The Weakness of Starmerism

JVL Introduction

The author, on whose A Very Public Sociologist blog this article appears, raises an issue that perplexes so many of us: why is Starmer so weak?

Why is Labour apparently supporting a government strategy on lifting the lockdown “that, to put it mildly, is borderline sociopathic?”

His answers are refreshing and depressing.

Starmer is back to Labourism, “born for the compromises, Byzantine procedures, and plodding constitutionalism of the House of Commons.”

Corbyn challenged that, being “about building broad coalitions of voters and meeting them where they are, but with a programme that tried transforming them from objects into subjects.”

And those who think Starmer is really a radical underneath it all, being cautious so he can get a hearing are mistaken: what we see is what we will get, if he continues to get his own way…

This article was originally published by A Very Public Sociologist on Fri 3 Jul 2020. Read the original here.

The Weakness of Starmerism

I almost added it as a foot note to the piece about Tory short-termism. Asked about the loosening of lock down measures this weekend and, above all, opening the pubs up again, in line with his stance on schools Keir Starmer supports these too. Speaking to ITV earlier, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said the same thing and urged people to go out, spend money and otherwise partake. As Labour’s leader isn’t driven by a whack-a-mole approach to politics nor has to hold together a declining electoral coalition glued together by nationalist delusion, bloody mindedness, and fear, why is Labour going along with a strategy that, to put it mildly, is borderline sociopathic?

There are two things worth recalling here: one is about the everyday aspect of mainstream politics, and another that reaches into the core of Labourism. All politicians look for an easy life, and the easy life is where (they think) most voters are, and the best indicator of this – from within the point of view of bourgeois politics – is what the press say. After all, they sell papers and so have to reflect the opinion of readers out there otherwise no one would buy them, right? Hence there’s never been a time when Tory MPs have worried about a Morning Star editorial. Leaving aside their dwindling circulations, politicians want to inhabit what former Brown aide Mike Jacobs called a ‘normal operating sphere’ of non-punishment. This normally comes into play for governments, but given Keir’s studied statesmanly gait he shares a similar concern. Because Corbyn was bad, he has to be good, and this means over-emphasising conventional notions of electability and game playing. And so accepting Tory plans for schools, for pubs, their whole framing of the coronavirus crisis in fact, means Boris Johnson would be hard-pressed to lump Labour in with “the ditherers”, therefore shutting down one line of attack that might resonate with the Tory faithful and their new periphery of Brexity vote-lenders. This in turn means Keir can play politics to his strengths, which is contrasting his shovel-ready leadership qualities versus the bumbling incompetence of Johnson.

The second? The tension in Labourism between what is and what might be. Having its origins in a historic alliance between a movement fighting for incremental workplace improvements and privileged professional layers, Labourism was born for the compromises, Byzantine procedures, and plodding constitutionalism of the House of Commons. To channel jolly old Lenin, if trade unionism is the bourgeois politics of the working class, i.e. seeking improvement for their lot within the confines of capitalism, Labourism is its expression writ large. Yet our class, broadly defined as everyone who has to sell their labour power in return for a wage, has a trajectory that tends to negate capitalism. The right to a decent standard of living, a home, freedom from work, a liveable environment, these are fundamentally at odds with a mode of production for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. Profit is the be-all and end-all. This was the case when Labourism was born, and is even more so now.

In the history of Labourism, the tussle between what is and what might be maps on to the eternal struggle of right versus left. The empiricism of appearance, the institutional weight of trade unionism and Labourist thought, not to mention the considerable rewards of office and the flows of money has seen Labour dominated by a concern to adapt to supporters and would-be supporters as they are, and keep them as they are: atomised workers, and therefore atomised voting fodder. What Corbynism represented was an attempt to break out of this straitjacket, hence it had to be destroyed. Contrary to the bullshit you find peddled everywhere, Labour under Corbyn was about building broad coalitions of voters and meeting them where they are, but with a programme that tried transforming them from objects into subjects. Even the Tories these days like to talk about empowerment, but Corbynism actually attempted it. Corbynism, like its Bennite forebear, was a movement from within Labourism that pushed it to its limits, And from there, perhaps a post-capitalist anywhere?

Starmerism, if we can speak of such a thing, is getting that genie back into the bottle. It does so by ostentatiously – not a word one normally associates with Keir Starmer – gripping Tory framing without contesting it, offering weak sauce managerial criticisms where it can muster a word against the government, stamping on anything one might construe as radical or, shudder, socialist, and evacuating anything resembling hope from the Labour Party’s platform – something even Tony Blair recognised the importance of and was keen to cultivate. While it pretends itself pragmatic, it is the most dogmatic form of Labourism. It claims to be oriented to the challenges of the present, but wants to forever impose the past on the politics of the future. Sure, the party is improving in the polls. It might win an election on its present course (we’ll see), but going by what Keir says and does all we can look forward is the status quo under more competent management. Therefore anyone thinking what we’re seeing now is “caution” so Keir, as the new leader, can get a hearing are kidding themselves. What you see now is what we’re getting, assuming he continues to get his own way. Coronavirus plus economic crisis plus Brexit equals a perfect storm for political polarisation, and inevitably demands a response equal to the moment. If Keir Starmer isn’t forthcoming then his careful project will come to naught.

Comments (4)

  • RH says:

    “Why is Labour apparently supporting a government strategy on lifting the lockdown “that, to put it mildly, is borderline sociopathic?””

    The question is not that.

    The real question is ‘Why has Labour been so weak in not attacking the myths behind an incredibly damaging Lock-Up policy that has no justification based on evidence?”

    The left has been notably absent in exposing the facts and the myths on this issue.

  • Mary Davies says:

    Spot on article.

  • Philip Ward says:

    RH: I don’t know where you get your information from: Fox News? Are you an epidemiologist and if so can you give me an explanation of your views, which are contrary to those of practically every single other epidemiologist in the world?

    You are attacking a policy that has probably saved 3m lives in Europe and could have saved more had it been implemented earlier.

  • Philip Ward says:

    In reply to RH: I am curious as to why you claim there is no evidence for the effectiveness of lockdowns. I would like to see your sources.

    In terms of politics, it is absolutely clear that the Tory government are on the ropes because of coronavirus: not for implementing the lockdown, but for two other things – starting the lockdown far too late and not giving enough support to vulnerable groups who have suffered economically or for health or social reasons (e.g. domestic violence) as a result of it. That the lockdown was seen as necessary by the vast majority of the population is shown by the fact that almost all of us followed it and the huge outpouring of anger at Cummings’ breach of it.

    So I concur completely with the article’s assessment that Starmer has not done enough to attack the government on this.

    Just to emphasise the effectiveness of the lockdown: the modelling group at Imperial College estimates that in 11 European countries it has saved 3.1 million lives. In this country, the delay in going into lockdown means that half to three quarters of the 60,000 deaths (so far) were avoidable. I suspect if travel restrictions from Europe had been implemented from the beginning of February, the number of lives that could have been saved would have been even greater.

    This edition of Radio 4’s More or Less – from 1st July – gives an excellent summary of developments since January and the government’s delays, failures, deceit and incompetence:

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