Thursday, 14 October 2021

Playing Second Fiddle

Don't blame me, I supported the left candidate. But when Keir Starmer easily romped home in April last year, what was everyone anticipating? At worst, I expected what we're dealing with now. At best, a space for the left to make its presence felt in other ways. For example, some elements of continuity - a rowing back on the radical democratic elements of both manifestos and more managerialism. A briefcase Corbynism, if you like. Albeit with traditional Labour rightism running riot over crime and policing, and foreign policy. Something like a reversion to the Ed Miliband mean of 2010-15 with stronger leftist characteristics reflecting the composition of the party, its renewed constituency, and the platform Starmer stood on.

Subsequent history hasn't turned out like that, and it's to Labour's detriment. Starmer and his goons might think they're playing a clever game, but rather than getting cheered on by millions of voters, as Peter Mandelson recently claimed, poll numbers are stubbornly stuck behind the worst government this country has seen in modern times. Even worse, the coalition of voters we need to reassemble is decomposing and drifting away. Against the ruinous perspective responsible for this, the Labour right's factional obsession that subordinates electoral success to evicting the left, we're starting to see some concern raised by more centrist voices in the party. Neil Kinnock was one, and now he's joined by an even unlikelier voice: John McTernan.

Twitter-travelling comrades will know him well from his regular defences of Tony Blair, criticisms of Corbyn, and statements that at times border on Dan Hodges levels of bad faith, Yet, unlike virtually anyone else on the right of the Labour Party, John shows a keen interest in left wing ideas, publications, and the new wave of socialism Corbynism helped unleash. He is encouraging of those who would otherwise be his political enemies, and has been known to support projects he finds worthwhile. An interesting set of contradictions, particularly for someone who was previously close to His Blairness. And we see this played out in his recent open letter to Sam White, Keir Starmer's new chief of staff.

There are three main points to John's piece. That a leader's office should have a sense of urgency about it, which is a true enough point to make. The only alacrity Starmer has shown is with stitching up the party, while passively commenting on what the Tories are doing. There are many criticism that can be made of Blair, and this place has certainly made most of them, but serious about winning office he certainly was. Hunger, not a countenance of disinterested competence is what might turn heads. Second, John offers a robust defence of the trade unions and how they anchor Labour in the day-to-day realities of working life. That members manage this as well was perhaps an admission too far, but it's rare for someone, particularly with a Blairite pedigree, to publicly argue as positively for trade unionism. To be fair to Starmer, I'm inclined to agree with Andy Beckett. Having a more positive attitude to unions than other recent leaders save Jeremy Corbyn appears to be one of his brightest points in an otherwise dark and gloomy Starmerist firmament.

It's the third argument running in parallel which is the most interesting. John argues for ignoring the froth ("Look beyond the chants of "betrayal" for the substance") and LOTO will find "really thoughtful considerations on working life, crime, environmental justice, and community development." He earlier evokes the model of Joe Biden's victory in the US, where the standard frame has become one of the left in junior partnership with the liberals seeing off Donald Trump. The payback has seen money for infrastructure projects, climate change mitigation, and better Covid support - not quite absorbing "Senator Bernie Sanders’ policy team into his ... [turning] those ideas into deliverable ones rather than distant dreams" in my view, but nevertheless finding something useful to draw on and not treating the left like a whipping boy to be thrashed every time headlines are looking glum. John also makes the point that we need to learn from voters and work out why Labour lost, which means asking serious questions about how the Tories won. Here he invokes the example of Stuart Hall who would "read everything she’d [Margaret Thatcher] written and to listen to everything she’d said. That’s what made him one of the finest analysts of Thatcherism, able to provide an essential guide to Labour in our wilderness years." Indeed, and my own book is an attempt to fill that gap and stimulate more serious thinking and work about the Tories.

