Keir Starmer – how is he faring?

We know that Starmer has a mandate as Labour leader, having been elected on a serious commitment to Party unity.

How is he faring? The auguries are not good.

Starmer’s over-conciliatory accommodation to the government’s disastrous strategy in handling the epidemic worries many. His failure to respond immediately and decisively to the revelations in the leaked inner party report is inexplicable. And his throwing Diana Abbott and Bell Rubiero-Addy to the wolves has shocked those wanting an antiracist lead (as has his unilateral change of policy on Kashmir)…

David Wearing (on NovaraMedia)and Sabrina Huck (on LabourList) offer critical views of his performance to date.

The Left’s Approach to Keir Starmer Isn’t Working

David Wearing, NovaraMedia, 11th May 2020

The socialist left’s approach to new Labour leader Keir Starmer has so far been light touch and low energy. Starmer enjoyed a serene procession through the Labour leadership campaign, untested by any real scrutiny of his policies and record, and has felt virtually no pressure from the left since his victory a month ago. The outcome is roughly what one would expect, as Labour reverts back to its previous role as a party of status quo managerialism.

One of the worst instances of government negligence in living memory has resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths from coronavirus, and the highest mortality figures in Europe. But instead of seriously holding Boris Johnson to account, Labour has served to relieve the pressure on him by colluding in the fiction that the Tories are doing their best, getting some things right and other things wrong, and in need of nothing more than a little constructive criticism. Johnson has been cavalier with the public’s health precisely because his recklessness has carried virtually no political cost, so Labour’s approach here has not just been craven but wilfully naïve and dangerously irresponsible.

Labour’s shrinking from the magnitude of the moment extends to the economic impacts of the crisis. In the face of mass unemployment and the evaporation of economic demand, Labour has dismissed the idea of universal basic income and chosen to support landlords over private renters. These are clear signs of a leadership focused squarely on protecting its right flank by not rocking the boat, rather than on maintaining support to its left by acting as a genuinely progressive opposition.

This is reflected in the composition of Starmer’s frontbench, from which Campaign Group socialists have been almost completely purged, with their standard-bearer Rebecca Long-Bailey given the most junior position Starmer could get away with. The shadow Home Office team has gone from having two black MPs to zero, despite the context of the Windrush scandal, while Iraq war supporters have been handed jobs as shadow defence secretary and shadow foreign office minister for the Middle East.

The treatment of minorities is an especially telling indicator. The leadership’s muted response to revelations of virulent racism at the top of the party machinery has been well noted by members of colour and our friends and allies. By contrast, when black MPs who took part in a mass meeting to discuss this racism were subjected to guilt-by-association smears, the leadership somehow found its voice and let it be known that a stern reprimand had been issued. Likewise, Starmer failed to defend Clive Lewis and Diane Abbott when invited to condemn them for pointing out the link between Brexit and racism, while putting the full weight of his leadership behind a policy of effectively appeasing the Islamophobic Indian far right over Kashmir.

This grim first month of Starmer’s leadership has proven what should have been clear from the outset. The fact that he is no Tony Blair – a self-declared enemy of the left – doesn’t mean he is an ally. Calibrating our approach towards him presents a new and specific challenge, one which we have failed badly at on our first attempt. We now need an urgent rethink, from first principles.

There is a theory that Labour’s socialist and soft left strands could work together, on the basis of their shared desire to break with the post-1979 neoliberal settlement, and a friendly hand should therefore be extended to the new leadership. I once argued for such an alliance myself, but Starmer – unfortunately but clearly – has little real interest in the idea. Its prospects in any case are undermined by the fundamental difference between the political instincts of the two sides: oppositional vs conformist.

The soft left’s conformism was the basis of their long alliance with the party right through the Blair, Brown and Miliband years, and they have been on full display in Starmer’s first month. We see them in the cringing performance of bourgeois respectability, the craving to be allowed back into polite society after the transgression of Corbynism, and – significantly – in the willingness to throw the usual people under the bus in order to get there, be it minorities, the working class, or the oppressed around the world. Five to ten more years of this – in the face of the climate emergency, post-coronavirus structural adjustment, and the ongoing rise of the racist right – is not a prospect we can afford to tolerate.

