Thursday 28 September 2023

Keir Starmer's Authoritarian Assurances

It's party conference season and the Labour leadership are ensuring its annual gathering goes without a hitch. That means no resolutions running counter to Keir Starmer's policy platform, such as it is. No defeats to trouble the smooth ascent to office. It is to be a stage-managed affair where the Great Leader's praise is to be sung, where shadow cabinet banalities are welcomed as profundities, and Labour's broad church are seen to be singing from the same hymn sheet. This is the new model Labour Party, a far cry from the times when Starmer himself went rogue on the podium and broke the discipline he's now enforcing. Another symptom of Starmerism's incipient totalitarianism?

Control freakery is in the DNA of Starmer's politics. As a manager before he was a politician, "governing" is a matter of issuing orders and expecting them to be carried out. This sensibility also has deep roots in the Labour tradition, of expecting workers (or "working people" according to Starmer's list of approved words) to shuffle their way to polling stations and elect very clever people who know so much more about politics and policy than they do, and will keep things ticking over so they don't have to think about such lofty things. However, it would be naive to trace the clamping down on party conference purely in terms of Starmer's personal predilections and Labour's Fabian habitus.

As Edward Potter rightly notes, the leadership are afraid of debate. Having captured the party on a false prospectus, there has not been any votes on or popular enthusiasm for the shift to the right. If the always-overrated Wes Streeting, for example, had to debate his enthusiasm for using private providers in the NHS, he'd be roundly humiliated. If Rachel Reeves had to account for her adoption of George Osborne's fiscal rules, her reputation as a serious economist would not survive the encounter. They know this craven servicing of vested interests is indefensible, so why discuss them at all?

But this doesn't go far enough either. You might add into the mix electoral calculation. The growing consensus in Westminster is that Rishi Sunak will call the next election in the Spring rather than next Winter. He thinks attacking climate change targets, curbs on vehicular emissions, and made up policies offers the Tories an opportunity, and one that won't be open forever. Starmer's office are of the same opinion, and so this is likely the last conference before polls open. Labour has to present itself not as an opposition debating what it wants to do, but as a government-in-waiting with a clear, business-like agenda that's ready to go. Democracy is amateur hour stuff. Conference is an opportunity to play up to the cameras and put a serious foot forward.

Taken together, this still doesn't entirely satisfy. We have to take into account the character of the Labour Party itself. It is the party of the workers, expressed institutionally by its trade union links and dependence on them for finance. But it's also a career ladder for aspirant members of the professional managerial class, as well as the favoured party of state bureaucrats. A section of British capital has, from the party's formation, always favoured it over Labour's Conservative and Liberal rivals and have worked to influence and accommodate it to their interests. In office in swathes of local and regional government, and occasional occupants of 10 Downing Street the party is to all intents and purposes part of the British state. It's a site of political contestation, an institution in whose bowels the class struggle plays out, and - historically speaking - capital's B Team when the Tories have exhausted themselves. Like now.

From the standpoint of the establishment, Labour is always a risk because its labour movement links and mass basis makes it "unreliable" in the way the Tories are not. The Corbyn surge came from nowhere and ruled Labour out of bounds for bourgeois politics for a brief time, which was also a period of severe political crisis. The right took it back and Starmer has tried his damnedest to make sure our interests are suppressed and those of capital are given free reign. This is the material root of Starmerism's authoritarianism, and that of the Labour right in general. Ruling the party with a rod of iron, intimidating, threatening, and expelling left wing MPs, councillors, and members, and turning conference into a showcase serves one purpose. To show capital and the establishment that the party is sensible, accepts their rules of the game, and that never will it succumb to the left again. Some - most - will happily accept that. But others, the most class conscious ones are going to stick with the Tories because they understand that as long as the party straddles the class divide there's a chance, however remote it might seem, that the terrifying spectre of socialism could come screeching back. And no amount of bully boy behaviour and anti-democratic thuggery will persuade them otherwise.

Image Credit


Brian said...

And in the meantime, anybody with any tendencies towards socialism has no one to represent them. Anybody who harbours thoughts of helping the poor, the sick, those who are unable to work for any reason is left with no voice. And as for taxing the rich, those who could easily afford to 'lose' a few hundred pounds a year, and suggesting that they might like to help those less fortunate than themselves, well, forget it. Neither of the 2 main parties is going to ask anybody to do that because it would affect them too.

Rob M said...

"there has not been any votes on or popular enthusiasm for the shit to the right."
Freudian slip? :)

Phil said...

"As Edward Potter rightly notes, the leadership are afraid of debate."

And not only Edward! The new Member's Pledge takes this control freakery down to the level of individual members, effectively outlawing factional organising (other than for factions supporting the leadership). More on this on my blog.

Blissex said...

