Tuesday 16 June 2020

On Hammering the Left

The victory of Keir Starmer in Labour's leadership campaign was always going to revive a genre of writing on the right: the need to smash the left. In between extolling the virtues of markets and attacking trade unions, former Blair aide John McTernan is a frequent exponent of this school. Just don't call him a Tory. Tom Harris, one of the worst MPs ever to grace the House of Commons for any party, has called on Keir to do the same from his Telegraph berth. And on Monday, Rachel Sylvester took time out from admiring right wing authoritarians to wind up the klaxon in The Times. The message is always identical: reckon with the left, smash the left, bury the left. But why? What does it matter to a hard right cheerleader like Sylvester to give a shit? In short, to stabilise the Labour Party as another establishment party safe for business interests, state institutions, and aspirant careerists who'll guarantee the status quo as they ascend through the ranks.

There are a couple of things here. It's no exaggeration to say the liberal side of the political establishment greeted the election of Jeremy Corbyn with a nervous breakdown. Their destructive and scabby behaviour from the very day he became Labour leader was a symptom of the implosion of a world view, of the impossible happening as tens of thousands appeared out of nowhere and charged into the Labour Party. Their trauma of losing to a mass insurgency was compounded by 2016 and the double blows of losing the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump. The forces of liberalism were swept aside by the very antithesis of a smooth and "grown up" politician in America, and the nice liberal Tories like Dave and Osborne were out of sorts once Theresa May and her commitment to a hard Brexit took the reins, followed in short order by Boris Johnson. For the first time, liberalism as a political tendency was very much subordinate in both the two main parties and had to (incoherently) resort to combinations of parliamentary rebellions, street campaigning, and reinforcing a rejuvenated Liberal Democrats to scramble back into contention. Keir Starmer was part of this tendency, albeit that choosing to engage with Corbynism. This meant he was in a good position when its humbling finally happened, and took advantage of his proximity to Corbyn to present himself as a Corbyn-lite continuity candidate.

From the standpoint of their politics and position, this makes obvious sense. If only the left had proven as hard nosed, determined and focused while it had the levers of power in Labour. Winning back control by any means necessary was the first step, purging the left to make space for the party's rightful masters is the second, yes? However, where the right are kidding themselves is the idea a bout of bloodletting against the left led from the top is going to prove popular. I can understand the logics, which come in two flavours. Single out and boot out the troublemakers to improve the party's standing. In this respect, the imminent EHRC report into anti-semitism provides a useful pretext, and would get polite applause from the very press Keir is courting. And also taking on one's internal opposition burnishes the old toughness credentials. When Tony Blair provoked a fight over Clause Four, it reassured the Tory media that here was someone not about to threaten their class interests in the most modest ways, not that the wider public needed any convincing - Labour had held double-digit polling leads since the UK crashed out the ERM. And we saw recently how Johnson's Brexit at any price strategy cohered voters because his picking a fight with remain-inclined MPs in his own party and pledge to flout the law demonstrated determination and, something we don't normally associate with Johnson, seriousness of purpose. In other words, both Blair and Johnson performatively fostered division with a very clear and well framed objective in mind. Keir Starmer hasn't got that.

In many ways, nor does he need to. The left are divided, most union leaderships are content with Keir and are happy to see the back of Corbyn, and the right have a majority on the NEC for now. Even more helpful from his point of view is, as forecast, sections of the left decamping out of exhaustion, disillusion, and disgust. This is an issue the Labour right faced a year ago - if members leave, so the possibility for a comeback gets harder. Or, fast forwarding to today, if leftists leave the easier it becomes for right wing candidates to win NEC elections, local council, devolved government, and parliamentary selections.

The other issue is a certain amorphousness of the left. Despite Momentum having 40,000 members and ignoring the idiot scare stories, it behaves neither like Militant, nor as a socialist version of Progress or Labour First (sadly). The last four years endowed it with little political coherence, apart from defending Corbyn, and in the wider party it is well thought of thanks to its huge campaign days and matching activists to seats. Any partial action taken against Momentum would not lead to a quick clean victory, but would drag in supportive unions and threaten to paralyse the party with infighting - just as those swing voters are looking afresh at Labour thanks to the leader's coiffured appeal.