But Starmer’s conformism will continue so long as he is responding to pressure, real or implied, from everyone but us. The left’s ineffectual position toward Starmer has thus far mirrored Starmer’s ineffectual position toward the government. That being the case, the reason Johnson has had an easy ride from Starmer is, partly, because Starmer has had an easy ride from the left. This has had consequences for the public, and we have a responsibility to do better.

Without descending into crankiness and wrecking, we need to start having a constant, public argument with Starmer about where he’s taking the party. We need to subject his leadership to sustained and intense analytical scrutiny, while making a relentless series of policy demands. But beyond this, and far more importantly, we need to do what we should have been doing since 2015: organising to dramatically expand the left’s physical presence in the country, in workplaces and communities. The left must become a formidable, multi-faceted social force that the Labour leadership has to reckon with and cannot afford to alienate. Any eventual accommodation between the soft left and the socialist parts of Labour will be forged in the context of wider power struggles. And in alliances of convenience such as these, the way you get the outcomes you want is through constant hard bargaining, not self-censoring.

Our proper role as socialists is to speak candid truth directly to power, and in this instance we are already very well placed. As the vestiges of the old Cold War left drift away after 2019, a new socialist movement is coming to the fore, one deeply rooted in key sections of Labour’s base: the younger half of the electorate, BAME voters, the insecurely employed and private renters. If Starmer wants to build an electoral coalition including these groups, and the wider working class, then he should be forced to earn it. The backlash over his private renters policy these past few days suggests that the dynamic between him and the left might finally be turning in this direction.

David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain.

How Labour’s approach to opposition has shifted under Keir Starmer

Sabrina Huck, LabourList, 12th May 2020

Keir Starmer addressed the nation on television and radio last night, offering a response to the Prime Minister’s Sunday evening broadcast. The Labour leader made clear that the party under his leadership would “always put the national interest first and have the courage to support the government where it gets things right; but challenge it where it gets things wrong”. He called again for a national consensus, assurance and clarity to fight the virus. It was a very courteous statement, despite Britain recording the highest death rate in Europe. It would have been unimaginable under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership just over a month ago.

Since Starmer’s election as party leader, media commentators and moderate Labour members have celebrated the return of a ‘sensible opposition’. They have praised Starmer for his demeanour at the despatch box and his desire to work together with the government to find solutions. But some members worry that the leadership’s approach has been too soft: LabourList’s latest survey revealed that 62% of readers believed Labour was not critical enough.

This differing approach is rooted in divergent attitudes towards Labour’s role in our parliamentary democracy. Of course, Labour under both Corbyn and Starmer would see winning an election and taking state power as the primary goal. But Corbynism aimed to be more than ‘just’ a traditional party. It saw Labour as a tool to bridge the gap between the institutions of state power (government, parliament) and extra-parliamentary struggles fought through trade unions and social movements.

Rather than just take over the state to use it as an instrument to administer society and manage capitalism, it wanted to ‘transform’ it. This is why Corbynism presented alternatives to government policy, rather than supplement or improve it by making helpful suggestions. It didn’t view politics as an arena to forge consensus but as an opportunity for struggle to force a break with convention. Ultimately, by taking over and transforming the state, democratic socialism could be achieved. This strategy has often been described by thinkers in and around the Labour left as “in and against the state”.

In the UK parliamentary system, power to legislate is de facto highly centralised with the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Traditionally, the role of the opposition party is to closely follow and scrutinise the government’s work. Shadow cabinet members are expected to question their counterparts in the debating chamber to expose policy weaknesses. Cross-party select committees can produce reports and table amendments to bills, but not propose legislation themselves. MPs can introduce Early Day Motions or Private Members Bills, but their chances of success are limited.

Whilst Corbynism represented a break, Starmer’s Labour slots nicely back into convention. This is most evident now over the coronavirus crisis response, but there is little indication that this will change whenever this is over. Some of the key battlegrounds exposed by the virus are directly relevant to class struggle: the Tories are willing to sacrifice working-class people on the altar of profit as they order them back to work without proper health and safety guidance or enforcement.

