Labour’s Election Disaster Is Keir Starmer’s to Own

JVL Introduction

Like everyone else on the left we are horrified by Labour’s disastrous performance in England in the recent elections.

But we cannot say we are surprised.

Ronan Burtenshaw’s analysis published in Tribune – that Starmer’s leadership has hollowed out the party, refused to offer a vision for change and left many with little reason to vote Labour – seems a good place to start.

Also see Burtenshaw’s Doubldown News video Keir Starmer’s War on Democracy made earlier this year.

This article was originally published by Tribune on Fri 7 May 2021. Read the original here.

Labour’s Election Disaster Is Keir Starmer’s to Own

Keir Starmer has attempted to blame today’s election disaster on Jeremy Corbyn – but his leadership has hollowed out the party, refused to offer a vision for change and left many with little reason to vote Labour.

For weeks, it has been clear that Labour would have a bad night in this week’s election. The only question was how bad. As we awoke today to disastrous losses in local elections, historic defeat in Hartlepool, and a likely mayoral bloodbath to come, the answer is very bad indeed.

The result should not be a surprise. Polls have been on the slide for months, but behind them things were even worse. Throughout this election cycle, Labour activists across the country were reporting the same thing: a lack of bodies on the ground. Starmer’s team will cite Covid as a reason, but it doesn’t reflect reality – people could have campaigned in recent weeks if they wanted to, but too many didn’t. The party entered the biggest set of elections in over 100 years with a base that wasn’t motivated or energised.It would be easy to blame this on a failure of messaging. Starmer’s focus group approach has worn thin incredibly quickly – leaving Labour looking vacuous, corporate, and insincere. The party has steadfastly refused to outline any policy positions, made supportive noises about even the worst Tory mismanagement during the Covid pandemic, and failed to resonate at all with the deep frustration felt by millions of people facing the brunt of an economic crisis.

In these elections, the contortion of telling people what they want to hear but never actually supporting the progressive policies which they want to see reached farcical levels. Labour promised that a vote for its councillors would increase NHS workers’ pay – despite the fact that local councils don’t have this authority and the party itself couldn’t agree what the pay rise should be. The soundbites of leading figures trying to square this circle in the early days of the campaign haunted the weeks that followed, and the refusal to endorse either the 12 or 15 percent pay rise demanded by nurses themselves made Labour look lost on its centrepiece issue.

In the aftermath of defeat, the leadership will want to focus on messaging – scrambling to find a technical fix to this failure of a year’s worth of political endeavour. But unfortunately for Labour, the party’s problems run far deeper than this. One of Europe’s largest political parties—the opposition to a venal, corrupt, authoritarian, and increasingly dangerous right-wing government—has just run the most lethargic national campaign in living memory. A five or ten degree shift in trajectory will not save it.

The fact is, under Keir Starmer’s leadership the party has lost more than 100,000 members. It has waged a war on party democracy, shut down internal debate, and suspended not just activists but CLP chairs and secretaries en masse. It has closed Labour’s Community Organising Unit and sacked its community organisers. And it has landed Labour in a funding crisis which hamstrung campaigns across the country by driving away the army of small donors which sustained it in recent years, alienating the historic funding base in the trade unions, and failing to win over the new corporate donors Starmer has been courting. (In case you missed it: there’s already a very successful party of capital in Britain today and the rich are doing quite nicely, thank you.)

The Labour Party has been comprehensively hollowed out; you won’t hear this in the national press, but that is one major reason why it struggled in these elections. And sadly, this wasn’t an error – it was part of a deliberate strategy pursued by Starmer’s leadership team from the beginning. They wanted to defeat and marginalise the Left, but more importantly, they hoped to turn the Labour Party back into a narrow Westminster vehicle which was primarily committed to delivering sensible, competent, and technocratic politics by contrast to Boris Johnson’s perceived bungling and buffoonery.