This is far from the only cost. As noted the other day, steering right has consequences. And in this respect, being seen to purge the groups of people in Labour who've been sticking up for renters against landlords, for black people against coppers and fascists, for emergency workers against a the government, Labour runs the risk of setting off corrosive negative multipliers. We know the Labour right like to project, so they think the average Corbyn-supporting leftist is a social misfit with a well paid job and zero ties to the world outside of the politics ghetto. In fact, disproportionately the left are made up of rooted activists who, in modest ways, help form political opinions and occasionally affect political leadership in their workplaces and areas of activity. They are precious for cohering the party's new base. Without them we wouldn't have done so well in 2017, and last year the result would have been even worse. Going for a wholesale purge as advised by the Tory and Tory-adjacent friends of Keir would collapse Labour's chances at the next election to zero, and severely damage the party as a going concern. Perhaps ... just perhaps this is why they're recommending it?

During the leadership election, Keir made a great deal out of being the unity candidate. On that basis a large number of erstwhile Corbyn supporters were brought on board and have gone on to provide a mass pro-Keir base in the party that is mostly soft left as opposed to right, or even soft right. Now, some might think this doesn't matter. He's the leader now and the membership can't do anything to force him out. Which is true. Yet any anti-left moves will provoke a reaction, be it an exodus and the partial disintegration of Labour's vote, a turning of layers of his support against him, increased support for a left under siege, and the risk of damage to the party's image and, crucially, his own. If Keir Starmer has any sense the press cuttings demanding purges should be filed under 'pay no heed'.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

What the hell is left wing about Keir Starmer?


Karl Greenall said...

And the manoeuvres begin..
It appears that the attempt to fiddle the membership representation on the NEC has begun, with the proposal that CLP representatives only, be elected on some transferable vote system, clearly in the hope that the left be neutralised.
I can foresee Pasokification beckoning.

Anonymous said...

One of the consequences of 'steering right' is also becoming electable, something that clearly doesn't sit well among left-fantasists.

After all, the job is only half-done - not only did the flirtation with fantasy help lead to Brexit (via Corbyn's lukewarm support for Remain) it also ushered in this cabal of grotesques who can really get about wrecking the prospects of the working class.

What the Left must lament is it didn't manage to hang on for longer and truly destroy Labour as an electoral force - only thus, with the Tories unchallengeable for generations, and without the Labour 'right' able to mitigate the damage, would the proles see the light and rise up for the revolution, etc, etc.


Phil said...

How do you square "becoming more electable" with the reputational hits, division, and the disintegration of Labour's new base - all of which are very likely if Keir Starmer adopts this course? Before fulminating against fantasists you might want to look at yourself.

James said...

On the contrary, "you win in the center" is a fantasy that imagines we're still in the 1990s. No party has won a convincing victory on a centrist platform since 2001. In 2005 Blair performed badly (35%) and only won because our electoral system is ludicrously unfair. In 2010 Cameron faced the most favorable circumstances possible for an opposition (tired 13-year-old government, deeply unpopular PM, massive recession) and still couldn't win. The press praised 2015 as a success only because they have such short memories - it was a very narrow majority. Remain fought the referendum on centrist territory and lost. In 2017 and 2019 the Tories improved their electoral performance by going to the harder nationalist right. And the only time Labor has gone above 40% since 2001 is 2017 when it ran on a left platform.

Anonymous said...

Phil: polls.


Phil said...

As there have been no purges, what is this supposed to prove?

Karl Greenall said...

Win or lose shots the careerists and opportunists on the right of the PLP because in burnishing their Establishment credentials, they can still enjoy the "respectability" they crave. And when it all goes wrong and they win an election,they can do all the things a Labour govt usually does to ensure eventual rejection because they are expert at alienating their "natural" constituency.
Or am I just an old cynic?

Blissex said...

«When Tony Blair provoked a fight over Clause Four, it reassured the Tory media that here was someone not about to threaten their class interests in the most modest ways, not that the wider public needed any convincing - Labour had held double-digit polling leads since the UK crashed out the ERM.»

* Tony Blair already lost in 1997 a (not big but significant) chunk of that lead.

* It was not the crash out of the ERM itself that did in the Conservatives, but the
consequent property price crash. The same happened in 2010: the property price
crash did in New Labour, and the Conservatives did not not get a proper majority
because many voters still remebered the property price crash of the 1990s, it was
that bad. The Conservatives only got their own majority in 2015 after 5 years of
high housing cost inflation.

