Starmer’s Half-Hearted Power-Grab Has Weakened Him, Not That His Allies Care

The Labour right has its eyes on a bigger prize.

by Solomon Hughes

28 September 2021

Britain’s Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer leaves his home in London, Britain May 10, 2021.
(REUTERS/Toby Melville)

On Sunday, Keir Starmer’s attempt to introduce electoral colleges for Labour leadership elections fell apart after resistance from the grassroots. Starmer’s supporters won’t mind how the battle diminished Starmer: they are willing to sacrifice both Sir Keir and the next election to their “project”.

Starmer’shalf-baked coup, which would have blocked even the “soft left” from any future leadership challenge, failed for three reasons.

Firstly, his team wildly overreached and under-prepared. They did not win over key MPs, mayors or union leaders.

Secondly, the coup exposed the inherent weakness in Starmer’s plan to win Labour’s leadership as a “soft-left“ candidate only to wrench the party rightwards. While a supportive media and many generous-hearted members don’t like to dwell on this, plucking the obviously undemocratic electoral college from nowhere rubbed it in their faces so much so that even “soft-left” MPs, usually more soft than left, baulked.

Third and most importantly, the left organised. Momentum worked hard, fast and with imagination to build opposition to the moves, both in Labour and affiliated unions, as did other grassroots groups.

We are still in a period where what grassroots and leftwing members do affects the national political conversation. Speaking as somebody who has been going to Labour conferences for over 20 years, I should emphasise that, even in relative retreat, “Corbynism” means politics is very different.

However, Starmer won significant consolation prizes: Starmer proposed no Labour leader could run without 25% of MPs in support, and though he was beaten back to 20%, that still makes any future challenge from the left very difficult. Starmer’s scheme to limit new members’ voting rights and protect MPs from local challenges are also obstacles.

If we believe this is still a period of social turmoil, and that the Labour right’s solutions are uninspiring, it does not mean they are permanently locked in to the leadership, however. It might be harder to imagine how much the left would have to shake things up to get a purchase on the leadership, but it is not impossible – especially when you think of the very recent and very major shake-up that Labour’s leadership is still trying to damp down.

Starmer himself is clearly diminished by the fight. His claim to be the “professional” voice that would “unite” the party, value its “mass membership” and focus on “effective opposition” been overshadowed by internecine conflict. The negative perceptions of Starmer long-held on the left are leaking into wider society; supportive papers like the Mirror pleading for Starmer to stop shooting himself in the foot, or the Guardian saying he “looks like someone bumbling through a school play about Blair”. The inherent dishonesty in Starmer reversing the 10 pledges from his leadership bid has long rankled on the left, but has now broken into the wider news, especially with Starmer’s crude abandonment of nationalising energy in an interview with Andrew Marr. The sense of Starmer’s slipperiness is likely to get broader coverage than his technical policy failures.

So Starmer has won a battle but wounded himself. That could create opportunities for the left to grow; it could also another lost election even likelier. Starmer’s core “supporters” may not care, as they see Starmer and the next election as necessary sacrifices to return Labour to its true nature.

In his recent 12,000-word essay, Starmer showed he had many words but few ideas. Key members of team Starmer have even fewer. They are more like a historical reenactment society than members of a political project. They say Starmer must be a Kinnock who reduces the influence of the left and ambition for social reform in the party: like Neil Kinnock, he will lose an election, but pave the way for the only possible victory, the emergence of a centrist Blair’ figure. Some Starmer supporters are also reaching back to Hugh Gaitskell, Labour’s rightwing leader of the 1950s. They have suggested Starmer emulate a famous Gaitskell speech when he vowed to “fight, fight and fight again” against leftwing policies like nuclear disarmament. Gaitskell, like Kinnock, led Labour to defeat.

Starmer’s strongest weapon will be demoralisation – that leftwing Labour members will secretly believe that Starmer’s supporters are right and that history will simply repeat the journey from Kinnock to Blair, but this time as farce. Starmer himself unconvincingly quotes Clash frontman Joe Strummer in his long Fabian essay, but the quote itself is correct: “The future is unwritten”.

Solomon Hughes writes for Private Eye magazine and has a weekly column in the Morning Star.

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