«Keir Starmer's Authoritarian Assurances»

My usual quote as to precedent:
“After the election, David Blunkett was promoted to the Home Office. He promised Blair he would 'make Jack Straw look like a liberal'. He was bragging, there's not a politician in Britain who can do that. But again it tells you something about the PM that Blunkett was obliged to make it.”

A party that regards Colonel Blimps and hang-and-flog old aunties as their target constituency has to play to their secondary preferences too.

Blissex said...

«Ruling the party with a rod of iron, intimidating, threatening, and expelling left wing MPs, councillors, and members»

Consider this old an equally misguided article from 2001:
It's no longer my party Roy Hattersley
[...] At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy. [...] Or, believing that the party does not belong to Tony Blair, we could rise up against the coup d'├ętat which overthrew the legitimate philosophy.

What our blogger and Hattersley share is confusion about which party they are talking about: the Labour party is social-democratic, but it is not the “quasi-Conservative” New Labour party, which does belong to Blair (actually Mandelson), and which Blair made clear repeatedly is not the same party as the Labour Party, even if for opportunistic reason New Labour uses its symbol, organisation and resources.

As Hattersley acknowledges, New Labour is “no longer my party” and it does “belong to Tony Blair”.

Members and leaders of New Labour Party have every right to be outraged that the members and activists of the Labour Party have been in their hundreds of thousands infiltrating the New Labour Party, and also have every right to push back against that unprovoked invasion. :-)

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Politics mirrors the other professions in that it is invested in ensuring its own continued comfortable existence. Now that most politicians are signed up members of the Guild of Remunerated Representatives, differing only in which colour sash they wear, their main concern is keeping the gravy train rolling.

Do we have the type of politician we have because of the system, or do we have the system because of the politicians we have? I think, like chicken or egg, the question is meaningless without understanding how natural selection drives evolution. The environment is always changing, and with it, species adjust, adapt and alter, so that the impact they have on each other is continually manipulating evolution in new ways. Similarly, human institutions are influenced by changes in society and cultures, and the interactions with other institutions and nations. Where natural selection works through mutation, reproduction and survival, ultimately driven by the combined forces of the environment and all other lifeforms, in politics it is the ability to get elected that drives evolution.

Many factors influence this, but the embedded doxas, and associated orthodoxies are key because they set the limits of what is acceptable. These change as society changes, but always seem timeless and eternal. Heresies which were unimaginable can gradually become inevitable. This change mostly happens outside politics, which adjusts to it and absorbs it, once established.

Heresy becomes orthodoxy when it stops being seen as new or challenging. Once it is perceived as obvious it is successfully ingested. The difficulty is how to make radical ideas appear self-evident and the provocative agreeable. How to turn the unthinking acceptance of inequality and exploitation into a demand for social and economic justice, fairness and sustainability.

At present, establishment control over doxas means that there is little room for mass movement radicalism within the political system. Westminster is a closed shop which excludes any genuine challenge to the status quo. Unless a more radical party can establish itself as electable, and the existing electoral system makes that very difficult (but not impossible) we are faced with a de facto two party system in which the two parties have essentially the same policies, but focus on small differences of approach and bigger ones of rhetoric to give a pretence of choice. Just like America.

Blissex said...

«a de facto two party system in which the two parties have essentially the same policies, but focus on small differences of approach and bigger ones of rhetoric to give a pretence of choice. Just like America.»

A saying goes "In China the policies can change but not the governing party; in the USA and UK the governing party can change but not the policies".

But that won't last for long: the PRC ruling class has become as dependent for their personal wealth on property like the UK ruling class, and this means that they will become ever more reluctant to change policies. I was surprised that the central elite still was allowed to deflate the current property boom, but I guess that there will be eventually such pushback that will not be possible in the future.

Blissex said...

«At present, establishment control over doxas means that there is little room for mass movement radicalism within the political system.»

Indeed George Orwell wrote in 1932:
"Review of The Civilization of France by Ernst Robert Curtius" (1932)
“In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency.
But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution - meaning the next revolution, not the last one.
The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed - at least not yet.”

Yet not much later there was a rise to power of the Labour party and of a "butskellite" consensus about social-democratic policies. So not all hope is lost. But that rise was preceded by decades of organising via a mass movement, and currently "The Establishment" is well aware of that being a threat.

I suspect that part of the change is that post-WW2 the USA oligarchs were content that Labour were anti-communist and anti-soviet, that is loyalty to the USA in international politics, but the current USA oligarchs also seem to require positive enforcement of the "Washington Consensus", that is loyalty to the USA also in domestic economic policy, because USA oligarchs control global corporations with bigger economic interests outside the USA than inside.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and very perceptive comment by Zoltan. Not many people seem to realise that natural selection shapes political and economic cultures just as much as it shapes bacterial ones.