Labour is also now advocating rent deferrals. (This was initially called for by Corbyn, but he and John McDonnell later appeared to come out in favour of rent suspensions.) The new policy announced over the weekend will especially harm young people and those on low incomes, two groups that are more likely to live in rented accommodation. They will struggle significantly to make up additional housing costs during an economic downturn. Not only would it be the right thing to back vulnerable renters. Labour’s decision to ditch the rent suspension policy also abandons a key constituency for a future electoral coalition. It opens up the fundamental question of who we think we are here to represent.

Starmer’s Labour is siding with those who can reap the benefits of capitalism even in crisis. As Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, we are expected to fulfil our role in the political realm, which is to help negotiate unity between different parts of the dominant social classes. At worst, this means Labour will side with landlords or small businesses to advocate on their behalf against a Conservative Party that might be more concerned with the needs of the financial sector and multinational corporate giants. At best, this can result in social democratic policies and a mixed market economy. Mediating between capital and labour results in better working conditions or pay policies, but it does not pose a fundamental challenge to the exploitation of labour for profit by bosses.

A Labour Party that once again sees itself as an integral part of the system poses a huge challenge to those who still hope that a Labour government is the first step to transforming the state and society. The question is whether there will be scope to at least influence Team Starmer on policy, if not on strategy. In the meantime, the public’s general view of the government’s handling of the crisis seems to remain favourable. Only time will tell whether consensus politics during a pandemic can pay off electorally.

Sabrina Huck is a Labour and Momentum activist involved with the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.


Comments (9)

  • Mary Davies says:

    Heartbreaking. Devastating. The direction our Labour Party is now taking. Who now speaks for the poor, vulnerable, disabled…?

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    Starmer and the self serving, traitorous backstabbers have destroyed Labour. They have turned it into a tory offshoot party.

  • dave says:

    Poor Starmer got an endorsement from Norman Tebbit in the Telegraph yesterday so he’s obviously not doing the right things. His approach is to pre-empt the inquiry but we can’t bring dead people back to life and he should focus on what’s happening now. But that would be leadership for working people and we can’t have that.

  • Philip Ward says:

    Starmer has now tried to straddle the pro- and anti-Kashmir positions in a letter to the Muslim Council of Britain. I suspect this won’t work – and the fudge doesn’t do anything to really confront Modi’s annexation.

    The Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB) will continue to shout “Hinduphobia” when supporters of Kashmir speak out, and shout “Orientaslism” if Labour MPs try to get caste discrimination subject to the Equalities Act. That’s what real “denialism” looks like.

    The parallels with the campaign to discipline and smear anti-zionists in the Labour Party couldn’t be clearer, as the HFB itself acknowledges.

  • Ann Lewis says:

    I am happy with Keir Starmer ,so far .”Cometh the hour, cometh the man”
    and I feel is that man. Let’s see.

  • Doug says:

    UBI is a nonsense
    23 years in the free advice sector as a debt specialist tells me those who support it never put a figure on it never mind give us the total cost
    Opportunity cost, if you choose UBI then you cant have free broadband or universal social care
    Give me a policy where every penny is worth a pound, always start from the bottom where need is greatest and benefit to the economy is maximised
    I can give you the basic figure which is £1200 month to survive, but why should we give it to those who dont need it
    In the real world hard decisions whether to pay your rent or feed your kids have to be made
    Maybe in the future we can do this that or the other, in the meantime can we get rid of food banks and period poverty
    Keir Starmer has a simple choice, honour the manifesto or face a challenge within 12 months

  • RH says:

    You don’t have to be a supporter of Starmer to see from these two inputs that the left has a long way to go to sort out its own inconsistencies and delusions in relation to the process of developing a winning electoral strategy.

  • Rosa says:

    Keir Starmer is the best thing to have happened to the Labour Party in many a long year. Probably since the late lamented John Smith. Well educated, highly intelligent and with a sharp legal mind. Nobody else could perform so well at PMQ with such devastating courtesy. Jeremy Corbyn is undoubtedly a person of great integrity, but his dithering resulted in Brexit and the loss of the last election. He was totally out of his depth. So stop sniping at Starmer and recognise his as the current saviour of Labour. Do you want a Socialist Government or perpetual Torydom?

  • Doug says:

    There is a fatal weakness in Keir Starmer and that is his remainiac position, goes without saying if he tries to push rejoining EU at any time in the foreseeable future Labour will lose heavily
    Would go a long way towards unifying party if he held his hands up for his part in 2019 GE defeat

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