log in

  • Published in Opinion
Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer, Photo: Rwendland / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Starmer has confirmed that his manoeuvring on Brexit and a second referendum was always an anti-left operation used to attack Corbyn, argues Kevin Ovenden 

It appears that the Murdoch press has been briefed that Keir Starmer will whip Labour MPs to back a Boris Johnson Brexit deal in parliament to "win back the north of England". If so, Christmas has come early for Downing Street.

The talks on the post-transition deal with the European Union are going right down to the wire. They always do. Cabinet ministers are on manoeuvres to position themselves as neither to blame for any accidental failure in the talks or, more importantly for a career in the Tory party, as not responsible for a deal that will fall far short of the right-wing Brexiteers’ fantasy.

This is in a situation where the economy is already set to contract by over 11 percent this year and chancellor Rishi Sunak announces today that the government will have to borrow £394 billion this year, about a fifth of national output.

Into this Starmer trails that Labour will vote through ratification of any deal, shielding behind the electoral argument that being seen to oppose Brexit at all costs lost Labour the last election.

You have to admire the chutzpah. This is a man who campaigned in Labour for the disastrous second referendum position, having gone along with triggering the Article 50 exit procedure following the referendum. Presumably that was to keep his powder dry… or bide time to sharpen his knives.

This is a man who blocked efforts by the Corbyn leadership to push a People's Brexit – that is putting radical social and economic policies at the centre of the process – or even to find a compromise formulation.

At the Labour conference in 2018 he used his speech to insist that a second referendum remain an option.

If Starmer does back whatever deal emerges from the talks, it will show exactly what this whole operation in the Labour Party was about from the beginning.

Perhaps there will be some mock outrage from those who went along with the second referendum campaign – the most well funded failure of a campaign enjoying wide institutional and establishment support. Or rather – the biggest failure since the Remain campaign in the first referendum.

But I doubt there will be criticism of Starmer from the continuity-Remain operation and threats to defect to the Lib Dems or – what? – Re-change UK? That is because those who ran the show have got what they wanted. That is the destruction of Corbyn-Labour.

For them it has not been a failure, and they are not going to turn on their man now.

Those on the left who indulged the “People’s Vote” campaign that Starmer promoted should think long and hard.

As it happens – most socialists did not back that anti-democratic operation, however they voted in the referendum.

Yes, there has been the weaponising of antisemitism into charges against the left rather than an anti-racist campaign against actual racism. But the Brexit issue and the enforced retreat by the Corbyn leadership from its position of 2017 was greater in breaking the socialist left advance in Labour.

Much ink was spilt and artful statistical conjectures expounded by some try to show that the Remain position did not damage Labour at last year’s general election. When those theories proved unconvincing, (flying in the face of what Labour campaigners in those seats reported) we were told that the alternative position of 2017 would have been just as damaging.

Starmer’s rank opportunism ought to have settled that debate. A few weeks ago he declared “Get A Brexit Deal Done”. Any deal, devoid of socialist content, and – now we are told – to win back those seats that his core supporters claimed were not lost through adopting the position he insisted upon in the first place.

Whether pro-Remain or pro-Leave on left grounds, we in the labour movement must never be fooled again. And the majority of Labour members were fooled. Further, it was a terrible mistake for parts of the left to hide behind a fooled membership.

A number of us wrote in 2016 that the enormous crisis facing the British establishment following the referendum would be turned either against Labour or the Tories. The continuity-Remain campaign was the instrument of turning it against left-led Labour – and having Boris Johnson as prime minister was a small price to pay.

I doubt that the likes of David Lammy to Clive Lewis who invested in overturning Brexit will try to overturn Starmer on this. That is because their positions did not flow from a tactical consideration upon Brexit, but from something deeper.

Labour should oppose what will be a rotten deal, if struck. And no one on the left can accept the blackmail that if you oppose that then you are responsible for a crash-out Brexit. The Tories are the government. They are responsible. Make them feel the pressure, crucially over rising social discontent at the corrupt and catastrophic handling of the pandemic.

The sooner the whole of the radical left wakes up to what has happened, the better.

To those genuinely of the left who pressed Remain: you've been had.

Be angry. Let’s direct that against this government in collective struggles. That’s the opposition that Starmer refuses to provide.

And that’s why it is right to be angry with him and his cynical games.
Those socialist MPs in Labour face another choice over this: to allow the mechanisms of the Labour machine to impose a unity of the graveyard, or to put on an independent basis a real opposition to the Tories, whatever Starmer says. 

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now