Sunday, 4 April 2021

One Abysmal Year of Keir

A full year since Labour returned to the mean and elected a man in a nice suit. Looking back at the occasion, this blog met Keir Starmer's election with a bouquet of scepticism. The power grabs and rolling back of internal democracy, a default to the bourgeois common sense of politics, a load of dishonest but politically convenient hand wringing over antisemitism - despite the leak of that report. As I wrote of the left's relationship to the new leadership, "We're going to have to live with someone whose first instinct is to praise the government when they're doing well, and keep quiet when they're not." Prepared? What I was expecting was a leadership not unlike Ed Miliband's, something that at least meant well which the majority of the left could support at a remove. Unfortunately, Dear Keir is yet to touch even this low bar.

In policy terms, he writes in Sunday's Observer about the failings of the Conservatives, and how Labour's "ambition for Britain must match the moment. Not merely fiddling with tax incentives or creating pots of money for towns to scrap over but creating an economy that works for everyone." One might point out this is exactly how Keir has spent his time in the Leader's chair. Attacking the Tories from the right over the minutiae of corporation tax rates, quibbling with the process and details of Coronavirus management, and only going on the offensive when either Marcus Rashford or teaching unions or SAGE have prepared the ground for him, this falls somewhat short of a functioning and effective opposition, let alone anything demonstrating ambition capable of rising to the occasion.

But I'm nothing if not fair, so let us consider some of the arguments in Keir's defence we haven't looked at already. For PoliticsHome, Adam Payne quotes an anonymous (of course) "senior party source" saying the party was in a terrible state when Keir inherited it. The party was near to bankruptcy too, so the story goes. There might have been a time when a journo might have challenged claims made by their interlocutor, but this wasn't one of them. At the end of 2019, the party's statement of accounts published under Keir's leadership show that following the election the party had a tiny surplus. Under previous leaders the party routinely got into multi-million pound debt holes. Another lie then. But there is some truth to the notion Labour wasn't in tip-top shape. The campaign itself was poorly coordinated, and organisation from region down to branch level were riddled with accumulations of dysfunctions. What else might one expect when the Labour right stretched every sinew in their scorched earth struggle against the leadership?

The other argument in the leader's defence, it is said, is something Keir can't do a great deal about. With the pandemic clogging the headlines and everyone's horizon depressed by it, the punters aren't especially interested in what politicians have to say - particularly when they're not in government and have no bearing on the management of the crisis. To all intents and purposes, Labour are whistling in the wind and we're going to have to wait until Coronavirus had faded into the background before the party's offer is noticed. Therefore, coming out with bold policy statements or making loud oppositional noises is a waste of time or looks like point scoring. The moment for a vision for government is ... not yet. Now, this is pretty unconvncing for a couple of reasons. Contrary to what our PLP and shadcab whisperers think, Keir Starmer has had plenty of coverage. And nearly all of it has been soft and supportive. If Keir isn't getting noticed, it's because he's not using these plentiful avenues to say anything memorable or meaningful. Second, it appears Keir's anonymous outriders can only conceive of opposition in two ways, as either shouty and ranty or as "constructive", which always means giving the government a free pass save some minor aspects of policy and positioning. There was a third way, which any assessment of Keir's record needs reminding of, and that's what Jeremy Corbyn accomplished in the dead duck days of his leadership. Contrary to the invented histories circulating for factional advantage, not only was he ahead of the government in calling for proper quarantine strategies, he was constructive because he offered policy solutions to problems, which the Tories promptly took up. This is something Keir has steered clear away from, apart from a ritualistic request that the government extend the Job Retention Scheme or carry on the measly uplift to Universal Credit.