This was always likely to result in disaster. By positioning Labour as a steady pair of hands with little vision of its own for changing Britain, Keir Starmer has managed the extraordinary feat of convincing millions of people that the Tories—the party of the establishment which has been in power for a decade—represents greater change than his own party. You could not conceive of a worse response from Labour to the new national-popular Conservative project which promises greater state intervention into the economy and to tackle the country’s deep regional inequalities.

But the real problem for Labour is that much of this is baked into Starmer’s leadership from the beginning, and it is unlikely to change now. After the deep defeat of December 2019—which should not be overlooked amid the latest chaos—it seemed clear that the party needed to rebuild its relationship with working-class communities, particularly in post-industrial areas. This required a significant stepping up of grassroots activity, where Labour would need to once again become a meaningful part of people’s day-to-day lives, countering the reactionary narratives of the right-wing press with practical answers to real social problems.

But that was never the premise of Starmerism. Instead, he encouraged Labour members to see the party’s problems solely at the top – issues that could be remedied by an electable leader who looked the part, had a clever communications strategy, and would receive more favourable coverage. In February 2020, before Starmer won the leadership, Tribune’s editorial described the likely result of this approach:

‘An idea is setting in among the membership… that Labour’s real problem was not playing the Westminster game well enough. The remedies to this are clear: a slicker parliamentary operation, closer relationships with the press and a return to focus-grouped professional politics.

‘This would be a disaster for all of those who want the party’s emphasis to be placed on rebuilding its relationship with the working-class communities it lost so dramatically in December. That requires a longer-term focus that does the hard work of making Labour a presence again in people’s day-to-day lives, work that has to take place a long way from Westminster…

‘If Starmer wins, it’ll be a message that the real problem was at the top — not at the grassroots. We shouldn’t underestimate the damage this could do. Another four or five years of Labour trying to master the dark arts of Westminster, while the party in the broader country continues to wither on the vine. The difficult work of rebuilding social institutions which form the basis of collective politics not being done. A trade union movement already in decline finding little, if any, serious support from the Labour leadership for its organising efforts or on its picket lines.

‘Corbynism did far too little to address these structural problems – but at least it was premised on changing the game, trying to break from a hollowed-out political system and do politics differently. The Starmer narrative runs in exactly the opposite direction, and is receiving its strongest support in those pockets of the party which want a return to ‘normality’ before Corbyn, before Brexit, and before the collapse of the political centre.

‘Unsurprisingly, this narrative also suits the Labour Right. By placing the blame for the election squarely on Corbyn, other contributory factors in a long, slow decline of the Labour vote in postindustrial areas can be ignored. The role of Labour councils, for instance. Or of the last Blair government. Or of parachuted MPs who enjoyed little if any connection to the constituencies they were selected to represent. During not just months but years of post-election reforms, Corbyn would be in the dock while these would be largely forgotten.’

As Starmer’s team do the media rounds blaming their own disastrous defeat on a leader they have booted from the party—one who, by the way, won Hartlepool twice—we have a right to feel vindicated by that assessment. Not least because the only consistent message Keir Starmer has conveyed during the past year has been that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn.

But despite this, the Corbyn-bashing isn’t likely to end anytime soon. In fact, Starmer’s failure in these elections and his dismal poll ratings will only make him lurch further rightwards still. His leadership team are convinced that the best thing they have done in the past year has been marginalising the Left, and the problem in these elections has been that the Left hasn’t been marginalised enough.

There is an emerging divide in politics between centre-left leaders who can learn the post-2008 terrain and those who can’t. In the United States, Joe Biden clearly understood at least some of the context which created Bernie Sanders – and saw that the people to whom Sanders appealed would need be brought into his coalition.

Neither Keir Starmer nor the broader British political centre is capable of this recognition. They don’t see the Left as representing the aspirations of millions of people for real economic change. Instead, they see it as an alien political force without a social base which is simply despised by the public at large and should be ritually humiliated at every opportunity to maximise votes. In other words, they more or less share the assessment of a large section of their own base held by the likes of the Sun, the Daily Mail, and Guido Fawkes.