«Keir made a great deal out of being the unity candidate. [...] some might think this doesn't matter. He's the leader now and the membership can't do anything to force him out. Which is true. Yet any anti-left moves will provoke a reaction,»

But when J Corbyn appointed a shadow cabinet he appointed a lot of "centrists" to important positions, and those "centrists" then used those appointment to attack him ferociously (and long time praise to A Burnham for pointedly refusing to do that, and also to J Ashworth); K Starmer has appointed a model "centrist" shadow cabinet (a small minority of socialdemocrats has been allowed in less important position).

Despite this there has been nearly no reaction but perhaps some "troublemakers" leaving; and for the "centrists" the more members leave the better, because then New Labour becomes again a marketing organization dependent only donations from wealthy businesses and individuals.

Blissex said...

«In 2005 Blair performed badly (35%) and only won because our electoral system is ludicrously unfair. »

By that time the electoral toxicity of T Blair had already reduced the New Labour vote by several millions, and this was was reflected in a huge win for the Conservatives in the local elections in with a huge lead over New Labour.

But since G Brown had kept for years a high level of property cost inflation, many voters did not want to vote against "their" national government and those low-interest-rates and high-housing-inflation policies, and switch to the Conservatives that has crashed house prices recently, so they abstained or voted LibDem as a protest vote they knew would not stop New Labour.

Blissex said...

«How do you square "becoming more electable" with the reputational hits, division, and the disintegration of Labour's new base - all of which are very likely if Keir Starmer adopts this course?»

Here "electable" like "centrist" elsewhere is simply an euphemism for "thatcherite", because as Peter Mandelson wrote nearly 20 years ago, "We are all thatcherites now". The problems with that are:

* Thatcherism has been a success, and a big one, only for a highly satisfied minority, and that minority will never betray Thatcher's own party unless they betray thatcherism and let a property crash (or even stall) happen. See the LibDems: sterling "centrist" "electable" thatcherites, but they never get anywhere because most of their potential voters end up voting for the original brand, even if sometimes it is a bit too hard.

* The minority that has made fortunes from thatcherism must shrink, because thatcherism is almost purely redistributive, and somebody eventually must lose fortunes if others make them, and the bigger the fortunes that are redistributed to some winners, the bigger the number of losers from each of which a chunk of those fortunes is redistributed from.

As to the latter point it is not just renters who should be voting Labour, but also all the property owners outside the Home Counties and London, in all those "pushed behind" areas from which potential tenants and buyers are sucked into the Home Counties and London by the Conservative policy to subsidize jobs only in those areas, with the result that outside London and the Home Counties property has been a losing speculation. But those property owners from "pushed behind" areas, far from being argued into a coalition with renters from the Home Counties and London, are at best ignored by the "leftoids", and so they stay terrified of "the communists" confiscating their depreciating properties.

Ken said...

This is Murphy’s account of a meeting of economists discussing the crisis, and Labour’s “timidity”.

...I was far from alone in having concern at the timidity of Labour’s current position. If its job is, as I think it always has been, to represent the interests of working people then its need for a viable economic plan is, at this point in time, very high and yet there is no indication that it has one.

I do, of course, accept that the shadow cabinet has come into office at a particularly difficult time for them to recruit staff and develop policy. This is, of course, indisputable and has to be allowed for. But, vision and direction have to come from the top, and I am beginning to worry that we are not seeing that.

I stressed my concern that Labour might continue to commit itself to the absurd fiscal rules that John McDonnell put in place, over which I fell out with him. The possibility that it will place a greater importance on fiscal prudence and balanced budgets than on job preservation is, I fear, real. If so, that would not only be desperately depressing, but also a complete abandonment of responsibility. That is the route to austerity.

Instead, this is the moment for Labour to understand modern monetary theory. It is also the moment for it to commit to full employment. And it has to say that this is the moment when, like it or not, the private sector cannot deliver and this, therefore, is the time when government has to act.

That does require vision.

It does require a plan.

That plan is a Green New Deal, but not in the feeble form that some NGOs are now promoting. Their suggestion of 100,000 new jobs a year is hopelessly inadequate given what is about to engulf us. We, quite literally, need millions of new jobs, and the process of transforming our economy to a sustainable basis is the only viable way of delivering many of these jobs.

So, we have to plan for massive insulation programmes. Large-scale solar installation is also necessary. Heat pumps need to be rolled out at the rate of more than 20,000 a week if we are to have any chance of reaching net zero commitments, and these could be made in the UK using skills now being declared redundant in many factories. And all this, of course, is just a start.

But this is not the only area where we need more employment.

We need more people in education: children who have lost out need support.