Since his first day in the job, the openings have been there for Keir to carry on in the same vein, but he didn't. Why? One might put it down to a personal failing but in fact it has everything to do with his politics. Despite being weak on opposition, Keir is the most authoritarian (though certainly not authoritative) leader Labour has had since Tony Blair. His politics, such as they are, depend on affirming state authority and particularly government as not just the key but the only institution for getting things done. Keir's opposition to Boris Johnson, when it has manifested, has not gone for the jugular nor offered different ways of doing things because that might undermine the government's authority by creating an alternative to it. Even though he would be this counterpoint, Keir's strategy depends on the restoration and protection of state authority. Talking about policy and attacking the Tories on big picture stuff, or even his reticence to mention scores of thousands of dead, is an attempt to oppose while preserving the authority he seeks to draw on if he enters Number 10. In practice this means anemia. He has let the Tories define the Covid-19 crisis, and as such they're setting about defining the peace. Clever clever games leading to stupid stupid outcomes.

In terms of conventional politics, he's failing. But much more serious than poor parliamentary footsy is the potentially existential crisis the leadership and its right wing cheerleaders are dragging the party into. As this blog has pointed out enough, the main consequence of Jeremy Corbyn's time was the recomposition of the Labour vote. The core Labour supporter is now the immaterial worker, someone whose working life is bounded by the production of care, knowledge, and social relationships - typically, though not exclusively, for the profit of others. On top of this, the way Tory policy works to keep their voter coalition together by shielding older people, retirees particularly, from the (private) consequences of austerity, the fall out of the Brexit mess and the Covid slump, keeping the property market overheated and, indeed, subordinating crisis management to these ends, the Tories are underwriting the long-term decline of their support by raising a generation of anti-Tory voters. Jeremy Corbyn's clear anti-austerity message in 2017, plus the promise of a softer Brexit was able to cohere these emerging interests around Labour while keeping enough of the old core vote on board. As a new political consciousness in the process of emergence, there was a certain softnesss to it but, more importantly, conditionality. For it to solidify and identify with Labour the party needed to act consistently in their interests. Instead, there was more internal warfare and the stoking of Brexit - purposely by the right, including a certain Keir Starmer - as a wedge issue. The result was confusion, a panicky arse covering adoption of the second referendum, and a partial fragmentation of the 2017 coalition as a few hundred thousand defected direct to the Tories, and some two million migrated to the Liberal Democrats, Greens, the nationalist parties, and abstentionism.

The inescapable task of Labour strategy is bringing these people back, holding on to the new core that stuck with Labour in 2019, peeling soft supporters off the Tories, and looking at ways of energising the spontaneously socially liberal and small s socialist layers of younger workers. This is not just crucial for winning elections, but for securing the future of the party itself. According to the wisdom revealed by Claire Ainsley, Keir's policy guru and writer of matters on the new working class, this is what has to be done ... but thinks traditionalist appeals to flags and family would secure them. We have then an explanation for the plastic patriotism and similar embarrassing efforts, but from a position utterly ignorant of the relationship between the materiality of immaterial labour, social liberalism, and the constitution of new class identities. If this wasnt bad enough, something the dim wattage of Labourist thought should recognise - bread and butter issues, and how the Tories stymie them at every turn - is completely off the Starmerist radar too. It's almost as if they're not serious about power.

It gets worse. The loudest cheers for Keir come from the right of the party frothing at the purge of the left. Though, of course, they like to pretend it's a struggle against antisemitism, not least because they lack the arguments to contest the left at the level of ideas and strategy. As was pointed out last June, the problem with driving out the left, whether by adopting right wing positions or by simple diktat, is the party is ridding itself of the very people who were crucial to mobilising voters at the last two general elections. I'm not talking about campaigning, but those who did the unseen and under-the-radar work of converting friends, workmates, and family members into giving Labour a go. Those who, completely unbidden, were an influence in their online and offline networks and helped cohere support around the party. As dreadful as the 2019 result was, there's a reason why, bar 2017, Labour got the highest number of votes it had since 2001 and the greatest number of votes in England since 1997. In other words, Keir Starmer and his host are demobilising the party's support. Now, they might believe they can do a simple trade: putting the backs up of the new core vote in the big cities where Labour MPs sit on huge supermajorities doesn't matter if tacking right wins back support in the so-called Red Wall and soft Tories elsewhere. Completely forgetting immaterial workers are distributed across the land. Winning back the Brexit-supporting Tory switcher snack bar manager at a provincial railway station isn't worth it if the party does so on a prospectus alienating the younger, low paid precarious workers she oversees. Chasing after Tory supporters on a Tory-lite platform is less a matter of digging your own hole, but driving the spade into one's foot.

