The direction Starmer has set out for the Labour Party is a reminder why he is not up to the job, writes Sean Ledwith
In the week 40,000 rail workers showed the best way to take on the Tories, Keir Starmer used his latest keynote speech to reassure the establishment that, if Johnson’s wannabe successors don’t work out, they should not worry about the notion of him moving into Number 10. It is no doubt in this vein that he sacked Shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry for supporting strikers and saying they deserved a pay increase in line with inflation.
Even when there is overwhelming evidence that the public see nationalisation as the best solution to the impasse on the rails, Starmer cannot bring himself to contemplate something he and the rest of the Blairite cabal regard as the equivalent of Kryptonite.
As Sunak and Truss knock chunks out of each other in their grubby race to the bottom in pursuit of replacing Johnson, Starmer, instead, sees an opportunity to woo the big corporations and multinationals with coded messages that their profits and share dividends will be safe under a Labour government. During his latest snoozefest speech in Liverpool, Starmer was characteristically non-committal and vague about how exactly he would break with the Tory agenda that has plunged us into the current cost of living crisis.
Inevitably situated between two union jacks, the Labour Leader channelled his inner Blairite in a clunky imitation of his idol’s 1996 commitment to "education, education, education". At least his predecessor implied some notional recognition of the public sector; in Starmer’s case all we get is an anodyne and business-friendly: "growth, growth, growth". In line with the authoritarian manner he now rules the party, he added: "I have told the shadow cabinet that every policy they bring forward will be judged by the contribution it makes to growth and productivity".
Starmer droned on about five principles that he thinks will reboot his lacklustre public profile:
1We will be financially responsible
2We will be distinctively British
3We will work in partnership with business
4We will reenergise communities and spread economic power
5We will refocus our investment on boosting productivity
Most people would probably struggle to remember any of these within 24 hours of hearing them. It would be a challenge to think of anything blander and more uninspiring. There is nothing here that even Sunak or Truss could not use in their unseemly sparring for the Tory leadership.
Number 2 is a reminder that nowadays Starmer cannot help throwing in some jingoistic red-meat to any speech in his desperate pursuit of Tory voters: "Some nation is going to lead the world in electric vehicles, in floating off-shore wind, in new hydrogen and nuclear technologies. Why not Britain?" There is nothing accidental about Starmer’s drift to the right since taking over from Corbyn two years ago. As he boasted in this speech:
"The approach to growth I have set out today will l challenge my party’s instincts. It pushes us to care as much about growth and productivity, as we have done in the past about redistribution and investment. Not to hark back to our old ideas in the face of new challenges."
Out of step
This is Starmer’s way of saying he is consciously chucking out the commitments to tackling inequality and reinforcing the public sector that attracted tens of thousands of new members into the party and brought Corbyn within seven marginal seats of power in 2017. Despite his electoral defeat in 2019, there is powerful evidence that many of the policies associated with the former leader remain popular. Recent polling of the red wall by We Own It shows that 68% support public ownership of rail and energy while 70% want water nationalised. Research by the same group two years ago showed that even most Conservative and Brexit voters supported nationalisation of utilities and transport.
Starmer likes to portray himself as a non-ideological pragmatist. Historically this is what the Labour right always say as a pretext for dumping anything that resembles socialism and a challenge to the vested interests of the elite. The reality is he embodies the ideological agenda of the extreme centre that has ruthlessly reclaimed control of the party after Corbynism briefly took it to the left.
Starmer also outlined plans for an industrial strategy advisory group to include Gordon Brown and a chief economist from Goldman Sachs - in other words, just the type of figures whose pro-market policies led to the great crash of 2008 and the painful aftermath the world is still dealing with. What Starmer and his acolytes don’t understand is that reheated versions of neoliberalism are the last thing we need as the impact of climate change and raging inequality become more obvious .
It didn’t take long this week for the rest of the party’s instincts to surface in a backlash against Starmer’s latest waffle. His Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, had spelt out even more explicitly the disavowal of nationalisation as a weapon for an incoming Labour government hours before his Liverpool speech. Starmer defensively resorted to his standard non-ideological playbook when quizzed about Reeves’ comments: "My approach here is, is pragmatic, not ideological… Whether it comes to rail or anything else, I want to be pragmatic about this rather than ideological."
Starmer cynically treads carefully on the nationalisation question as he knows it was his commitment to retain it that partly won him the leadership. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that he has no intention whatsoever of fulfilling that pledge.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is among those residual forces on the parliamentary left who this week rightly reminded Starmer that he is out of sync with public opinion:
"All the evidence is that our plans to nationalise Royal Mail, rail and water were very popular. We are living through the worst cost of living crisis in decades, with household fuel and water bills soaring, while rail fares continue to rack up. It’s critical that Labour remains on the side of public opinion here, and that we go into the next election with our existing policies on public ownership"
The only real highlight of Starmer’s trip to Liverpool was when pensioner and former party member Audrey White dodged his minders and brilliantly articulated the feelings of disillusioned Labour supporters in a frontal attack that left him flummoxed:
I said you are overseeing the NHS being dismantled. You brought about the biggest witch-hunt in history. I said I am still a member of the Labour Party, and he has just been expelling people by the tens of thousands because all of us flocked to the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn and they destroyed him. They lied.
The Labour Leader’s instantly forgettable Liverpool speech came just a few days after the Forde Report largely vindicated the suspicions of the left inside and outside Labour that antisemitism had been weaponised by those within the party who sought to undermine the Corbyn leadership. As the main beneficiary of the Blairite machinations within the party on this issue, Starmer predictably is in denial about the full ramifications of the report: "We knew there was a problem, but that was because of Corbyn and co and we've addressed it."
Audrey White, rather than Starmer, is the real voice of those who want to see Labour and its wider supporters on the left taking on this decaying government in an uncompromising and waffle-free fight.
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