Monday 15 March 2021

Keir Starmer's Reluctant Opposition

According to advice from someone paid to tweet for a living, the left should be giving Keir Starmer a hearty pat on the back. The changing of Labour's position on the police powers bill from fence sitting to opposing is a plus for the left, and we should be magnaminous in victory. Okay, because it is entirely normal to congratulate a Labour leader for belatedly coming to the defence of basic democratic freedoms. Perhaps we should heave laurels over him for opposing the Tory one per cent "pay rise" for NHS workers, and occasionally affirming other elementary labour movement values. But let's be clear here, Dear Keir has not reversed gear for principled reasons. Following the Met attack on Clapham Common's women's vigil, the optics were so bad the party's failure to oppose would crater his already tanking numbers. And we know this goes against the grain of his instincts because he refuses, as the barest minimum, to call on Cressida Dick to take responsibility and resign. On this, even the Liberal Democrats are better.

One can fulminate against the Labour leader, and readers are welcome to on the social media platforms of their choice. Yet, it's not enough to condemn, it behoves the left to understand so we know where the pressure points are, the trajectories of "Starmerism", and how in the future Keir's leadership will prove itself a blockage. We've learned, for example, on matters of working conditions and pay he'll keep mum if trade unions are involved. On the Coronavirus crisis, it was obvious just five weeks into his leadership that he wouldn't contest the politics of pandemic management, only offering suggestions when it was deemed politically safe to do so (compare and contrast with his predecessor). And on law and order matters there's no way he's going to let the Tories paint him as soft - and so we saw the disgusting spectacle of Labour officially abstaining on the spycops bill. Awkward editorials in Tory papers meant more to him than accountability for rapist undercover coppers.

Let's get down to brass tacks. Keir's reluctant opposition to the police powers bill has three roots tangled up with one another. There is his authoritarian personality. Having helmed the CPS after shivvying up the greasy pole, his leadership of the Labour Party exudes the managerialism of someone habituated to the command and control of a bureaucracy than an (ostensibly) democratic political party. And, without picking over the entirerty of his record while in post, Keir wanted to throw people who'd overclaimed social security into the slammer, refused to prosecute anyone in connection with the police murder of Jean Charles de Menezes and went out his way to protect the security state. And, of yes, there was the time Keir Starmer wanted to make it easier to lock up protesters. By inclination and practice, Keir Starmer is no friend to democracy. Quite the opposite.

Unsurprisingly, the authoritarian personality finds authoritarian politics congenial. Once the Corbyn-lite frippery of the leadership contest was dumped, Keir revealed himself a grey technocrat flanked on Labour's frontbench with snoring mediocrities who'd never threaten to upstage the leader. And the politics? Starmerism, in as much as it is a thing, is entirely top-down. Congruent with the Fabian tradition, it amounts to a prospectus in which people vote Labour at elections, the politicians then get on formulating policy and governing and everyone else goes to sleep for four or five years until polling day comes again. It is instinctively antipathetic toward extra-parliamentary mobilisation, and distrusts trade unionism because they are harbingers of and catalysts for mass politics. Which, in case anyone needs reminding, escapes capture by plodding MPs and official oppositions frightened of actual opposition. How Keir Starmer acts in the Labour Party is a foretaste of what he would be like in government, not that he'll get there at the rate he's going.

And lastly, there's the official reasons for his going gaga over the police: because the focus groups. Never before in Labour politics, not Ed Miliband, not Tony Blair, has the party been as led by the dubious wisdom of randomers plucked from select marginal seats. To think there are Tory voters residing in Mansfield, Stoke, Walsall, and Durham who, in their two-hour Zoom call with a LOTO dogsbody, have had more input on party policy than members who've rendered Labour decades of service. Keir Starmer's leadership is the antithesis of the vanguard party. Instead of getting led by the most conscious or the most "advanced" workers, Labour's path to dissolution is thanks to tailing the most backward. The irony is (unrequited) public love-ins with the police looks fake, desperate, and isn't about to beat the Tories at this game anyway. All he's managing is to drive away Labour's actual core vote without winning over the "red wallers", swing Tory voters or, for that matter, the LibDem leaning.