This is why Keir Starmer is doing abysmally. He's waging class politics alright, the class politics of the other side. As he waxes about our once-in-a-generation opportunity, the possibility of the party carrying on wanes that little bit more. "Starmerism" and its trajectory doesn't just risk Labour becoming less than the sum of its parts, but allowing it to fall apart completely. The polls have consistently shown upticks in Green support and faltering gains for the LibDems. The SNP are poised to sweep all before it, and Plaid Cyrmu is putting in a better showing. And thanks to the worst possible start to the Hartlepool by-election, a new party has a shout of coming from nowhere to take more support off Labour than the Tories. Might Keir be able to turn it around? Possibly, but in politics as with most things the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. He managed to repair Labour's polling position before crashing it, and having disaggregated the party's support he's not about to put it together again without a fundamental strategic rethink. Though, of course, having an impotent and useless party at a remove from the messy business of proper politics suits the Tories and the Labour right alike.

Image Credit


The Future said...

Given that the real job of politics and politicians is to achieve what's best for the whole country - rather than for one's own party or position - what are the prospects for getting to a position where that's a possibility - and to what extent will working with other parties to that end become a necessity?

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

It is difficult to feel much optimism at the moment. I am not particularly interested in the colour of rosette or the "subtle" media strategy. I want to know what the vision is for the country - what sort of UK/Britain/England (could end up as a citizen of one or all of those) the possible PM wants. Once that is clear, then some ideas on how they plan to get there are useful, but detail on that can wait until nearer an actual national election. My view is that Starmer doesn't have a vision other than something like now but a bit better (although for whom I am not sure).

We are facing a number of crises - covid & recovery from, wage stagnation / productivity, climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity crash, mental (& spiritual) health, obscene inequality, an unrepresentative political system, distorted media etc. which all interact and feed off each other. We need a national movement that recognises these as crises of our culture/society, and offers a vision that addresses these issues. First by acknowledging them, then by offering an alternative. But this can only be done slowly, from the ground up because the nexus of power is utterly captured by those who benefit from how it is now.

I don't see the existing political structure as being capable of this, or of even wanting to be. So, the question is, how can we bypass the blockage that our political system represents without resorting to violence, and in a way that will attract people to join, and build a movement that is not polluted by all the internecine bickering and historical baggage so many "progressives" seem incapable of discarding.

David Lindsay said...

The period from September 2015 to April 2020 was hardly the easiest in Britain's recent history. Yet I cannot remember a single riot, or even much, if anything, in the way of civil unrest. Instead, the Government was defeated a record number of times on the floor of the House of Commons, and it lost its overall majority at a General Election when the Opposition took a high enough percentage of the vote to have won any of the previous three.

Now, however, we have had a year of Ab Starmer, the Leader of the No Position. His party is permanently hopelessly far behind the worst Government in living memory, and it is about to lose hundreds of council seats that it held or won under Jeremy Corbyn, as well as losing the parliamentary seat of Hartlepool for the first time ever. And this country is bracing itself for a burning summer, no matter what the weather was like.

As ever, the trouble started only when the men who had uniquely come kitted out and tooled up for it waded in, camera crews in tow, these days to defend a Bill that would give them powers for which the lands of supposedly lesser breeds were sanctioned and worse. But Corbyn's speech to Saturday's Kill The Bill rally, although cut heavily by the broadcasters, referred clearly to:

"the context of a series of pieces of legislation that this Government is trying to push through that place over there. The Spycops Bill, the Overseas Operations Bill, all these Bills designed to empower the Secretary of State to legislate beyond the powers of Parliament to restrict protest, to organise countersurveillance operations, and so many other things."

Notice that although Labour did vote against Second Reading of this Bill because a policeman had gone off-script and killed the sort of person that Starmer cared about, no one bothered to ask him to address that rally. No one expects a Labour whip to vote against Third Reading, any more than there was a Labour whip to do anything other than abstain at any stage either of the Spycops Bill or of the Overseas Operations Bill.

