Friday 3 July 2020

The Weakness of Starmerism

I almost added it as a foot note to the piece about Tory short-termism. Asked about the loosening of lock down measures this weekend and, above all, opening the pubs up again, in line with his stance on schools Keir Starmer supports these too. Speaking to ITV earlier, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said the same thing and urged people to go out, spend money and otherwise partake. As Labour's leader isn't driven by a whack-a-mole approach to politics nor has to hold together a declining electoral coalition glued together by nationalist delusion, bloody mindedness, and fear, why is Labour going along with a strategy that, to put it mildly, is borderline sociopathic?

There are two things worth recalling here: one is about the everyday aspect of mainstream politics, and another that reaches into the core of Labourism. All politicians look for an easy life, and the easy life is where (they think) most voters are, and the best indicator of this - from within the point of view of bourgeois politics - is what the press say. After all, they sell papers and so have to reflect the opinion of readers out there otherwise no one would buy them, right? Hence there's never been a time when Tory MPs have worried about a Morning Star editorial. Leaving aside their dwindling circulations, politicians want to inhabit what former Brown aide Mike Jacobs called a 'normal operating sphere' of non-punishment. This normally comes into play for governments, but given Keir's studied statesmanly gait he shares a similar concern. Because Corbyn was bad, he has to be good, and this means over-emphasising conventional notions of electability and game playing. And so accepting Tory plans for schools, for pubs, their whole framing of the coronavirus crisis in fact, means Boris Johnson would be hard-pressed to lump Labour in with "the ditherers", therefore shutting down one line of attack that might resonate with the Tory faithful and their new periphery of Brexity vote-lenders. This in turn means Keir can play politics to his strengths, which is contrasting his shovel-ready leadership qualities versus the bumbling incompetence of Johnson.

The second? The tension in Labourism between what is and what might be. Having its origins in a historic alliance between a movement fighting for incremental workplace improvements and privileged professional layers, Labourism was born for the compromises, Byzantine procedures, and plodding constitutionalism of the House of Commons. To channel jolly old Lenin, if trade unionism is the bourgeois politics of the working class, i.e. seeking improvement for their lot within the confines of the capitalist workplace, Labourism is its expression writ large. Yet our class, broadly defined as everyone who has to sell their labour power in return for a wage, has a trajectory that tends to negate capitalism. The right to a decent standard of living, a home, freedom from work, a liveable environment, these are fundamentally at odds with a mode of production for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. Profit is the be-all and end-all. This was the case when Labourism was born, and is even more so now.

In the history of Labourism, the tussle between what is and what might be maps on to the eternal struggle of right versus left. The empiricism of appearance, the institutional weight of trade unionism and Labourist thought, not to mention the considerable rewards of office and the flows of money has seen Labour dominated by a concern to adapt to supporters and would-be supporters as they are, and keep them as they are: atomised workers, and therefore atomised voting fodder. What Corbynism represented was an attempt to break out of this straitjacket, hence it had to be destroyed. Contrary to the bullshit you find peddled everywhere, Labour under Corbyn was about building broad coalitions of voters and meeting them where they are, but with a programme that tried transforming them from objects into subjects. Even the Tories these days like to talk about empowerment, but Corbynism actually attempted it. Corbynism, like its Bennite forebear, was a movement from within Labourism that pushed it to its limits, And from there, perhaps a post-capitalist anywhere?