It's interesting. Take a managerialist personality, pair it with an authoritarian politics, and, in this instance, the result can only be described as abject cowardice. Not only does this deserve condemning on its own terms, but is proving disastrous according to the polling metrics the "grown-ups" fetishised and clung to during Jeremy Corbyn's time. As Keir isn't about to change, the prevarication and hasty about turn over the police powers bill promises more frustration and failure in Labour's immediate future. Can the party turn this around? A lot depends on the Tories because thanks to a pitiful and petrified leadership, Labour has long ceased making its own weather.

Image Credit


david walsh said...

"And we know this goes against the grain of his instincts because he refuses, as the barest minimum, to call on Cressida Dick to take responsibility and resign." It might be, because he sees it obvious, as I do, that were this to happen, it would be like all her Christmases coming for at once, allowing Pritti Patel to get down to appointing a Commmissioner in her own image

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid this comes across as rather "its not enough for the party leadership to do the right thing - their motives also have to be TOTALLY PURE" - which is, of course, exactly the way that centrists often used to talk about Corbyn (especially, but by no means only, when it came to Brexit)

No, we should be pleased that Starmer and co are doing the right thing on this - not complacent, and ever vigilant, but pleased nonetheless. It shows that pressure on them from the left *can* work.

SimonB said...

It’s more interesting to compare him with Blair than Corbyn, given his support base in the party. Tony would have been unrelenting in his attacks on the government.

Phil said...

To anonymous:

"Yet, it's not enough to condemn, it behoves the left to understand so we know where the pressure points are, the trajectories of "Starmerism", and how in the future Keir's leadership will prove itself a blockage."

David Timoney said...

I don't quite follow David Walsh's logic. Cressida Dick is a Commissioner in Priti Patel's own image: defensive, incurious & an instinctive supporter of the status quo. All she is lacking is the political gloss of public spite & antagonism.

As for anonymous's idea that Starmer has bowed to pressure from the left, his volte face is entirely down to the negative reaction of the liberal press. It has nothing to do with the left.

Jon Hegerty said...

I think this is an excellent analysis. Starmer's managerialism and bureaucracy are his core political beliefs. He doesn't believe in a mass party or in mass activity. For so many, the Corbyn years were everything they hate and despise about politics so they are determined to eradicate all traces of it.

It is interesting to contrast it with Blair, who then (not now) would have been roasting the Tories. And I am most certainly not a Blairite!!

Anonymous said...

Another good read thanks Phil- looking forward to reading your book.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

"It shows that pressure from the left *can* work". Did you not read the rest of Phil's article? Even if you didn't, it defies belief that anyone could think that the decision to oppose the new police powers has anything to do with pressure from "the left". This level of delusion explains a lot about the state that the Labour party is in.

The PLP exists to maintain its own existence - like most institutions and well-established organisations. There are some within it who have higher aims, and actually want to deliver a better society for the majority, but the main drive of the party (as is true of the Tories) is to perpetuate itself.

Starmer and his ilk have convinced themselves that this can best be done by positioning themselves as "like them, but nicer". So, when the "general public" (as represented by focus groups, or the popular press - not the actual public you understand) are unhappy about something, Kier is unhappy (or at least, puts on a slight frown). He absolutely, categorically and indisputably does not give a sorry sh*t about what anyone left of just off centre thinks about anything. Phil has realised this, as have I, after giving him the benefit of the doubt for a few months. Although, I suspect we both knew long before, in our hearts, but didn't want to believe it.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

Sometimes what you see is what you get. You may tell yourself that there must be something more, a cunning plan, a long game, a carefully thought through strategy which requires playing a role. But gradually, bit by bit, you begin the slow, sickening realisation that no, Starmer is exactly what he seems. There is no grand plan. It isn't a carefully cultivated facade behind which lurks a true radical. He is exactly what he seems. People talk about the banality of evil, but here we have a case of the evil of banality.

Anonymous said...

Blair became Labour leader when the Tories were *already* trailing by double figures in the polls, and despised by almost everyone outside their absolute hardcore vote.

Comparing it with where we are now is not just highly simplistic, but - ironically - an instance of left wingers significantly buying into Blair's own myths (that his leadership was "indispensable" to Labour winning in 1997, etc etc)