John Smithee said...

Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair. Starmer is a cross between Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.

At least Tony Blair constantly attacked the Tories in the three years leading up to the 1997 general election.

All Starmer has done is to undermine the activist base of the party within the CLPS. These are the foot-soldiers who get out the Labour vote.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown via New Labour destroyed the Labour Party brand just like Gerald Ratner destroyed the Ratner's jewellery store brand.

The Labour Party under Starmer is following in the footsteps of the Greek Pasok and the French Socialist Party into oblivion.

Using the Office for National Statistics definition, the working class now hate the Labour Party for being 'left-behind' during the Blair years.

Most working class people say that: 'All politicians are the same'. The result is that the working class tip their cap and vote Tory.

The loss of Hartlepool together will a poor turnout in the other elections on May 6th will put Starmer's leadership in question.

Ash Sarkur of Novara Media has predicted that Starmer will be gone by the end of the year.

Lindsey German of Counterfire has explained that there are rumours that Starmer will be replaced by Yvette Cooper of even Jess Phillips.

Cooper is a Brownite and gives the impression in interviews that she has extreme constipation when she squints her eyes.

Jess 'rent-a-mouth' Phillips has some get up and go and would be brilliant at the despatch box even though she wanted to stab Corbyn in the front.

It is time the general secretaries of the GMB, Unite, Unison, & Usdaw tapped Starmer on the shoulder and told him it's time for him to go.

John Smithee

James Dickins said...

"[Starmer] managed to repair Labour's polling position before crashing it, and having disaggregated the party's support he's not about to put it together again without a fundamental strategic rethink."

As with Humpty Dumpty, the egg is well and truly smashed - trying to 'reaggregate' it is futile. Labour (left) activists have either left the Party, or will not do anything to support it at election time. 'Red wallers' will never be won back by 'almost as nasty as the Tories' policies - and those of them (many, many of them) who are more inclined to respond to idealism than racism (as they did to that of Corbyn in 2017) are not going to turn out for Labour either.

Starmer could, of course, resign, if he had the moral decency to do so. But even then, it would take a new leader of real moral courage to stand up to the powerful lobbies which Starmer has caved into - most obviously the Israel lobby - and re-establish Labour as a party of values, rather than simply a would-be election-winning (though in fact election-losing) machine.

Anonymous said...

This is all well put. But wasn't this also to be expected? Your reading of Starmer's position was surely the most optimistic one you could hold, since you didn't want the Labour Party to suffer the disaster which it has suffered.

Incidentally, it also seems that something similar is happening to the Scottish Nationalists.

Jim Denham said...

James Dickens: what do you understand by "the Israeli lobby"?

Boffy said...

In the 1970's, when I was studying US Politics at University, the idea that there was an effective "Jewish Lobby" was mainstream liberal democratic fare. Indeed, it was put forward as showing the strength of pluralist democracy, of how the political decisions of governments were not at all determined by the interests of capital and the ruling class, but by a continual competition between different elements within society and their ability to organise electorally.

In fact, at the time I challenged such assumptions, pointing out that, this Jewish Lobby had not, for example, managed to get the US to stop the persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930's, or indeed, prevent large US corporations like GM and Ford from operating there during that time, including the provision of war materials.

But, why would anyone not assume that there is an "Israeli Lobby" just as there are lobbies for most other countries and sets of interest? The role of states is to promote their own interests abroad, business, diplomats - not tom mention intelligence agencies - of every country does that as a matter of routine, and would not be doing their job if they didn't. So I am surprised at the implication of Jim Denham's question, here, which is to suggest that there is no such Israeli Lobby.

Isn't that to expect that Israel would act according to some different set of rules than every other state? Wouldn't that be a form of anti-Semitism, of requiring a Jewish state to operate by different standards?

Tony Riley said...

I love that you think Sarkur and German have any credence.

Corbyn did a huge amount of damage to Labour, and the voters will need to be convinced that the party is totally cleansed of antisemitism. Several obvious Jew-haters have been re-admitted in the last few weeks, so there’s still work to be done.

Tony Riley said...

What can Labour achieve if it isn’t in power?

