Tuesday 9 February 2021

Can Keir Starmer Win Over the Left?

Last week was hardly a disastrous week for Keir Starmer as some headlines pretended. Mildly awkward is a more accurate summation of events. Reinstating 50 suspended members? Having his plastic patriotism highlighted? An affectation of standing up to Boris Johnson's lies and forced to apologise when, for once, it turned out the Prime Minister uttered a rare truth? If this is as bad a week he can look forward to, I'm sure the Labour leader can live with more of them. But there was something of interest among our tempestuous teacups. And these are the doubts. As observed here two weeks ago, the jitters were abroad among the parliamentary party and the centrist commentariat, and so Keir's "worst week" was really their frustrations coming out into the open.

Does he have much to worry about? Not on this occasion, but the panicky response by the leadership has been noted. To stave off the doubters on the right, he immediately talked up how pro-business Labour was and in the cretinous traditions Keir happily affirmed back in October, ordered the Labour Lords not to block the Spycops Bill. Only 18 defied him. And there was a Zoom call with shadow cabinet members this afternoon that affirmed his "vision". So much for facing outwards. Yet the greatest take home for those quietly grinding the knives for when the time arrives was the absence of the left. While much smaller pre-2015 and having their own criticisms, the Labour left stood up for Ed Miliband when attacks appeared and rumours of ham-fisted shenanigans abounded. And this was, somewhat remarkably, the case when Gordon Brown was in the firing line from a succession of clown car Blairites. But not this time, and this shows Keir has less of a hinterland who might rally to his defence when similar difficulties crowd around him.

Looking ahead to the inevitable revolt on the right, is there a way Keir might bring the left back into his big tent to defend him? Well, whatever happens certainly not all. The ship has sailed for many comrades and they're either out of the party, or implaccably opposed to his ruthless but blundering internal management. Some might be up for working collaborative for nothing in return, but without enthusiasm for the leader and mainly to get shot of the Tories. If Keir wants to cultivate some support on the left, and he should if he wants his leadership to survive (and avoid left voters going elsewhere), then he needs to start acting like he wants them on board.

The first thing preventing this is the semi-expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn. When this comes to court, Jeremy's action has, on the balance of probabilities, got a better chance of succeeding than not. Before then his suspension from the PLP is due to expire. In fact, it is set to be reviewed around the 19th of this month. If Keir has any sense he'd let it go and readmit him. This would remove a major bone of contention not just for some on the left, but among his own support who came to Labour after 2015 and went for Keir on Corbyn-lite grounds. The question is whether he values an episodic nice piece in the Telegraph and the Mail more than stitching back together the coalition he's busily disassembled.

Second, with the quiet reinstatement of 50 suspended CLP officers who defied the diktats of our unelected general secretary, there is an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. He could spend time focusing on the complaints process and finally introducing the rule of law into the party's structures, and seek to improve members' democracy instead of wasting money on consultants who, by all accounts, know nothing about political parties. Keir won't do this because his project is entirely top-down. The little people are there to push leaflets, not have thoughts or expect a say. The ball, however, is in his court. This is his choice. If he wants to carry on haemmhoraging members and their capacity to mobilise voters, then he should carry on harrying the left. It's his career to destroy.

Third is opposition, and here Keir is floundering. Focus groups are bunk and should be taken with a pinch of salt, but even if the information gleaned is true, that people don't like criticism of the government and politicians shouldn't argue, this must absolutely be ignored. Leadership - something managerial types love fetishising - means changing people's minds. This shouldn't need saying, but if an opposition party isn't contesting how Boris Johnson defines the crisis of our times, there's not much hope for thriving in the politics that comes afterwards. Robust opposition means offering an alternative leadership, not quibbling about the details or labouring the incompetence theme. This is why Keir's criticisms look like carping and attracts complaints, because it does look like nagging. The strategy, as we have seen, is entirely misconceived and is in fact running scared of the politics. Changing tack, talking about deaths, corruption, cronyism, mismanagement, this might actually start directing the helpless anger stalking the land at the people responsible. And it might have the happy consequence of firming up the Labour left and left voter support for Keir Starmer.

