Sunday, 29 March 2020

Keir Starmer's Loyal Opposition

Coronavirus has meant that the already low level of public interest in the Labour leadership election has dwindled to nothing. Although I’ve been mostly ignoring the actually-existing election, I am finding ways during the lockdown to torture myself with an imagined alternative.

That imagined alternative should serve to demonstrate just how meek the actually-existing Labour left has been. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn should have endorsed Rebecca Long-Bailey. She was always going to be styled as the Corbynite candidate, so why not embrace it? No, it’s not the done thing for existing or former leaders to endorse current candidates, but that never stopped Miliband, Brown or Blair from intervening against Corbyn. There should have been an opening rally (remember those?) in early January with RLB joined by McDonnell, Abbott, and Corbyn, along with leading figures in Unite, Momentum, and other unions and affiliated socialist societies that ultimately backed her. The reasons this didn’t happen are clear: McDonnell and Abbott backed RLB quietly, presumably because they didn’t want to tarnish her reputation as a unifier ahead of the campaign (fat lot of good that did). Corbyn stayed mostly neutral (a few nudging video appearances aside) presumably for similar, flawed reasons. RLB had to actively win over the support of Unite and Momentum, which might have both gone for softer left choices if there had been one. The early work RLB had to do reflected the lack of preparedness of the left for a leadership campaign. But how on earth could the Corbynites have been so negligent – so complacent – as to not anticipate a challenge from the right in the likely event that Labour eventually lost the 2019 election? How did they fail to coordinate their allies and game-plan a succession? I think this boils down to two things: firstly, some genuinely believed – after 2017 – that whatever happened, they would do well enough in the election to avoid Corbyn resigning (remember Murphy’s ‘every seat is up for grabs’?) and secondly, they may have fatally underestimated the resilience and organisation of the Labour right. The latter knew exactly what to do once 2019 was lost: rally behind Starmer, keep a low profile, get read for a purge of the Corbynites from at least the upper ranks of the party.

Keir Starmer had no problem in the early, crucial days of the campaign styling himself as a left-wing radical (as laughable as the claim may seem to many familiar with his career in Public Prosecutions). RLB could easily have outflanked him from the left on green politics, public ownership, anti-racism, and anti-war politics. Corbyn won in 2015 and 2016 because he understood the membership and was open about his own politics. RLB made several clumsy concessions to journalistic opinion that made her and Starmer seem pretty similar. She signed up to some dodgy pledges on antisemitism; she promised to press the nuclear button; she made noises about ‘progressive patriotism’. A decision was clearly made early on to look tough in the areas that Corbyn looked weak. But Corbyn never looked weak in these areas to the Labour selectorate – these were the things they liked about him. No nuclear fetishism. No compromise on migrants’ rights. No equivocation on the Israel-Palestine question. Just as Labour members previously voted for Corbyn knowing that these things could be electoral liabilities, principled, clear stances win dividends with the membership. Once Corbyn became leader, he and his team too often failed to lead in these areas and instead looked to appease their critics. RLB was showing in her campaign that the Labour left had not yet found the resolve to fight on these issues and that her leadership would suffer from the same wrong-footedness as Corbyn’s. This is why Starmer is going to win: his campaign in the early days looked surefooted, even if his politics are guff.  

On the eve of an inevitable Starmer victory, reports emerged from excited staffers about what they plan to do in office. A shadow cabinet well to the right of Ed Miliband’s; a ‘purge’ of existing Corbynite personnel; and (perhaps most importantly) a polite but firm request for the resignation of left-wing General Secretary Jennie Fornby. In a few weeks Corbyn’s legacy could be completely eradicated. The institutional weight of the party remained firmly on the right even during Corbyn’s tenure. The few meaningful changes of personnel won by Corbynism will be easily shaken off. Next will be the erosion of the policy platform. Starmer has already indicated he won’t be keeping the more ‘fringe’ stuff (the four-day week; worker-ownership schemes; free broadband – all announced but left under-developed by McDonnell). If his rumoured Shadow Cabinet is anything to go by, there is likely to be no meaningful commitment to expanding public ownership, scrapping tuition fees, democratising the economy, or even re-nationalising the NHS. Instead expect some targeted public investment and tweaks to the welfare state.