Tony Riley said...

Big fan of antisemitic conspiracies?

Paul Seligman said...

@boffy You have elided the Israeli lobby' into 'Jewish lobby' and gone back to before the state of Israel t disprove an effective Israeli lobby? makes no sense. in any event, we can note that the US Jewish community, horrified at the growing threat to Jews in Europe from the Nazis started to organise a boycott of Germany from 1932, which was gathering momentum and effectiveness. The boycott was opposed by establishment Jewish groups including the British Board of Deputies (whose contemporary demands Starmer has embraced) on the grounds that it might cause more harm to befall German Jews, and also by some pro Nazi Jewish groups (!). In 1933, the Zionist movement in Palestine attacked the boycott as incompatible with the Haavara deal they signed with the Nazis, causing many groups to drop support for the boycott. Under the Haavara deal some 60,000 German Jews did reach Palestine, which was the only sort of rescue the Zionists wanted. Much more could be said about this, but as this is a piece about the LP and Starmer, I'll stop there.

Richard said...

Oh Lord, you are a lost cause if you think the way forward is to get trade union barons to take control of Labour Party politics.

Labour Party politics is bourgeois and shit because it's in the hands of party barons.

Boffy said...

@ Paul Seligman.

I did no such thing. I pointed out two facts. I pointed out the fact that the idea of a "Jewish Lobby", in the 1970's was standard liberal political ideology as part of an argument in favour of the neutral nature of pluralist democracy. Today, of course, it is Zionists who conflate the term Jew with Israel, in order to conflate any criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Semitism. And, the "Jewish Lobby" in the US, did indeed precede the creation of the Israeli state, though not Zionism, and did fail to get the US to intervene in their persecution in Germany, or the involvement of GM and Ford etc. in the Nazi economy.

The reason I pointed to that fact was to show how things change and Liberals adapt their arguments opportunistically, because, today, anyone who talks about a "Jewish Lobby" is immediately labelled as "anti-semitic", and claimed to be promoting a conspiracy theory about world Jewish domination, or about this being equal to acting as Zionist agents of Israel. No one talks about anyone referring to an Irish Lobby, being promoters of conspiracy theories of support for the IRA, even though there are prominent Irish Lobbies that promote the interests of Irish communities, all of whom have some links with Ireland, however.

I pointed to a second fact, which is that there are lobbies for most countries operating abroad, and so why would anyone suggest as Jim Denhmam appears to do that Israel would be any different in that respect? Suggesting that to even put forward the idea of an "Israeli Lobby" is to smack of conspiracy theory and "anti_semitism" illustrates the problem, because those that object to any such suggestion are themselves the ones that seek to present Israel as somehow to be held to different standards than others states, the very thing they accuse "Left anti-Semites" of doing!

Of course their are Jewish Lobbies just as there are Irish, Russian, French etc Lobbies, and yes there is an Israeli Lobby, just as the French, Irish, Russian and other states operate in other countries sometimes openly sometimes covertly. It is not anti-Semitic to point out that Israel does this along with other states. Its actually anti-Semitic to demand that it doesn't! Of course, we should hold to account those who take money or other inducements to promote such interests, whichever of these other states they might be acting for, especially where they are doing that inside he labour movement, just as years ago those taking money from Gaddafi were held to account.

And, we should obviously bring into the light any illegal activity of the secret services of those other states, as for example with targeted assassinations, be it by the Russian state or the Israeli state.

Anonymous said...

Thus far Keir is just not that good. Will he have a legacy? 'He never really made an impact. He never really said much. I don't think he tried'. Speak up or step down!

Anonymous said...

Labour Leader bright just not very good at politics. Shame really more years lost.

Whinanoadmaheed Hittit said...

How depressing. I remember similar comments on the 'Labour' Party when I first got interested in politics in the 1970's.

It should be obvious to all interested parties by now that the 'Labour' Party is just a shill - a convenient substitute for the tory party should it by chance fail to get enough votes to rule.

From it's beginnings in the reactionary Fabian movement, it has proved true to this aim to be a shill for capitalism. Time you all got involved in starting a real Socialist party.