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Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP

Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP. Photo: Jessica Taylor - UK Parliament / Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0/ license attached below

Starmer at the Labour Conference broadcasted his commitment to free markets and fiscal austerity, argues Chris Nineham

A surprising number of left commentators associated with Corbynism welcomed Starmer’s speech at the Labour Party conference, suggesting that it showed that he is making a social-democratic turn, rejecting Blairism or in one case ‘leaning left under pressure’. 

They are making a big mistake. 

First, for some reason, they are choosing to abstract Starmer’s performance from the battle within Labour over the last seven years. 

Starmer has dedicated the greater part of his limited energies since becoming leader to smashing the left in the party. He has succeeded in doing that. Is it any surprise that in those circumstances and at a time of national economic collapse, he makes some mildly reformist rhetorical flourishes in an hour-long speech?

The important point surely is to keep reminding people - as many on the conference fringe have been doing – that Starmer’s role has been precisely to eradicate any hope of fundamental change in the party, not to talk up one or two modestly progressive aspirations. 

Second, they are misreading the speech itself. Yes, it contains the promise of the quasi-nationalisation of energy and the re-nationalisation of the railways. Good if true, though the French energy arrangement shows there are all sorts of different ‘nationalisations’ and detail would be crucial. 

These are moves, however, that are backed even by the majority of Tory voters, and no doubt supported by large sections of big business. If they happened, it would be because the markets in both sectors have led to shocking dysfunction that is a problem for the overall economy. 

The ‘Green Prosperity Plan’ contains a good aspiration – 100% clean power by 2030 – but is it going to be backed up by government powers that can overcome resistance from the corporate lobbies? Apparently not, if it is going to be based on ‘a different way of working – the biggest partnership between government, business and communities this country has ever seen.’

Other promises are vague to the point of meaninglessness. On some of the issues, the housing crisis for example, Starmer’s solutions are straight out of the Thatcher playbook. There is not even a mention of social housing, just, ‘we will set a new target – 70% home ownership’, because in Starmerland home ownership is ‘the bedrock of security and aspiration’.

On all fronts, he is adamant that people shouldn’t expect the government to sort out problems directly or quickly. ‘We have to be honest,’ he whines, ‘I would love to stand here and say Labour will fix everything. But the damage they have done to our finances and our public services means this time rescue will be harder than ever.’  

This points to the heart of the issue, Starmer’s ‘vision’ is based on a commitment to free markets and financial responsibility:

‘Rachel Reeves and I have set out a framework for sound money. We’re determined to reduce debt as a share of the economy. Every policy we announce will be fully costed. And we will set up an Office for Value for Money to make sure public spending targets the national interest.

And we should be clear about what that means. It means not being able to do things – good Labour things – as quickly as we might like. That’s what responsible government looks like. Because if you lose control of the economy, if you act irresponsibly – as the Tories have in spectacular fashion – then you lose the ability to do anything. And working people pay the price.’

It could hardly be clearer. Starmer is committing a Labour government to a policy of abiding by ‘fiscal rules’ that has been the driver of austerity for decades. 

His critique of Truss is not aimed at her attack on redistribution, or the fact that she has pumped billions into the coffers of the energy companies. It is not focussed on her planned attacks on trade unions or her welfare cuts. He is not even reviving the old Labour distinction between state intervention and free markets with any conviction. 

This is Blairism rewarmed, a tepid return to the fantasy of markets and national interest coinciding at a much less propitious moment. The logic of this, of course, is that we have to sort out the economy first. Hence he is choosing to oppose Truss on the Tory terrain of economic growth. His main mantra? Truss will not deliver because she won’t balance the books!

Those boosting Starmer’s conference performance also seem to have screened out the shockingly reactionary and patriotic way the conference was framed: the flag waving, the ‘God Save the King’, the pro-Nato hysteria, the suspension of Angelo Sanchez for questioning support for the war in Ukraine and so on.

The left shouldn’t make the mistake of dismissing this as froth. It was crystal clear during the Corbyn years that his internationalism and his anti-war opinions were key to the panic in the establishment of the oldest colonial power on earth. Starmer is signalling a return to order and we need to call that out.

More than anything however, it is the catastrophic wider economic and political context that should give people on the left a clear perspective on Starmer’s feeble promise to the country. Labour’s improved polling is not a Starmer surge but a response to Kwarteng’s car-crash budget. Things got so bad that on Wednesday, the Bank of England bailed out the government to the tune of £65 billion to stop a complete market collapse.

This, however, was not just a response to an unhinged budget, it was also one more sign of serious structural problems. We face a series of interlinking national and international crises, or what Adam Tooze calls ‘a polycrisis’. The pandemic exposed fundamental weaknesses in the global market order and helped precipitate an inflationary surge. The big powers, including Britain, are pushing towards war as a response, and exacerbating the problems. Climate change is devastating whole regions of the world. 

We in Britain are now paying the price of being at the cutting edge of the neoliberal experiment with gutted industry and rock-bottom levels of investment and productivity.

In this context, Starmer’s promises of partnerships with business, encouraging growth while maintaining financial rectitude, and so on, are not so much insufficient as frankly irrelevant. 

Corbynism was a movement that inspired people precisely because it sought to try and confront some of the fundamental problems of neoliberal capitalism and to push for fundamental change. That aspiration remains alive in the hearts of millions of people. 

The last thing we need, in order to keep that hope alive, is to encourage people to accept Starmerism as the best available option. Nothing could be more disheartening or demotivating. 

This weekend, nearly two-hundred-thousand workers will be striking over the cost-of-living crisis, tens of thousands more will be demonstrating in their support, and demanding action over the climate and the cost-of-living crisis. We would be better concentrating our energies on trying to unite these strands of resistance into a massive, popular movement for fundamental change.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

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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