Wednesday 19 February 2020

Keir Starmer for Labour Leader

This is the first of three guest posts by comrades on the left putting the case for their choice for party leader. The author, Cllr Susan Press (@susanp80 on Twitter) has been on the left of the Labour Party for decades, and sets out why she's backing Keir Starmer.

Somewhere out there in a parallel universe Labour is getting set for its first General Election with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. The past five years have been tough and it took time to win over the PLP and general public but after a narrow escape from leaving the EU with a close referendum in 2016 the polls suggest it’s finally “Time For Real Change’, to use the 2020 election slogan. What a relief it will be to see Prime Minister Cameron finally depart after 10 years of austerity.

Nice fantasy but it didn’t happen did it ?

If I am entirely honest with you I am not sure that I ever thought it would.

Long before the thrills of Glastonbury and Seven Nation Army, I would chair modestly attended Conference fringe meetings with what would now be regarded as a stellar line-up. Corbyn, McDonnell, McCluskey, Owen Jones, and the marvellous Tony Benn. How proud was I to be a bit player in this determined fight back against Blair and New Labour. I still am and always will be.

But in those days the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader would have been met with looks of astonishment from all of us small band of Labour lefties. Here was someone who had devoted his life to the most unfashionable and difficult causes. We used to jokingly refer to him as the ‘ alternative Foreign Secretary” as he was always on the way to or back from Palestine or South America. You never met anyone with less ego or less interested in personal political aggrandisement. And then the world turned upside down.

Years before in 2006 my first encounter with Jeremy Corbyn was at a Labour Briefing pre-Conference curry in Manchester. At the time John McDonnell had just announced he would be standing for the leadership when Blair resigned. Despite our 100 per cent support for this brave attempt to overturn the status quo – which ultimately failed when the now Shadow Chancellor couldn’t get the nominations for the ballot against Brown - Jeremy agreed with me that sadly it was highly unlikely it would ever be the case in the foreseeable future that a left candidate could win. The rest is well-documented history. How it was basically Buggins turn in the Campaign Group and the debate needed broadening. How Jeremy got on the ballot with a minute to spare. And how in a heroic campaign he defied 100-1 odds to become Labour Leader.

But for Brexit I still believe things could have been very different. But amid the horrors of the early hours of December 13 I also thought at least on a human scale that I was glad Jeremy Corbyn would not have to endure much more personal abuse. Four years of media hatchet jobs had done their work big style.

Day after day voters would tell us in my marginal constituency that they had always been Labour but wouldn’t vote for Corbyn as PM. It was heartbreaking. Whatever had saved us from annihilation in 2017 it sure as hell wasn’t going to save us now.

It is hard to part company with comrades on the left but the truth is it was crystal clear we were heading for catastrophe and we didn’t have an oven-ready candidate experienced enough to replace Jeremy. Had the result not been such a disaster, there was a lingering if unlikely hope that John McDonnell (who had actually wanted to be Leader and would have commanded support still) might be persuaded to stand. But that ship sailed with Johnson’s 80-seat majority.

These days I am not just a Labour Left activist. As a councillor for the past six years I represent a ward in West Yorkshire with two food banks and a lot of deprivation. But there are also people who are doing OK, people who didn’t vote for us last time or even vote at all. We need all of them on board to stand any chance at all of clawing back ground – let alone forming a government.

Does the PLP bear any responsibility for this? Sure they do. However the turn the Party as a whole took after the so-called chicken coup by MPs didn’t just lose us support. It spawned a bunker mentality and understandable determination to protect the leadership from the top right down to the grassroots. It got toxic. Very. Any criticism of Corbyn and you were a Tory. Anti-semitism was an invention (trust me as a member of the NCC, it wasn’t). Any concerns about election prospects were dismissed on an increasingly hysterical social media amid the cries of ‘bring it on’ and JC4PM. To be frank a lot of it was delusional. And as much to blame as Brexit for what followed.

So here we are with another leadership campaign. But it is not 2015. What made that campaign so amazing was its message of hope and authenticity from someone who had spent his life in the labour movement. Someone who didn’t have to keep saying the s-word as everyone knew he was a socialist and always had been. We wanted a fundamental shift in the Labour Party after years of watering down our values and we were right even if it went wrong in the end. Hindsight is easy and luck wasn’t on our side as neither was the media but that has always been the case even if this time it was unprecedentedly vile. A lot of mistakes were also made by the LOTO office according to those closer to the coal face and all that will no doubt be revealed in due course. However there has been a game-changing shift. Which may help us in the difficult years ahead.

Not one of the leadership candidates could in all honesty be described as on the right of the Party. And whatever silliness is being said about ‘ true’ and ‘proper’ socialists, after 40 years on the left of the Party I am not buying the line there is only one candidate we can vote for. Truth is there is not a batsqueak policy-wise between them.

So like that well-known Blairite Paul Mason I am voting for Keir Starmer - the candidate who has best chance of inspiring trust and convincing the unconvinced to come home to Labour. Who can cope with the pressure and take Johnson apart at the dispatch box and hold him to account when Brexit unravels. And, with no disrespect to the others, someone with a much longer track-record of standing up for human rights and social justice.