Good opposition is worth nothing if it's not allied to a vision of the future. This isn't the same as announcing detailed policy, like some jokers on the Labour right suggest, but about the line of march. Where is Labour going? How might it change things? How will people live better under a Labour government? Just very simple stuff, but what we've seen so far is dismally uninspiring. Flag waving without substance or conviction, no alternative Covid plan, supporting the worst parts of the state. The positive stuff Keir has said, that the party is still against austerity, wants a green industrial revolution, and the scrapping of tuition fees stays is reserved for Facebook live chats no one pays any attention to. We hear hints the Starmerist vision is going to get made in short order during a set piece speech, but given everything we've seen, we can look forward to a thoroughly Fabianised, top-down iteration of the 2017 manifesto. A pale pink and wonky accompaniment to the emerging Tory programme. Inspiring to some used to thin Labourist gruel, but the bulk of the left? It would have to retain key planks of the manifesto's radical democratic elements to bring them round.

I don't expect Keir Starmer to do any of these things. In his short time as leader he's shown to be tin-eared, an inept political manager, and not know the first thing about the party he affects to lead. In this he's no different than many Labour MPs, except he's the one in charge calling the shots. He might surprise, strike a conciliatory tone and reach out to the left. He might do some opposition. And yet, while very strange things have happened to politics in recent years, this won't be one of them.

Image Credit


stephen marks said...

Good points - but despite the Skwawkbox story there is little evidence that more than one or two of the claimed 50 clp officers have in fact been reinstated.

Anonymous said...

Why, realistically, would the Labour right want to depose Starmer? He will surely do 90% of whatever they want anyway, or am I misunderstanding the situation? Meanwhile, again surely, another deposed leader would lead to yet another bout of in-fighting within the party which would surely make the party even less capable of winning as many seats as they did in the last election, let along coming near to winning the election, than before? I'm curious; are the Labour right simply out to destroy the party, or are they so selfish that they want to gain control of the party at the expense of destroying it (and thus making themselves the bosses of a sort of Blairite Socialist Workers Party)?

Meanwhile, and incidentally, why should the Labour left wish to cooperate with Starmer if he "reaches out" to them? They surely know by now that such "reaching out" would be insincere, tactical and temporary.

I don't see how the overcooked scrambled egg can be brought back to life and put back inside the fragments of the shell. It would be nice, but is it a realistic project?

jacob said...

Starmer could have reunited the party very easily at the start, not least by sorting out the admin subversives.
But he's done exactly the opposite and repeatedly made his position very clear - dividing the party, purging the left and using the false allegations of antisemitism against all opposition.
He has a vision, but it's a very dull and limited one.

Blissex said...

«are the Labour right simply out to destroy the party, or are they so selfish that they want to gain control of the party at the expense of destroying it»

There is a right within the Labour wing of the Labour party, and then there is the liberal-conservative wing of the New Labour party.

In the latter wing there are two types of people: those who are opportunists and think that the way to win elections is to pander to tory and liberal voters, because socialdemocratic voters have nowhere else to go, and true believers who think that pandering to tory and liberal voters is the right thing to do and are very pleased if socialdemocratic members and voters abandon the party and effectively lose representation.
For the true believers preventing the coming into power of the left is more important than winning the elections. What they most want is to make sure that "There Is No Alternative" to voting liberal-conservative; sure they would like their own variant of liberal conservativism to win power and for them to have ministerial careers instead of other liberal conservatives from the Conservative or Liberal Democratic parties, but preventing the defeat of liberal conservatism is more important. Here is Tony Blair in 2015 reflecting on these themes:

“You win from the centre; you win when you appeal to a broad cross-section of the public; you win when you support business as well as unions. You don’t win from a traditional leftist position. [...] So let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it. We should forever stand for social justice, for power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few, as our constitution puts it. But that is not the challenge. That challenge is: how to do it in the modern world.”