Starmerism, if we can speak of such a thing, is getting that genie back into the bottle. It does so by ostentatiously - not a word one normally associates with Keir Starmer - gripping Tory framing without contesting it, offering weak sauce managerial criticisms where it can muster a word against the government, stamping on anything one might construe as radical or, shudder, socialist, and evacuating anything resembling hope from the Labour Party's platform - something even Tony Blair recognised the importance of and was keen to cultivate. While it pretends itself pragmatic, it is the most dogmatic form of Labourism. It claims to be oriented to the challenges of the present, but wants to forever impose the past on the politics of the future. Sure, the party is improving in the polls. It might win an election on its present course (we'll see), but going by what Keir says and does all we can look forward to is the status quo under more competent management. Therefore anyone thinking what we're seeing now is "caution" so Keir, as the new leader, can get a hearing are kidding themselves. What you see now is what we're getting, assuming he continues to get his own way. Coronavirus plus economic crisis plus Brexit equals a perfect storm for political polarisation, and inevitably demands a response equal to the moment. If Keir Starmer isn't forthcoming then his careful project will come to naught.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

That's Starmer for you. I just don't understand how and why such a bright individual as Paul Mason keeps selling him.

But the best rumour we heard going round Labour conference 2019 was that Paul had shat in a fountain outside the TWT tent. So maybe it's just that he really has gone mad.

Anonymous said...

Nothing says comfy petit-bourgeois armchair revolutionary than words like Bennite or Corbynism. Its not surprising that there are factions enamoured by upper class white saviours inside a party which has been racist since its beginnings. Benns ghost and Corbyn are just two more old (private) school paternalists. "I say, I know what those poor slobs need" Trouble is Corbyn is thick and so appeals keep having to be made to old master Benn to give some legitimacy to a project headed by an old school chum craven enough to take money from Iranian despots on their propaganda channels. Did you really think such a useful idiot ever had a chance? But no, he was ideologically correct. Fucking hell. Meanwhile, after the complete collapse of Labour in its heartlands it looks like its been decided that it wasn't that nice Jeremy's fault but that Labour had forgotten to listen to its Northern racists enough about Brexit.

Meanwhile, I keep reading crap like this. About how kindly old chum Jeremy was going to turn "objects into subjects". For fucks sake. No he wasnt. He was going to try and run a country on the basis of student union politics for the gratification of people engaged with politics in the abstract. Uni wankers and their chums. Whilst the Tories grind the rest of us into the ground. But carry on. Im sure what Labour needs now is more theoretical hot air.

Anonymous said...

The Fountain Shitter is now writing crap articles for the Spectator:

Blissex said...

«bright individual as Paul Mason keeps selling him.»

Because of the usual delusions about building a coalition of 90% labour voters and 10% of southern tory voters, here some quotes from a recent Spectator article by Paul Mason:

Unless Labour can take back a large part of Scotland, it needs a swing in England so large that it takes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat in Somerset. We’ll have to take back not only the Red Wall but the Blue Fen.

It is either take back Scotland or take JRM's seat in Somerset, and P Mason obviously thinks that taking back Scotland or a coalition with the SNP is impossible.

Realistically, the report says, there are three routes back to power: drop social liberalism and bring out the anti-immigration mugs; tack to the centre on economic policy while talking loudly about patriotism; or try to unite a culturally divided working-class base around a radical economic offer that is ‘credible and morally essential’. That third option is effectively the strategy Starmer stood on,

But if the choice is pandering to the less committed of JRM's tory voters in Somerset the obvious strategy is “tack to the centre on economic policy while talking loudly about patriotism” which is what Starmer is actually doing, see the shadow cabinet composition, while forgetting his talk of trying “to unite a culturally divided working-class base around a radical economic offer” when he was seeking the votes of Labour members. He is no longer seeking those votes, he now seeks the votes of southern tory voters. Plenty of candidates, here and in the USA, talk very differently when addressing their party's base or the general voting public.

Large parts of the left don’t yet realise how different the party has to look and sound to win back power, even while being committed to radical economic change.

This is the pure essence of New Labour thinking: that to win elections Labour has to turn themselves into a "quasi-Conservative" party to attract the votes of southern tory home owners, like JRM's voters in Somerset, with the proviso that once elected with 90% of labour voters and 10% of southern tory voters, the economic programme will be 90% labour and 10% tory.

However Starmer is making clear that the economic programme will be, as usual with New Labour, 10% for labour voters and 90% for southern tory voters, because the labour voters have nowhere else to go but the southern tory voters will switch to LibDems or Conservatives if their property and other interests are not put first.