Meanwhile, the pattern of Labour’s few successes last night seems relatively clear. Andy Burnham—one of those centre-left leaders who has learned the new terrain—is expected to romp home as Greater Manchester mayor. He pursued exactly the kind of combative approach to the Tories that the Left has called for since the beginning of the pandemic, and combined it with a specific pledge on progressive policy—taking buses back into public control—which promised real change in the lives of his electorate.

In Salford, meanwhile, a left-wing Labour mayor who has pursued radical policies in local government, built the first council housing in a decade, and flies the red flag over town hall on May Day seems likely to achieve a similarly impressive result. He represents an area which, like Hartlepool, is an ageing, post-industrial Labour heartland which struggled in the wake of the demise of its docks and historic engineering industry that voted strongly for Leave and ranks among the top 20 most deprived local authorities in the country out of 317. And yet, there is no Labour catastrophe in his backyard.

Even amid the ruins of these elections, there are examples we can learn from. Andy Burnham’s messaging has been disciplined but confrontational. It tapped into the widespread popular resentment which exists towards Boris Johnson and his government, despite these latest results. But more pertinently for the Left, Mayor Paul Dennett’s local government approach has delivered meaningful change in working-class people’s lives and sustained Salford’s sense of community which has been allowed to disintegrate in far too many of the places which built this party and movement over the past century.

Salford, and its equally inspiring neighbour Preston, could have been held up as models during these local elections by a Labour leadership committed to transforming society. It could have talked about living wage jobs, insourcing, social care, council housing, Community Wealth Building or any number of other initiatives which would have motivated voters to turn out and support the party. But that is not the Starmer way.

The project of pushing his leadership to the Left is a lost cause. Instead, we should turn our attention to the work he refuses to do – and rebuild an unashamedly socialist politics from the bottom up.

About the Author

Ronan Burtenshaw is the editor of Tribune.

Comments (20)

  • Linda says:

    Splendiferous article. I’ve already forwarded it to several friends.

  • Rodney Watts says:

    “In these elections, the contortion of telling people what they want to hear but never actually supporting the progressive policies which they want to see reached farcical levels.”
    Indeed! Sadly, ‘farcical’ has become such an appropriate word to use in respect of the Labour Party; an adjective I also used in my comment regarding JVP suspensions in Peterborough. Keir Starmer, and also David Evans, in different ways have contributed to the severe decline in the ‘boots on the ground’. Whilst loads of dosh is always a nice thing, even that cannot replace community effort and relationships.

    The wasted money paid out to John Ware & Co, and in litigation past is going to be sorely needed –not to mention future, hopefully successful, litigation by LA4J which should be strongly supported.

  • Daniel Vulliamy says:

    And Comrade Sir Keir wouldn’t sign the opposition to fire and rehire. Strewth!

  • I have to admit to evil glee at Starmers appalling showing in the last by elections. Many people denigrated Corbyn but Corbyn was recognizable, one knew what he stood for. It seems that the only thing Starmer stands for is the advancement of Israeli interests. I do not need to criticize Israel to point out that a British Labour Leaders priority must be the British Labour Party not a foreign country in the Middle East. That combined with his utter lack of any significant policies apart from feebly echoing Johnsons every turn has cost him dearly. But will he rethink anything? Doubtful. We will probably have to watch, shuddering in disbelief, as he first blames Corbyn then tries to pursue even more of the disastrous courses that caused his defeat in the first place!

  • John Bowley says:

    Thank you for always being on the case with insights into events, JVL frends.

    Disasters unfolding around Keir Stalin’s cruel dictatorship were predictable – for anyone other than the parvenu great dictator and his circle of wrong ‘uns..