Note however that Tony Blair then talked about "socialdemocracy", but he really meant meritocracy and liberal conservativism, and Roy Hattersley called that extraneous to the Labour wing of Labour:

“The advantage is that the values of our age are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that by and large has left behind deference, believes that merit not background should determine success; is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race; and believes in the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state. This doesn’t mean to say this is the reality.”

Here the values of "left behind deference", "merit not background", "equality of opportunity" and "equal treatment across gender and race" are all good old gladstonian liberal rejections of aristocracy and toryism, not "socialdemocratic", and "the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state" belong to the Speenhamland and bismarckian tradition of "one nation" paternalistic conservativism.

Perhaps Tony Blair could have made the argument that before thinking of socialdemocracy (as its own goal or a step towards socialism) the UK needed a deeper realization of gladstonian liberal conservative values to overcome traditional toryism, but in effect he made the argument that is all that is needed.

Dipper said...

You are asking the wrong question. The left are a defeated in-fighting riven irrelevance. Just suppose he 'won over' the left, what happens then? Do you think the nation magically votes into power a group who have demonstrated no coherent positions on the major issues of the day, who show no sign of being able to put together a coherent platform that addresses widespread concerns?

The problem is that the left currently has no viable route to being anything other than a bunch of marginalised whingers obsessing about identity and other issues that cut no ice with the voters you need to put you in power.

Anonymous said...

Why would the right want to depose Starmer? Because the polls show he’s failing. The May elections will be a real test and the private mutterings from the right will get even louder if Labour tanks as predicted.

Angela said...

The Labour Right will want to depose Starmer after he has rid the party of left activists because he will be widely perceived as having gone "too far" and polls will show he is unpopular and unlikely to win an election.
The smart right wing strategy is then to keep all the things he has done (hamstringing local democracy, removing the loudest of the local activists) but go for a more left-wing leader who will "heal" the party's internal divisions. (Think someone positioned exactly where Ed Miliband was.)
It is a strategy called taking the goat out of the kitchen. If the situation is bad (eg the kitchen is too small) you make a change that makes it worse (eg moving the goat in).
After people have endured the worse situation for a while, you restore the original (eg take the goat out) and everyone thinks you have made a wonderful improvement.
The right-wingers are hoping they can keep the left on side purely by getting rid of Starmer, and then return to running "our" (by which they mean "their") party in the manner to which they are accustomed.

Blissex said...

«Why would the right want to depose Starmer? Because the polls show he’s failing.»

"Centrism" can never fail! So said Tony Blair himself. It can only be failed. In case Keir Starmer shows that he is not "centrist" enough, my usual suggestion is to replace him with popular "centrist" Rishi Sunak, and if he cannot be headhunted, to beg for the return of perfect ultra-"centrist" Chuka Umunna!

Blissex said...

«dividing the party, purging the left»
«depose Starmer? Because the polls show he’s failing.»

According to some "centrists" the polls only show that *Corbyn* is still failing, that the legacy of his campaigning for "tyrannical and genocidal communism" still toxifies Labour, as some commenter here have argued, therefore the solution is a much deeper purge of the many remaining "far left" fifth-columnists in the shadow cabinet, here is a proposal from a "Strategic Communications Consultant":

“Starmer inherited a party that some say has a brand problem. [...] On substance, Starmer inherited a product rotten to its core. [...]
The political problem for Labour is not Starmer. [...] He needs a team that combines the experience of delivery, bringing back some big hitters of years gone by, and the ambition and dynamism of some of the newer intakes to parliament – those who would become cabinet members in 2023/24.
A bold and ruthless reshuffle may be hard on some of his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but it would send a signal to swing voters that ruthlessness is yet another strength in Starmer’s armoury – something that they will admire.”