And the care sector is critically short of staff to meet need.

In addition, almost every aspect of the creative sector needs support.

That said, Labour will have to be discriminating: there are jobs that do not need preservation. The days of air travel may be numbered. We are over endowed with financial services. The world could survive without Uber and Deliveroo, because it did until recently, and these are not good jobs. What this means is that choices will have to be made.

The overwhelming requirement is, however, that we have an Opposition in the UK that is completely committed to the delivery of full employment and is not frightened of the cost of fulfilling that promise, when the one way for this policy to pay for itself is to put it into action, and in the meantime money is no constraint.

The question is, when and if we will get that Opposition.

Ken said...

When you suggested new voters might turn to a Liberal party which tacks left?


Boffy said...

"Instead, this is the moment for Labour to understand modern monetary theory. It is also the moment for it to commit to full employment. And it has to say that this is the moment when, like it or not, the private sector cannot deliver and this, therefore, is the time when government has to act."

In other words just the old muddled Keynesian hash reheated with the added delusions of the Magic Money Tree. Keynes' theory of crises caused by underconsumption is just a rehash of that theory put forward by Malthus a century earlier, the MMT is just a rehash of that same delusion with the addition of the confusion over what money is as presented by Locke, and itself rehashed by the Monetary theorists and bankers like Lord Overstone in the 19th Century.

To say these bourgeois theorists and social-democrats never learn anything or move forward is an understatement.

Boffy said...

There is another interesting example of what happens with the delusion of MMT besides what happened in Weimar Germany. It is what happened in Soviet Russia. That is actually a better parallel, because there the potential to implement the kind of statist policies envisaged by its proponents could be and were implemented.

There too, the Stalinists did not understand what value or money was, despite the warnings given to them by Preobrazhensky and others. They too thought that they could just print money, and then use that money to set to work unused resources. The result was again inflation, and along with that inflation, as Trotsky points out, also went a vital tool in being able to measure success, because the unit of account was no longer a reliable measure.

"From 0.7 billion rubles at the beginning of 1925, the total issue of currency had arisen by the beginning of 1928 to the comparatively modest sum of 1.7 billions, which is approximately comparable to the paper money circulation of tzarist Russia on the eve of the war – but this, of course, without its former metallic basis. The subsequent curve of inflation from year to year is depicted in the following feverish series: 2.0 – 2.8 – 4.3 – 5.5 – 8.4! The final figure 8.4 billion rubles was reached at the beginning of 1933. After that came the years of reconsideration and retreat: 6.9 – 7.7 – 7.9 billion (1935). The ruble of 1924, equal in the official exchange to 13 francs, had been reduced in November 1935 to 3 francs – that is, to less than a fourth of its value, or almost as much as the French franc was reduced as a result of the war...

It is needless to say that inflation meant a dreadful tax upon the toiling masses. As for the advantages to socialism achieved with its help, they are more than dubious. Industry, to be sure, continued its rapid growth, but the economic efficiency of the grandiose construction was estimated statistically and not economically. Taking command of the ruble – giving it, that is, various arbitrary purchasing powers in different strata of the population and sectors of the economy – the bureaucracy deprived itself of the necessary instrument for objectively measuring its own successes and failures. The absence of correct accounting, disguised on paper by means of combinations with the “conventional ruble”, led in reality to a decline of personal interest, to a low productivity, and to a still lower quality of goods...

In answer to the boast that they would send the market “to the devil”, the Opposition recommended that the State Planning Commission hang up the motto: “Inflation is the syphilis of a planned economy.”

(The Revolution Betrayed)

Blissex said...

«When you suggested new voters might turn to a Liberal party which tacks left?»

The LibDem base are all thatcherites, some "soft" like Thatcher herself in the beginning, some harder like "left wing" Conservatives. Their core interest, apart from hand-wringing, is the same of New Labour and Conservatives, is property. There are still some bit of socialdemocratic thinking among the LibDem leadership and the "hippier" wing of their base, but that's not what the party is about.
They tried before before to steal voters from New Labour by going to their left, but their (limited) success was only apparent: in the 2000s many voters switched from New Labour to the LibDems only as protest vote agaionst Tony Blair's, as his electoral toxicity did not result in a switch to the Conservatives because they had crashed property valuations in the 1990s. When the Conservatives had a track record of years of pushing up property valuations in 2015, the LibDem support evaporated. They only had a success in the EU elections of 2019 because it was another protest vote, like that for the Brexit Party.