Starmer’s public style in recent weeks – a non-presence in the early weeks of the Coronavirus crisis; a deference to the government’s public health approach; waffly non-policy about banding together and fighting the virus – indicates exactly what kind of leadership we can expect under him. I half expect him to announce the abolition of the Labour Party due to it being improper to have a formal opposition in times of crisis. It is not clear if Starmer’s ‘forensic’ style belongs in a political party at all or if it is more like the loyal, constructive advice of government experts. Those who are now sighing with relief because the long-anticipated ‘effective opposition’ is on its way all really seem to want done with the tedium of party politics. Certainly, they want done with Labour party politics. Their vision is that of an elite social layer of technocrats who may not be formal officeholders, but are well-placed to intone sternly at the populist jesters who are. The goal is not to win power, but to berate the populist right from positions of professional high status. So it is obvious then that Keir Stermer – the least political of politicians; a man of impeccable professional credentials; a man ill-suited to any form of party life – is their man.

At the next election, then, if Labour exists at all, it will likely wind up running to the right of the Tories on the issue of the deficit and public finances. I do not mean by this that Labour will be running to the right of the Tories on public spending generally. No doubt they will promise a few extra billion on the NHS or on infrastructure spending (not too much, mind). But, given Starmer’s own disposition and the politics of his associates, they will be occupying the dull, ‘sensible’ terrain recently vacated by Johnson’s Tories. Labour will be weighted towards a fiscal conservatism that has never really mattered to the Tories when in power. Starmer’s Labour will cast itself as the party of professional competence in distinction to Johnson’ reckless Tories. Starmer will promise to close the deficit through some tax increases and some better provisioning at HMRC. Johnson, meanwhile, will run on letting him finish what he has started: ‘record’ NHS investment; more nurses; more doctors; more infrastructure; more jobs. The coming recession – perhaps even depression – may not be blamed on the Tories because it has come in the form of a public health crisis. Starmer will be in no position to exploit the actual failures of the Tory response (his whole approach has been to loyally advise rather than criticise); nor the underlying economic and social weaknesses that have made Britain so susceptible to crisis (that would require a radical critique of privatisation and financialisation, which Starmer has no appetite for). So it is that Labour will be led by its most hesitant, cautious, pro- establishment leading politician in an era of unprecedented crisis and turmoil. You couldn’t imagine a better death sentence.

Some of this is the left’s fault. The left was in power for four years. For a moment, it looked unassailable. It had the leadership and Shadow Cabinet; it had the unions; the General Secretary was supportive; there was an NEC majority; the membership was united. Only the MPs and some official enclaves (Deputy Leadership; personnel at HQ; councils; the Mayor of London’s office) seemed to be holding out. A wave of departing centrist MPs only seemed to improve the left’s prospects. But ultimately Corbynism failed. This was partly due to Corbyn and McDonnell’s reluctance to further alienate the Labour right. They possibly saw it as necessary to keep the old Labour right as well as the left-leaning fractions of liberalism on board. But the latter certainly were never on board and would never be reconciled to Corbynism. The left more broadly was often emollient. It backed away from Open Selection. It allowed itself to be dragged towards a second referendum on Brexit. It accepted the right’s definition of anti-semitism to the neglect of Palestinian rights.  
If there is a rational kernel to the membership’s (and some ex-Corbynites) support of Starmer it is that they now believe it is not possible to fight a war on two fronts. Corbynism’s fight was with two arms of the British establishment and the state: on the one hand, the Tory right and, on the other, the liberal centre. To win Corbyn had to demolish the political leadership of liberalism and hegemonise its base. Only after that could it pose a serious challenge to Toryism. Because Corbynism failed, many of its former supporters will now accept their subordination to liberalism. Starmer represents capitulation on the first front. The problem is he also represents a priori capitulation in the fight with Toryism.

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