The problem with the "southern concern" approach is that JRM's southern tory voters will never vote for a non-Conservative unless the Conservatives screw up badly, and that means only that property prices crash. Southern Conservatives will never say "Oh our candidate is a fine tory, but Starmer's candidate is an even better tory, so let's switch our vote to Starmer" as long as their interests are satisfied.

Blissex said...

My long standing impression is the opposite of the rationale for "New Labourism": that Labour has largely let the Conservatives and LibDems have the votes of those "proletarians" who are also property rentiers (inevitable only in the case of southern ones who often make more from property than from work) and let abstention have the votes of those who are lower income "proletarians", and that Scotland is unrecoverable because labour cannot be independentist. So my list of viable approaches is:

* Turn many more non-voting "proletarians" into voters by energising them with policies that are less tory-like.

* Detach northern "proletarians" who are also property owners from the Conservative coalition pointing out that under Conservative rule northern property has done very badly, because the Conservatives only care about property in the Home Counties and London, and it would do better under Labour as Labour would bring more jobs and thus more tenants and buyers to the north.

In the long term most proletarians who are also property rentiers should be persuaded that good jobs, job security, decent pensions, good public services are more valuable in the long term than redistributive property gains, but as long as those gains run in the southern areas at £30,000-£40,000 per year and upwards that cannot be done. but that message can energise more property-less proletarians to vote.

Braingrass said...

Marx's famous comment that history the first time is a tragedy and the second time a farce is of course about Napoleon III. Starmer is Napoleon III to Blair's Napoleon I. For that reason, it will end in disaster, even he wins.

Jimbo said...

Whether or not at this moment in time Starmer shows himself to be a good candidate is of course conjecture. Next year's local and regional elections are key, with just under twelve months to go and a non-deal Brexit on the table the next twelve months is going to be a busy old time for pundits. Hopefully the economy will return to growth in the next month so many job losses are averted.

Anonymous said...

You don't know what you're talking about

Blissex said...

«Whether or not at this moment in time Starmer shows himself to be a good candidate is of course conjecture.»

I read many times since 2016 that with a "centrist europhile" leader like Starmer instead of "eurosceptic commie" Corbyn against a failing May government then Labour would have been 20 points ahead in the polls instead of barely level with them.

Now we have an even more failing Johnson government, one that has lost the single message it had which was "Get Brexit Done" as it has been done, and where is the 20% Labour lead with "centrist europhile" Starmer?

The basis of the "centrist europhile" argument is that 20-30% of the current Conservative "Middle England" voters are really "centrist europhiles" and will switch their votes to Labour if Labour become nicer "centrist europhile" tories (more precisely whigs), *even if the Conservatives don't crash southern house prices*.
That's a huge delusion (the eternal delusion of the LibDems), as the Conservatives discovered in the 1997-2010 period, because as long as southern house prices go up the government party does not get fired by "Middle England" voters.

Anatole said...

Anon #2: the "student union politics" you despise meant orienting towards the new working class, which is younger, multiracial and free from the tribal loyalties of party politics. It wasn't "nice Corbyn" wot lost it, it was the years of undermining from within by New Labourites determined to keep their privileges, with a delighted Tory party looking on. But sure, blame 'the left'.

Phil, there was a lot of work done building the institutional capacity of the left within Labour under Corbyn. Has Starmer been successful in rolling that back (e.g. firing RLB) or does it provide some hope of resistance?

Anonymous said...

Keir has a chance of becoming P M. Will this lead to a change in the structure of inequality in the UK? No. Better than the Conservatives - of course. A few positive policies - probably.

Boffy said...

"Now we have an even more failing Johnson government, one that has lost the single message it had which was "Get Brexit Done" as it has been done, and where is the 20% Labour lead with "centrist europhile" Starmer?"

This is an incredibly facile exercise in comparative statics.