and loss. You can see from news conferences that the government is already trying to put the blame on NHS management rather than itself. I have my own criticisms of these people but let’s remember who set their budgets, their targets and their priorities. A decade of Tory governments.
The second is how dependent society is on the workers and jobs usually regarded as dispensable or unskilled. Everyone is now full of praise for the cleaners, delivery drivers, shop workers, transport workers and caterers who are doing so much to hold society together while most of us are in lockdown. When there is talk of insecure employment and the gig economy it is often assumed that the worst conditions are in small businesses. Not true. Many of the precarious workers – including in the NHS itself – work for major companies and institutions. They are often outsourced, to be employed by giant contracting firms who are paid by prisons, universities, schools and other public bodies to do their work. The result is a race to the bottom in wages and conditions. This isn’t an aberration. It’s the business plan. We should demand now a rise for all these workers, proper permanent contracts and improved conditions.
The third point is how quickly the government and big business want to get those of us not working back to work. There are all sorts of supposedly learned studies which show that the cure will be worse than the illness – that more people will die from the effects of unemployment, poverty and health issues because of the lockdown than they will of the virus. It’s funny how little the connection between these conditions and bad health has been remarked on before. The employers fear economic recession, although they are not going to avoid that, but they also fear that one of the consequences of all this will be higher wages, a refusal to accept the worst conditions, and more strike action. In the meantime, if they wanted to help those in difficult circumstances, how about topping up the 80% furlough money paid to those laid off so that workers receive full wages? Or lobbying to increase sick pay and universal credit to liveable levels?
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’.
More articles from this author
- The price we pay for the prince – weekly briefing
- The Individual and Collective in Women's Liberation - video
- Police bill: the protestors aren’t for turning – weekly briefing
- Vaccine bounce or Starmer slump? – weekly briefing
- How do we end violence against women? - video
- Who polices the police? – weekly briefing
- Sarah Everard killing: can women ever be safe?