The socialist left’s approach to new Labour leader Keir Starmer has so far been light touch and low energy. Starmer enjoyed a serene procession through the Labour leadership campaign, untested by any real scrutiny of his policies and record, and has felt virtually no pressure from the left since his victory a month ago. The outcome is roughly what one would expect, as Labour reverts back to its previous role as a party of status quo managerialism.
One of the worst instances of government negligence in living memory has resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths from coronavirus, and the highest mortality figures in Europe. But instead of seriously holding Boris Johnson to account, Labour has served to relieve the pressure on him by colluding in the fiction that the Tories are doing their best, getting some things right and other things wrong, and in need of nothing more than a little constructive criticism. Johnson has been cavalier with the public’s health precisely because his recklessness has carried virtually no political cost, so Labour’s approach here has not just been craven but wilfully naïve and dangerously irresponsible.
Labour’s shrinking from the magnitude of the moment extends to the economic impacts of the crisis. In the face of mass unemployment and the evaporation of economic demand, Labour has dismissed the idea of universal basic income and chosen to support landlords over private renters. These are clear signs of a leadership focused squarely on protecting its right flank by not rocking the boat, rather than on maintaining support to its left by acting as a genuinely progressive opposition.
This is reflected in the composition of Starmer’s frontbench, from which Campaign Group socialists have been almost completely purged, with their standard-bearer Rebecca Long-Bailey given the most junior position Starmer could get away with. The shadow Home Office team has gone from having two black MPs to zero, despite the context of the Windrush scandal, while Iraq war supporters have been handed jobs as shadow defence secretary and shadow foreign office minister for the Middle East.
The treatment of minorities is an especially telling indicator. The leadership’s muted response to revelations of virulent racism at the top of the party machinery has been well noted by members of colour and our friends and allies. By contrast, when black MPs who took part in a mass meeting to discuss this racism were subjected to guilt-by-association smears, the leadership somehow found its voice and let it be known that a stern reprimand had been issued. Likewise, Starmer failed to defend Clive Lewis and Diane Abbott when invited to condemn them for pointing out the link between Brexit and racism, while putting the full weight of his leadership behind a policy of effectively appeasing the Islamophobic Indian far right over Kashmir.
This grim first month of Starmer’s leadership has proven what should have been clear from the outset. The fact that he is no Tony Blair – a self-declared enemy of the left – doesn’t mean he is an ally. Calibrating our approach towards him presents a new and specific challenge, one which we have failed badly at on our first attempt. We now need an urgent rethink, from first principles.
There is a theory that Labour’s socialist and soft left strands could work together, on the basis of their shared desire to break with the post-1979 neoliberal settlement, and a friendly hand should therefore be extended to the new leadership. I once argued for such an alliance myself, but Starmer – unfortunately but clearly – has little real interest in the idea. Its prospects in any case are undermined by the fundamental difference between the political instincts of the two sides: oppositional vs conformist.
The soft left’s conformism was the basis of their long alliance with the party right through the Blair, Brown and Miliband years, and they have been on full display in Starmer’s first month. We see them in the cringing performance of bourgeois respectability, the craving to be allowed back into polite society after the transgression of Corbynism, and – significantly – in the willingness to throw the usual people under the bus in order to get there, be it minorities, the working class, or the oppressed around the world. Five to ten more years of this – in the face of the climate emergency, post-coronavirus structural adjustment, and the ongoing rise of the racist right – is not a prospect we can afford to tolerate.
But Starmer’s conformism will continue so long as he is responding to pressure, real or implied, from everyone but us. The left’s ineffectual position toward Starmer has thus far mirrored Starmer’s ineffectual position toward the government. That being the case, the reason Johnson has had an easy ride from Starmer is, partly, because Starmer has had an easy ride from the left. This has had consequences for the public, and we have a responsibility to do better.
Without descending into crankiness and wrecking, we need to start having a constant, public argument with Starmer about where he’s taking the party. We need to subject his leadership to sustained and intense analytical scrutiny, while making a relentless series of policy demands. But beyond this, and far more importantly, we need to do what we should have been doing since 2015: organising to dramatically expand the left’s physical presence in the country, in workplaces and communities. The left must become a formidable, multi-faceted social force that the Labour leadership has to reckon with and cannot afford to alienate. Any eventual accommodation between the soft left and the socialist parts of Labour will be forged in the context of wider power struggles. And in alliances of convenience such as these, the way you get the outcomes you want is through constant hard bargaining, not self-censoring.
Our proper role as socialists is to speak candid truth directly to power, and in this instance we are already very well placed. As the vestiges of the old Cold War left drift away after 2019, a new socialist movement is coming to the fore, one deeply rooted in key sections of Labour’s base: the younger half of the electorate, BAME voters, the insecurely employed and private renters. If Starmer wants to build an electoral coalition including these groups, and the wider working class, then he should be forced to earn it. The backlash over his private renters policy these past few days suggests that the dynamic between him and the left might finally be turning in this direction.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain.