Thursday 21 January 2021

Starmerism and Fabianism

I know any other leader would be 20 points head of the Tories by now, but what do traditional elements of the centre left establishment think of Keir Starmer's performance? As if answering this rarely-asked question, the Fabian Society's Andrew Harrop has been kind to offer this hottake. Writing following the first Fabian conference in years where the centre and the right are back in charge of the party, it seems an aposite time for them to reflect on the "achievements" thus far and where Keir Starmer looks like he's going.

First, we hear Andrew's praise for the shadow cabinet as it demonstrated a "striking unity of purpose and tone", and this came through in contributions that were "values-driven but with a practical bent". This showed a middle way (not a third way) between "the rudderless managerialism of new Labour, when at its most centrist, and the utopian excesses of the party’s recent pipedreams." Anyone playing centrist bingo as they read the piece can cross off the unironic deployment of "team of grown-ups", and thankfully we learn they're determined about winning power. Because, in case you didn't know, Labour has to win elections. Apparently, policy and pronouncements are judged by rebuilding relationships with voters (funny way of showing it), and now Labour understands the coalition of voters it has to assemble. "There was much talk of reconnecting with lost working-class seats, but not at the expense of the party’s values or urban voters", he breathlessly writes. It's going to take more than speeches with Union Jack bunting and the assumption the left have nowhere to go, I'm afraid. Summing up, Andrew says "with a frontbench team focused on unity, competence, ambition and electability the building blocks for a return to power are there."

To be honest, I'd have been surprised had Andrew written anything other than superlatives. Not only are more than half of the shadcab members Fabians and regular contributors to the magazine and quarterly pamphlets, there are congruences and alignments between the Society and "Starmerism", which is likely to mean the "world's oldest think tank" are the last people about to put the boot in. There are two close affinities they share which, to all intents and purposes, annexes Starmerism to the Fabian tradition rather than having an identity of its own, apart from media shorthand. For one, both are entirely patrician. They are the elites, they have the seats in the Commons, and once in government they're the ones who are going to enact change. No one doubts the importance of state power, least of all the right, but the Fabians actively foreswear anything but the constitutionalist road. Even though (some forms of) extra parliamentary activity is right and proper in the most stuffy political theory, there is no room for this in the Fabian tradition. The Labour Party exists to elect the enlightened reformers who are going to make nice policies, and the labour movement exists to support the Labour Party - an aristocratic inversion of socialist politics if there ever was one. Set in its context, Keir's preference for management consultants to advise on party organisation, the internal authoritarianism of banning debates and suspending constituency officers, and his inability to challenge what is and isn't permitted in discussing Coronavirus is all of a piece stamped with Fabian Society branding.

The second issue is inseparable from the first: the absence of hegemony. Because there's no room in Fabianism for struggle other than over the ballot box, Gramsci is a revelation and an abomination to such politics. There might be lip service paid to aligning Labour with the culture of voters, which is what we're hamfistedly seeing with all the Blue Labour crap, but there is no conception of a class politics (beyond their own doxa of unthought, middle class and managerialist assumptions), let alone trying to build an alliance on the basis of our interests necessitating a full spectrum struggle in the workplaces, in the communities, and in wider culture. The job is to present policies, look good in the media, and get people to vote for the party. Granted the absolute privilege this has in the Fabian imagination, it's hardly revelatory they lay the blame for Labour's 2019 defeat on the policy menu in the manifesto than the substantive other factors. Hence Keir's preference for process criticisms at Prime Minister's Questions, the relentless focus on critiquing "incompetence" over arguing the politics, and the shameless tailing of Marcus Rashford on school meals are all sympomatic of a non-Gramscian approach to politics. Indeed it's an interesting paradox of the Fabian tradition that for all its stress on elite decision-making and getting the enlightened few into the cockpit of government how it fights shy of the business of political leadership.

It is, of course, possible Labour could win an election on this basis. It's also possible the muscular centrism promised by the Biden administration might find an echo in the barely noticeable twitching of the shadow cabinet. But the problem with Fabianism, and by the practice of Starmerism seen these last nine months, is it privileges a very narrow range of activity. Where Keir Starmer is proving pro-active is in internal party struggles, but the end result is a party retreating from what nourishes it culminating in an empty vessel destined for a buffeting by the winds and random squalls of politics. Sticking to Fabianism is, obviously, what Keir finds comfortable, but for all the talk of seriousness and wanting to win power he is, unknowingly, plodding along the road least likely to get the party there.