  • jimmy cooper says:

    Insightful
    Transparent
    Aspirational
    Concise
    Determined
    Confrontational
    [add a little “Socialism” to those ingredients]

    Whoever wrote that article should be in a Labour Cabinet ,lead by a Socialist ready to campaign, agitate, educate and organise. Now where have we heard this before?

    This time we need to shout back over the Tory Racist Media and stand up to be counted [Jeremy was too “nice” sometimes] – be prepared.

    Starmer is a snake to whom careerists have snuggled up and got into bed with. He will bite anyone when cornered. Even Angela Rayner!

    Apologies Angela – but you are joining those of the great unwashed whom Starmer has bullied, jettisoned and suspended. Dont ask for any sympathy. Remember you said you would be prepared to expel thousands of members!

    Excellent article!

  • Glenn Holmes says:

    If ever we are to have a socialist and transformative Labour Party then the myth of “centralist” electability needs to be exposed for the myth it is. These elections are a step along the way.

  • Doug says:

    How many of the PLP are now looking at losing their seats
    Now is the time for a challenger to strike
    My prediction is that the Red Tories will also put up a candidate and Temporary Embarrassment will stand down
    His mission accomplished

  • Angie Hudson says:

    On the doorstep in East Barnet, some Labour supporters were refusing to vote because of the way Jeremy had been treated. We lost the seat Mea Culpa SKS.

  • Micheal Ryan says:

    I listened to John McDonnell on the BBC, as the extent of the election disaster was unfolding and was inspired by his mature and wise analysis of events. Despite the persistent and aggressive questioning aimed at making him openly disparage Keir Starmer, he jovially defended their relationship (“…I worked with Keir on the past, before he became leader. We get on well…) and continually redirected the conversation back to the need to confront the Tories and offer the electorate well thought out alternative policies based on Labour values.
    Although I acknowledge this was essentially TV interview waffle, I was nevertheless impressed by how agreeable and statesman-like he comes across. I imagine his head is destined for the block at some point soon, but at least it gives me some hope that the incompetent, corrupt shit show that is currently running the party has someone on the left, inspirational and electable, to take the reins, in the unlikely event that an opportunity arises.

  • Mike Scott says:

    This is a very accurate description of what has gone wrong in the party from which I’ve now resigned and it’s difficult/impossible to see how the situation in the LP can now be turned round.

    What we need to ensure, however, is that socialism doesn’t go down the plughole with Starmer and the only way to do that is for socialists to come together to work on a new vision of how we think society should be organised. If we can achieve that, the specific policies we’ll need will pretty much write themselves. This certainly won’t be easy, but we have to do it anyway – if we don’t (and I do mean “we”), nobody else is going to.

  • Brian Burden says:

    It’s a very clear case of chickens coming home to roost. Getting yourself elected leader on a promise of restoring harmony and then launching a witch-hunt against your members and bullying constituency parties is not good PR! And it looks bad to make a scapegoat of your loyal sidekick. Wasn’t it Angela, acting as Keir’s mouthpiece no doubt, who announced that the party might have to expel 100,000 anti-Semites? If, in Keir’s lexicon, “anti-Semite” means Corbyn supporter, that aim seems to have been achieved without Angela having to raise a finger!

  • Ian Kemp says:

