What Keir Starmer’s Ambition of ‘Unity’ Really Means

by Oliver Eagleton

20 April 2020

Chris Boland /Flickr

It is too early to assess the impact of the report, covered by Novara Media last week, which appeared to reveal the connivance of Labour staffers to lose the 2017 election and obstruct antisemitism complaints procedures. But one of the bleaker outcomes could be to strengthen Keir Starmer’s self-presentation as a ‘unifying’ figure. Given that both the media and shadow cabinet have framed the report as a trivial factional dispute, its findings risk being occluded by a nebulous appeal to ‘pull together’. As such, it seems important to unpack Starmer’s ‘unity’ mantra – to ask what it will mean in practice for Labour’s policy platform – and formulate a left response. 

It should go without saying that the Labour party is foundationally disunified. It emerged as an uneasy coalition of liberal intellectuals, socialist militants and trade unionists of varied political stripes, setting the reformist tendencies of the Fabians alongside the revolutionary spirit of the Independent Labour party. Throughout the 20th century it has accommodated Britain’s most fervent imperialists as well as their anticolonial detractors, and encompassed visions of socialist struggle that have ranged from Bennite Methodism to Morrisonian state capitalism.

These fractures have only deepened during the past decade, such that the party now consists of (among others) Keynesian social democrats and neoliberal technocrats, peace activists and Atlanticists, LGBTQ campaigners and Blue Labour bigots, and both advocates of Palestinian rights and backers of Israeli apartheid. Even the far-left flank is riven with internal divisions, as itemised by Daniel Gerke in his thoughtful anatomy of Corbynism.

In this context, calls for ‘unity’ are meaningless, because the disagreements between these rival camps (on, say, whether we should bomb Syria) flow from distinct and irreconcilable traditions. It is disingenuous to argue that a consensus can be formed between them. Yet Starmer’s ostensible goal – to minimise intra-party wrangling – could be achieved by two other methods. One is a truce; the other is hegemony.

A truce is a situation in which opposite wings of the party refrain from actively undermining each other, forge a policy agenda that maintains this fragile harmony, and focus on a common project – such as winning an election.

Hegemony, on the other hand, describes the monopolisation of power by one bloc, which diminishes the appearance of factionalism by marginalising its opponents.

While the first approach sounds unobjectionable, most parliamentary Labour party members know that it’s exceedingly hard to sustain. The last two shadow cabinets that tried to ‘reflect the diversity of the party’ were Ed Miliband’s in 2011 and Jeremy Corbyn’s in 2015. In both cases, right-wing MPs fiercely resisted the most tentative turn towards social democracy. Under Miliband they got their way: Labour remained committed to austerity and opposed to immigration. Under Corbyn they were defeated by the membership, and a profound ideological conversion set in. Each time, a truce gave way to hegemony – first for the right, then for the left.

The difficulty of brokering a peace settlement means that, when Labour apparatchiks extol the value of unity, this usually means the supremacy of their faction. Yet, with Starmer’s leadership, there is good reason to doubt that this is the case.

For one thing, his ‘soft-left’ cadre is notoriously fickle and chameleonic. It has long been an auxiliary force within Labour, applauding privatisation during the Blair-Brown years, then accepting the bulk of Corbyn’s economic programme after 2017. It is broadly opposed to the social and environmental predations of neoliberalism, yet it does not accept that socialist transformation is the only viable alternative. Caught in this interstitial space, the soft-left – unlike its Blairite and Corbynite cousins – lacks the basic precondition for a hegemonic role: that is, a hegemonic ideology, or totalising vision for society. It is more comfortable lending critical support to such a vision than formulating one itself.

It is therefore likely that Starmer’s preference is for a ceasefire over a coup d’etat. Yet, because ceasefires are near impossible to preserve in the face of concrete policy decisions, the current leadership will try to remain as neutral as possible on contentious issues. This is already evident in Starmer’s toothless response to the Covid-19 crisis: asking the government to publish its exit strategy, but not to guarantee renters’ rights; criticising its ‘poor communication’, but not its herd immunity policy.

Indeed, the former director of public prosecutions’ promise to deliver ‘forensic opposition’ becomes more explicable when one realises that ‘forensic’ is here antonymous with ‘ideological’. Since presenting an alternative societal vision would inevitably split the Labour ranks by alienating either the right or the left, Starmer hopes to avoid this fissure by creating a form of opposition based on lawyerly nit-picking. His attention to granular detail will supplant the bigger picture. It is not worth asking whether he will ‘betray’ his Ten Pledges (which retain the core policies of the Corbyn era), because he will probably never mention them at the dispatch box.

Yet these dark times present an opening for the left. Commentators like Dawn Foster and Tariq Ali, who have suggested that Starmer’s ascendance marks a return to Milibandism, are both right and wrong in an important sense.

If 2010-15 saw a moderate leadership pushed rightward by the ideological hangover of Blairism, then we can hope that the Starmer era replays this situation with a socialist inflection: a moderate leadership pushed leftward by the legacy of Corbynism. If the new leadership team does not have hegemonic ambitions, then they are more susceptible to influence from below.

This is certainly one argument for remaining a member: if Starmer is uninterested in mounting a serious opposition, it is even more incumbent upon leftists inside the party to do so. (On this count, it is worth noting the irony that Trotskyist grouplets who stress the centrality of ‘grassroots struggle’ and reject narratives of ‘history from above’ are now ready to abandon a 580,000-strong mass membership organisation because of personnel changes at the top.)

At the same time, there are vehicles to influence Labour policy that do not necessarily entail membership, many of which are more effective than attending monthly constituency Labour party meetings: unions such as Unite, the IWGB and Acorn, radical campaign groups like We Own It and left media outlets like this one.

Historically, the soft-left has acted as a weathervane. It’s up to socialists, within and without the party, to make sure the wind is blowing in the right direction.

Image courtesy of Chris Boland.

Oliver Eagleton is an editor at New Left Review and a regular contributor to Novara Media. His first book, The Starmer Project, is out now with Verso Books.

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