I especially like that “bringing back some big hitters of years gone by“: for example John Hutton, Alan Johnson, Chuka Umunna, Oona King, Nick Clegg, Charles Clarke, all are proven "centrist electoral catnip" who could persuade millions of "centrist" swing voters that New Labour is truly under New Management. :-)

I guess the first "far left" entrysts to purge would be Ed Miliband, Jon Ashworth, Emily Thornberry :-)

I am trying to make fun of all this deliriousness, bit it is really quite sad.

dermot said...

Shai's post from 1 year ago has aged well.


Blissex said...

After people have endured the worse situation for a while, you restore the original (eg take the goat out) and everyone thinks you have made a wonderful improvement.»

I am not so sure that Starmer was meant to be the scapegoat, someone to use and throw away. He seems a perfect candidate for "establishment" purposes. After all as a complete newcomer to politics: only a few years ago he was gifted an ultra-safe (Labour: 65%, Conservatives: 16%) seat. Think of all the careerists inside the party machine who thought it was their turn to inherit that seat and it was given to a complete newcomer. Keir Starmer was pushed up the ladder at a truly amazing speed:

* Becomes Queen's Counsel in 2008.
* Is appointed as DPP without having any experience of prosecutions or management.
* End of his career as DPP in 2013.
* Spends "all of" 2014 doing "politics".
* Is gifted one of the most safe seats in the country in 2015.
* Is given the critical and very public role of shadow EU secretary in 2016.
* Is pumped up with "if he were leader Labour would be 20 points ahead" in 2017-2019.
* Becomes leader of the opposition in 2020.

Anonymous said...

"If Keir has any sense he'd let it go and readmit [Corbyn]."...cue screaming, wailing, gnashing of teeth and a spate of hostile briefings in the Observer and the Guardian for starters. Finding a way to keep Corbyn out of the PLP and/or expelling him from Labour to 'signal' to 'red wall' voters and the media seems the more likely route.

BCFG said...

In a way I agree with Dipper when he says this:

"a bunch of marginalised whingers obsessing about identity and other issues that cut no ice with the voters you need to put you in power"

I don't agree with his assessment its because they have no coherent policies (although many don't to be fair). The Tories after all are literally the worst in the whole world when dealing with Covid, because they are inbred, among other reasons. The medical profession is still to an extent inbred, in that doctors come from a narrow layer of society. It is a bit how cricket was 60 years ago, a gentlemans game.

No the reason the Tories can get away with being so incompetent and being more dangerous than any terrorist group in history is because the British public are petty bourgeois fuckwits, on the whole.

In those circumstances the left can only whinge because they have no movement behind them and what movement there is are not interested in much other than who said what on twitter. The left should just try to disrupt everyday life as those in Hing Kong, Belarus and the USA tried to do.

As for, can Starmer win over the left, only the fake left, which is the dominant section. I mean Jim Denham must be creaming his pants at all the pro Zionists now occupying senior positions in the Labour party. No genuine leftist would touch Labour with a barge pole.

Anything other than arguing for the end of exchange and you might as well be Donald Trump or one of his cretinous supporters, you know the ones we have to win over, god forbid and good luck with that!

Dipper said...

Boris beating Starmer in the polls, Tories ahead of Labour.

Relax everyone. The electorate are a sophisticated bunch, and they know this is a highly unusual time. The people who voted Johnson still support him, partly because they think reasonably that the Pandemic is a nightmare for all involved in running the response and that sniping from the sideline is just that.

Fingers crossed, soon the economy and society will return to something like 'normal'. Then will come the real test, whether Johnson can deliver the sunny uplands he has promised Brexit will bring, whether Labour can produce a compelling vision of how they can manage post-Covid post-Brexit UK better han the Tories.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, too many don’t realise that under a FPTP system and a right wing press Socialism won’t win over sufficient of the electorate to win an election. So it requires a united , moderate party to win. You can then push for a PR system which may permit a more Socialist outcome