    Excellent article. It should be printed and posted in every door in the UK.
    Starmer is his own worst enemy. Appointing Evans is a disaster. Following Blair Mandelson Allen Johnson Hodge et al a recipe for Disaster.
    I did not vote for him. But he has proved a disaster. He is no leader. he is a follower of Focus groups and obeys what his backers tell him to do.
    He has no vision. The agenda of alienating and getting rid of descent hard working members and supporters is just plain stupid.
    He came into leadership of LP under false pretences. First he said he would stick to his 10 Pledges which were very popular. he said he would unite the party. He did the opposite.
    Who are his backers and advisers? They are certainly to the right like old Blairites Mandelson etal. We know who they are. It is they who are the major directors of Labours agenda. Who was it that told Starmer to appoint Evens a Blair supporter> Who adviser using the false agenda of anti sigmatism as the way forward and in the process getting rid of long servicing first class members. It is Criminal.
    Starmer has no vision of his own. He was only interested in his own career. Like Johnson with out the buffoonery and total dishonesty.
    In that respect unfortunately he maybe getting close.
    Sitting on Forde Report and trying to Doctor it. Not facing up to what it revealed about some members MPs in the Labour party.
    This should have been addressed on first day. He failed to recognise that future of Labour party was among the Young and idealistic, not in the past old centralists.
    Yes Jeromy tried bring about some cohesion by including the right wing in his shadow Cabinet. He was to descent. He should have been more ruthless.
    Starmer failed because he never really understood what the so called left meant. He has only been MP for around 6 years. He needed help . So he got help from from the right wing and set about the process of destroying the Base that Corbyn had recognised and supported.
    He was a true Labour supporter. the right wing Careerists were only interested in using the Labour party as a vehicle for their own ambitions. They had no understanding or empathy for the people they were supposed to represent.
    Can Starmer change direction.? there is no evidence for that. He is likely to continue on the same disastrous course . He has no vision except his own ambition.

  • Diamond Versi says:

    Here are some statistics of Hartlepool Labour Votes:
    2005 18,251 Blair
    2010 16,267 Brown
    2015 14,076 Miliband
    2017 21,969 CORBYN
    2019 15,564 CORBYN
    2021 8,589 Starmer – clearly, shambolic from Starmer

    The right wing Labour have audacity to blame Corbyn for the disastrous results. And now Raynor has been sacked because the leader is blaming her for the defeat after accepting his own responsibility for the defeat.

  • Tony Troiani says:

    I am very much thinking Andy Burnham. I know some judge him as from the centre. To me he leans a lot more to the left and he seems to be proving himself. If their isn’t a big push for him, as leader of the Labour party, from everyone, unions, activist etc, with all the energy that can be mustered, we will have the conservatives for another 20 years, to me that is frightening thought. The right in labour are neolibrales, as are the left in the conservatives, that is the interlock that has to be broken. Boris Johnson is a chameleon, with a right wing fascistic cabinet.

  • Brian Burden says:

    Stop Press: Iron Man ruthlessly sacks Angie. Angie and friends cut up rough. Putty Man reinstates and promotes her. In future he’ll stick to bullying Corbyn supporters. Call that leadership?

  • David Mond says:

    This analysis seems exactly right, but one point troubles me: how can Starmer have got this so wrong? He always seemed such a clever man.

  • john ditchfield says:

    Labour had a wonderful opportunity to ‘own’ the vaccine rollout by pointing out it was a triumph of the NHS and local health organisations and comparing it with the dismal performance of the private sector test and trace lot. Instead a strategically clueless party allowed BJ to treat it as his own personal triumph – and people believed him! My NHS ‘vaccinator’ was rightly livid about this.

  • Doug says:

    The internal report must lead to the removal of Red Tories, its been coming for over 40 years, I remember the damage caused by the Gang of Four who kept Thatcher in power
    Their betrayal in 2017 and 2019 was the final straw, there is no room for them in a socialist Labour party

  • James Dickins says:

    The one question which the Labour right won’t ask is: How did Jeremy Corbyn come within an ace of election victory in 2017? – and that after two years of relentless abuse, indeed plots, from the mainstream media, and his own MPs and party apparatchiks.

    For Labour to win the next general election, it needs to recreate the ‘Corbyn coalition’ – uniting those who have been ‘left behind’ in the Red Wall, with often younger and more socially liberal voters in the big cities.

    To do this, Labour must put a commitment to social justice and redistribution of wealth and the heart of its policies – something which the current Labour leadership clearly has no intention of doing.

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