Image Credit


Boffy said...

"but what do traditional elements of the centre left establishment think of Keir Starmer's performance?"

Neither Starmer nor the Fabians are centre-left. They are centre-right, the same as was Kinnock, in the 80's, as I have described in my series looking at the role of the soft-left back then, and comparing it with Starmer today.

Boffy said...

" No one doubts the importance of state power, least of all the right, but the Fabians actively foreswear anything but the constitutionalist road."

But, forming a government is not the same thing as taking state power, just ask Salvador Allende or Mossadegh. Well, of course, you can't, because they confused the two so that when the actual state power saw their governments as alien to the interests of the ruling class, it staged coups against them.

The reformist notion pushed by Social-democrats, even left social-democrats like the Militant - nationalise the top 200 monopolies - or the Stalinists, that you can simply win an election, an that this equates to state power - sometimes also headlined as "Labour Take The Power" - is a dangerous nonsense that shows a complete failure to understand the Marxist theory of the class nature of the state, as the state of the ruling class.

Boffy said...

"t is, of course, possible Labour could win an election on this basis."

No its not. If I were simply a progressive social-democrat, let alone socialist voter - whether living in a metropolitan area, or in a red wall seat - why on Earth would I vote for a Labour Party that is now indistinguishable from the Tories, on all the major issues of the day from Brexit to lockdowns, to immigration, to the promotion of jingoism, defence of British war criminals and so on.

The Shadow Cabinet is full of right-wing pro-capitalist ministers. Even Kerensky would have been embarrassed at the pro-capitalist nature of these Shadow Ministers! A demand for "Down with the capitalist Shadow Ministers", here, would be to call for the disbandment of the entire Shadow Cabinet.

As a progressive voter, I am far more likely to sit on my hands, or to protest by voting Green, Liberal, Plaid, or as has happened in Scotland over the years, SNP.

But, suppose Starmer were to win in such a basis, what would be the consequence? Its there for all to see in France. Macron won, despite large scale apathy towards him. Now even the apathy has gone and turned to outright hostility. Not a benefit to the Left, of course, whose politics have also been terrible, but in support or the far right, the Gilets Jaunes and le Pen. The same fate lies in store for Biden and Starmer if they try to simply adopt those old failed centrist solutions.

Anonymous said...

He may well win and become PM. What will he do then? Massive inequality in the UK. It will take guts, strategy and social policy to address. Anyway nothing I say, or for that matter in reality what any members say will make much difference. Good luck to him I hope he uses his power well.

Blissex said...

«The job is to present policies, look good in the media, and get people to vote for the party. Granted the absolute privilege this has in the Fabian imagination,»

I think that this is unfair to the fabian tradition, which after all has been socialdemocratic or at worst "liberal socialist". My guess is that our blogger is confusing together actual "movement" "gradual" democratic socialist fabians like Hattersley or Brown with gladstonian liberals (with more than a small topping of tory) with a "political entrepreneur" approach like Mandelson or Blair.

BCFG said...

Boffy once argued that he would join the BNP if they were the main party that the working class gave their vote to, he argued it is the job of Marxists to get the ear of the working class.

I am glad he seems to have ditched that dumb fuck argument.

Now he just needs to ditch all his other dumb fuck cretinous arguments.

Though his dumb fuck assertions and monumental idiocy in relation to Covid cannot be undone.

Frankly the idiot should be banned from the internet.

Blissex said...

«gladstonian liberals (with more than a small topping of tory) with a "political entrepreneur" approach like Mandelson or Blair.»

Rereading this I may have been unfair to call Mandelson a "political entrepreneur", because in several decades he has remained a "whig" and has worked relentlessly through thick and thin to advance "whig" politics, in which he evidently believes, something that I disagree with but respect. I respect less that he chose to do this by trying (and largely succeeeding) to take over the block of seats elected by those supporting a non-"whig" type of politics, to compensate for the unpopularity of "whig" politics. As to Blair he may have had some vague "do some good" motivations at the beginning, but my view is that he became a "political entrepreneur" without any particular belief other than elitism, pretty similar to Cameron, about which it has been reported:
«In the cold light of day even Tories sympathetic to the Cameroons admit there is no strategy to anchor this government. A former adviser in CCHQ told me, "Cameron and Osborne believe in almost nothing."»