Keir Starmer’s Call to End Factionalism Must Not Mean a Return to the Status Quo

by Michael Walker

16 January 2020


Keir Starmer promised to “end factionalism” in the Labour party at the launch of his leadership bid on 11 January. Starmer presumably believes this pitch will be popular given the fatigue felt by both Labour’s membership and the wider public at the party’s very public infighting. However, the former director of public prosecutions is yet to spell out what ending factionalism will mean in practice. How he elaborates on this point will be crucial to his capacity to win over the left in this race and, if he succeeds, for the future of Labour. 

With its facile portrayal of the situation, Britain’s press has not helped the debate over Labour’s internecine conflicts. It has become standard for MPs from the party’s right to book slots on the country’s airwaves only to label any democratic challenge to their position as an end to Labour’s ‘broad church’. Few people have mentioned that, in the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) at least, it was the right who were the dominant faction. Any reforms in the left’s interest would serve to increase the intellectual diversity of the PLP, not shrink it. 

This framing, which blames dysfunction on factionalism from the left, has been extended to discussion of Labour’s frontbench. Since December’s defeat, critics of Corbyn have regularly complained that he did not promote MPs from all of Labour’s traditions to the shadow cabinet. These critics have short memories. It was mass resignations, not any ideological purity test, which determined the shape of Corbyn’s leadership team. 

In fact, the outcome of the nomination process for Labour’s next leader and deputy attests to the limited extent to which the left, after over four years in charge, has shifted the balance of power in the PLP. For the leadership, the two left candidates received a combined 37 nominations, less than one-fifth of the total available. In the deputy race, the only candidate from the Socialist Campaign Group barely scraped on to the ballot.

The simplest route for Starmer to “end factionalism” would be to freeze out the left. His opposition in the parliamentary party would be weak, and Labour’s leftwingers wouldn’t be offered slots on Britain’s TV screens as liberally as Chuka Umunna or Jess Phillips. It would certainly be the path of least resistance in Westminster, and given a new leader would shift the balance of power on the National Executive Committee (NEC), if the membership were to object, there would be little opportunity to protest. 

There is evidence that this is a route Starmer would consider. Some leftwing members of his local party complain he’s organised to exclude Corbynites from positions of influence, and his appointment of Labour First’s national organiser to his team will do little to assuage any fears he’d seek a nationwide purge. 

This would be a disaster, not just for the left, but for Labour. Unless Labour kowtows to the demands of our billionaire press, Starmer will, like Corbyn, Miliband and Brown before him, get a hammering. And just as 2019 shows a mobilised membership isn’t enough to win an election, 2010 and 2015, and even 1987 and 1992, show the traditional soft left strategy of presenting a professional image with a social democratic message, detached from social movements and oppositional demands, is also doomed to defeat. 

Of course, there is a strategy available to win power without a movement, but it is not one which many members will want repeating. New Labour made the wager that the weakness of the labour movement in Britain meant the only route to power was by courting the billionaire press. However, by neutering any movements that could challenge elites in Britain, New Labour were left in-hoc to them. PFIs, ASBOs, and two wars in the Middle East followed. Any defender of the project must explain how many Sure Start centres it takes to offset the blood of half a million Iraqis.  

Starmer is no Blair. Indeed, while Blair was leading the drive to war in Iraq, Starmer wrote legal opinions protesting it. However, the comparison that Starmer should fear is between him and Neil Kinnock. Following Labour’s catastrophic defeat in 1983, a soft left candidate took over the party. The left was sidelined, and overtures made to the press. Yet after nine years and two election defeats, Kinnock’s only real legacy would be to clear the way for Tony Blair.   

To prove this won’t be his role, and that he deserves the leftwing votes he’s so clearly courting, Starmer must demonstrate that by “ending factionalism” he doesn’t mean a centralising project, which can only empower the party’s right. 

Luckily, there is a promise he could make which would fulfil his desire to end damaging internecine war without undermining accountability: open selections. 

A key demand of the left over the last two years, the core principle of open selections is that individuals can put themselves forward to challenge sitting MPs, without first having to ‘deselect’ them. In practice, this could take many forms, from having a full selection contest in every election cycle, to triggering one when a prospective challenger demonstrates a pre-defined level of support. The latter is how the primary system works in the US. 

The key benefit of this proposal over the current system is that it promotes positive campaigning by those wishing to become Labour candidates, instead of negative campaigning against those who already are. It should mean factions working to build up leadership capacity on their own side, not undermining that of their opponents. 

If we want a dynamic party, where competition and debate is welcomed not suppressed, open selections should be welcomed by all ideological wings within Labour. It would create a team on Labour’s benches made up of the best of our movement in all its diversity, not made up of factional yes-men. To see the power of this system we need only to look to the States, were Alexandria Ocasio Cortez mounted a positive challenge against the Democratic incumbent, and electrified national politics way beyond the party’s base. 

Perhaps surprisingly, given his popularity within the PLP, Starmer has spoken positively about opening up the processes by which Labour chooses candidates. After his launch, Starmer told LabourList the party must “allow fresh people to come through as much as possible” and that he’s “not against the principle” of open selections. This is a good start. But to reassure members he won’t turn back the clock on party democracy, he’ll need to offer something far more concrete. 

Michael Walker is a contributing editor at Novara Media. He produces Tysky Sour.

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