Thursday 16 November 2023

How Damaged is Keir Starmer?

That was a bit bruising. 56 Labour MPs rebelled against Keir Starmer's command to abstain, and joined 69 other MPs supporting the SNP's amendment calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. After briefing suggested 18 front benchers would resign/be sacked for defying the whip, in the end only 10 had the courage to do so. Perhaps most surprising among their number was Jess Phillips. It might have more to do with "constituency reasons" (41,000 - or 35% of her constituents are Muslims) than a principled stand, but a vote against is a vote against. And besides, she showed more dignity and courage than those MPs who spoke in the Commons in favour of a ceasefire, then abstained. Or abstained, and then tweeted as if they had voted for the amendment. Or had previously supported a ceasefire and then decided career came before conscience. Nevertheless, not great for the Labour leadership. But how damaging is this for Starmer's leadership?

In one respect, Freddie Hayward's assessment of the immediate damage seems spot on. No one, not even the left MPs portrayed the vote as a rebellion against Starmer. The vituperative and hurt language of Suella Braverman's sacking statement was absent, and it was Israel's genocidal assault on the people of Gaza that was the focus of Labour rebels' speeches. Not the mental gymnastics of Labour's tacit support. Everyone was very careful to not challenge the leadership's politics. Second, while there was a breadth in the vote against (alongside Phillips, Liam Byrne and Stella Creasy are hardly "usual suspects" and they supported the amendment) a lot of those outside the left MPs are broadly supportive of Starmerism and the transformation of the Labour Party. Ergo Starmer slept easily in his bed last night, safe in the knowledge the vote presents no challenge whatsoever to his tenure.

On top of this, there was more good news for Starmer on Thursday. Polling suggests 64% of Muslims still plan on voting Labour, with Gaza being fourth on their overall list of priorities. It was beaten out by bread and butter issues - the cost of living, NHS, and the economy. This is still down a quarter on the support attracted in 2019, but with Labour riding high in the polls there are plenty in Labour - and certainly in the whip's office - who believe they can afford to lose these voters. And in their cynicism they have a point. Even a large rebellion of Muslim communities against Labour is unlikely to cost them the election.

In a paper for an online conference back in 2020, I argued the risk Starmer's winding back from the politics of the preceding years was a demobilisation and disintegration of the electoral coalition Labour put together at the two general elections. Jeremy Corbyn's enduring achievement was not the worst vote since 1935, but the sedimentation of a new, solid bedrock of support Labour could build on to win big in the future. Starmer's gallop to the right risked quarrying out the new base and erecting a substitute coalition on quicksand. Because it was a different time and neither Partygate nor Liz Truss had happened, the concern was this would cost support in the marginals Labour could ill-afford if the election was as polarised as its two predecessors. Politics has moved on, but the insight has not. Starmer is driving loyal voters away and will continue to do so, but the appearance of a pronounced anti-Tory sentiment, which Labour is benefiting from, means the danger to Labour has changed. Starmer will enter Number 10, perhaps as early as next May, with little fanfare, a deficit of enthusiasm apart from a tiny sliver of people, and a low to no amount of leeway with the public where "tough decisions" are concerned.

The Tories are exceedingly unlikely to benefit from any difficulties the new government would encounter. And so an historic opportunity opens up for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. But because of the arrogance Labour has repeatedly shown its Muslim support, there's an opening there to for the left. It's not hard to suppose independent left challenges from the likes of Aspire in Bethnal Green and Bow, or other left independents in places like Walsall South could scoop up enough disaffected Muslims and others outraged by Starmer's knee bending to US interests to unseat Labour. And it might cost seats in some of the marginals along the lines identified previously. Kim Leadbeater better be hoping the good people of Batley and Spen find the Tories more objectionable than the say-one-thing-vote-the-other-way trick she pulled on Wednesday, for instance. I am and remain sceptical of left wing challenges to Labour under First Past the Post, but a handful of seats could be tipped. And this becomes a problem because there's a chance independent left wingers in the Commons could become the nucleus of a new alternative to Labour, especially with the Tories out of the picture and mass opposition to Starmer being to the left of his government. A situation that could float Lib Dem and Green boats might finally furnish the left with a sea worthy vessel as well. If this comes to pass, all three of them will have Starmer to thank for his carelessness.

Image Credit


David said...

Hopeful, very hopeful, I fear Phil.
But then again I read the book and thought you were being very optimistic; look at the Tories now.

What is so hard about wanting a ceasefire?
It will be unilateral on the part of Israel, it will not finish off Hamas, it will not lead to a lasting peace.
But it will stop a massacre that is in progress right now.

Anonymous said...

Sir Keir was done a long time ago, and he's not damaged, he's the continuity candidate.

Kamo said...

Don't understand why people think Hamas would keep to a ceasefire? One was effectively in place before October 7th when Hamas threw Gaza under a bus to destabilise normalisation (almost certainly with approval from Imperial patron Iran). It's that implicit moral relativism again; those Westernised Jews know what they're doing, but Oriental Islamists can't be expected to control their impulses. I suggest for some Hamas (and related Imperialist proxies in this "it doesn't count as Imperialism when I'm sympathetic" contest) are the new, acceptable, noble savages. Utter rubbish of course, this Imperialism has history stretching far beyond the understanding of useful idiot Western "anti-Imperialists".

Anonymous said...

Whatever ceasefire that was Kamo, it didn't stop the Israeli government harming plenty of Palestinians prior to 7th October 2023.
And no one, other than yourself, views Hamas as being unable to "control their impulses".
What's all this talk about imperialism, spit it out ?

Anonymous said...

About 270 Palestinians had been killed prior to October 7th.