Thursday 24 June 2021

Keir Starmer's Cowardice: Another Exhibit

There are many things to despise in politics, and cowardice stands out as one of the worst. John Pring of the Disability News Service has scooped comments from shadow leader of the commons, Thangam Debbonaire, telling participants at a compositing meeting for women's Labour conference that the party was opposed to introducing free adult social care. Apparently, it would "give the Tories a stick to beat Labour with." It would cost over £100bn and be more expensive than the NHS. Readers with inconveniences like memory will remember that free care was one of Keir Starmer's campaign pledges, and is, formally at least, party policy. But not any more. The party is now without a policy on a crucial, strategic issue, making Keir and the shadow cabinet look like they're running scared in case the Tories say something nasty about them, and dumping a policy that helped the leader get elected. It's a challenge to find the words to describe abject cowardice of this kind.

Every hour is amateur hour in the leader's office, and it's fitting the arrival of Matthew Doyle, who used to hang coats for Tony Blair, is greeted by policy triangulation doomed to put all corners of the electorate off equally. Consider what an open goal adult social care is. Cut to ribbons by the Tories in the 2010s, they were belatedly forced to recognise the damage they had done, from 2015 they allowed local authorities to add a precept on council tax to pay for the mess. Surely it won't have escaped Keir's notice that the Tories are potentially courting difficulty considering how Boris Johnson has put off another meeting to address a problem he pledged to sort out once and for all. The opportunity is positively cavernous, inviting Labour to do something.

This is more than a chance at scoring points. It offers a rare moment for driving a wedge between Johnson and key layers of his support. Over the last couple of years, we've seen how the thin gruel of Brexit and 128,000 people dead thanks to the Tories putting certain interests before public health has not shifted their coalition. Casting our minds back a little further, the electoral performance of recent years suggests two things could help them come unstuck: the abandonment of Brexit by the Tories, confirmed by their worst ever election results in the 2019 EU elections, and their performance in the general election Keir's "SLT" pretends never happened. Not 2019, of course, but 2017. Recalling the result, what was a key contributing factor to the outcome? Theresa May's bungled dementia tax, in which the Treasury was poised to shake down pensioners' estates for everything over £100,000 if they had availed themselves of the care system. As older people are more likely to own property and therefore not a few of them are, on paper, worth over £100k, the prospect of their children's inheritance getting soaked for care costs was not a happy one, and it helped depress the Tory vote just enough to deny May her majority. In other words, as very clever people scratch their heads and can't work out why millions are still supporting the Tories, at last here is something that could damage them. You could even put a bow on it ... and Labour sits on its hands.

Where does this moral vacuity and strategic decrepitude on adult social care fit into so-called "Starmerism"? There is some consistency between this and previous policy moves, and typifies Keir's novel approach to fight or flight in politics. Forgiving the misnomer, on "fighting" the leader is prepared to make political weather only if his attack on the Tories is from the right. Attacking Tory corporation tax rises, criticising Johnny Mercer's sacking for trying to prevent soldiers from facing war crimes charges, telling the government he expected pupils to be back in schools while Coronavirus was infecting thousands every week, and posing as more patriotic than the Tories, it's a pitiful scene. And the voters think so too, with those Tories clinging to them like a limpet, or voting anyone but Labour when the occasion for a protest arises. And there is flight, or what we might accurately call the absence of leadership. Seemingly afraid of a social democratic let alone a left wing shadow, Keir Starmer has failed to support causes that have fallen into Labour's lap and play to the party's strengths, only supporting them if someone else had done the running beforehand. Marcus Rashford and free school meals. Gareth Southgate and racist footy fans. If there's no one providing popular cover, or worse, the wrong sorts of people, then Keir Starmer affects a studied silence and pretend to be above it all.

Adult social care fits into the flight category. The worst, most flat-footed opportunist British politics has seen since Iain Duncan Smith ran the Tories, Keir is simply saying nothing until the Tories present their care plan, whenever that will be, and then he'll criticise them. Assuming he's in it to win it, which is by no means clear, Keir's got to think that somehow his tedious accountants' act at Prime Minister's Questions is going to cut through where nothing has before. It's probably going to be much worse than that and can see it now; when Johnson unveils his scheme Labour will attack it for being too expensive.

Labour is an unavoidable arena of political struggle in British politics, particularly in England and Wales. Occasionally, episodically it's an arena of organisation, a positive vehicle for pressing the claims of social movements and our class. But as Keir Starmer has forcefully reminded us in his wasted year of stupid, incompetent leadership, most of the time it is a barrier and one we must push against. It takes a special sort of genius to ignore funding adult social care, an issue on which the Tories are uniquely vulnerable, and by doing so undermining one's own credibility as a Prime Minister in waiting.

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Blissex said...

«the prospect of their children's inheritance getting soaked for care costs was not a happy one, and it helped depress the Tory vote just enough to deny May her majority.»

Actually she got a landslide with the "english nationalist party" act, and she was denied a majority only because left-wing brexiters returned from UKIP because Labour was respecting them, and because left wing remainers were content with "outside the EU but as close as possible" as a compromise", plus some surge in activism and voting from ex-abstainers who had felt New Labour was too right-wing fo them.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, some strong words here. But how would you go about getting Starmer out? And doesn't the central offices and mandarins of the Labour Party suffer from a disease of "Starmerism" which would ensure that either Starmer would be replaced with a clone, or, if not, his successor would have no control over the parliamentary party and would be swiftly undermined and purged?

Complaining is understandable, but it seems to me that the problem is not simply with a couple of individuals and a few wrong ideas; the party itself seems to be entrenched in self-destruction.