John's advice is a rare moment of sanity coming from the Labour right, a recommendation that perhaps sawing off the party's feet isn't a good idea if one wants to gallop first past the post. It's a plea to shift gear into what might have been before it's too late. Unfortunately, it is too late. The window Starmer had to make himself known was passed up at the most crucial time during his leadership, and nothing can make up for this time lost. And, unfortunately, the partnership John recommends is a pipe dream precisely because of what has happened and is still happening. In his observations about Labour Party conference, Paul Mason noted the complete shattering of the party as a shared endeavour. The ascendant right aren't happier than when they pour scorn on or make up lies about the left, and much of the left - while they retain their membership cards - are focusing their energies more usefully on community and street activity, or producing the analyses, policy ideas, and theoretical work John finds beguiling. A US-style junior partnership between right and left is unlikely because too much salt has been ploughed into the soil. The right Starmer listens to want the left gone, the left have better things to do than stump for a bunch of clueless and appalling suits. And the left know the right would rather see the Tories in office than face greater party democracy and leadership of the party by the left.

Ultimately, while John hopes for a reconciliation of sorts and is right to task the leadership with making the first move, it does at best represent the outer limits of what his wing of the party accepts. The right in charge, with the left playing second fiddle as leaflet and canvassing fodder, and the occasional source of interesting policy ideas.

Image Credit


BCFG said...

Mcternan has always come across to me as perhaps the most disingenuous entity the universe has ever created.

This is a sort of call to keep the useful idiots inside the tent.

It seems like a very desperate attempt for anyone who is on the left to justify staying in that monstrosity of a party.

There are no excuses, anyone in that party is politically on the right, period!

This should be the trigger for any genuine leftist to get the hell out of there!

Blissex said...

«rather than getting cheered on by millions of voters, as Peter Mandelson recently claimed, poll numbers are stubbornly stuck behind»

Mandelson's claim is probably quite right: millions of Conservative voters are cheering Starmer's demolition of Labour, but are also continuing to intend to vote Conservative, because Johnson is delivering what matters to them, and most will continue to vote Conservative or switch to abstention or to the LibDems.

Blissex said...

«any genuine leftist to get the hell out of there!»

The self-expulsion of the not-a-thatcherite "trots" seems to be the goal of the current posturing by Starmer and the rest of the Militant Mandelsoncy.
They made it much harder to nominate another candidate, and if they can get rid of as many not-a-thatcherite "trots" they got it all done.

blissex said...

"they got it all done"

The "it" here is to have control of the party name because it comes with a sizable block of votes that just vote "Labour" because it's "our" party. That block is probably at least 25% of voters and the historic mission of the Militant Mandelsoncy is:

- prevent that block from being the base of a not-thatcherite coalition;

- capture that block as the base for a barely disguised Liberal party implementing thatcherite policies, ideally in coalition with the LibDems.

Blissex said...

«capture that block as the base for a barely disguised Liberal party»

To belabor the point, the relevant story is the fate of ChangeUK (as if the fate of the LibDems had not been enough): perfect vacuous "centrist" europhile programme, perfect vacuous "centrist" europhile leaders, yet because they lost the "Labour" brand name voted automatically by that block, they sank. So the "centrist" plan has always been to take over the "Labour" name, not even the party, which as the Conservatives has shown that it is not so necessary.

As to Keir Starmer's takeover of the "Labour" name, it reminds me of a funny story:

«"In 1986, [Johnson] ran for the presidency of the [Oxford] Union. Though nothing like as rabid as the Balliol JCR, the Union was sufficiently left-wing for it to be inconceivable for a Tory to be elected as president. Boris concealed his Conservative affiliation and let it be widely understood that he was a Social Democrat. [...] Boris got himself elected as president of the Oxford Union in Trinity Term.” [...] “Shortly after this, I was telephoned by Dick Taverne, an SDP MP, who told me that he was looking for an intern to work for him during the vacation. He inquired whether I could suggest any candidates,” Kenny says. ““I’ve just the man for you,” I said, “bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the Union, and his name is Boris Johnson”. When I summoned Boris to ask whether he was interested in the job, he burst out laughing: “Master, don’t you know I am a dyed-in-the-wool Tory?””»

It looks like Johnson is repeating the story with the "Levelling up" propaganda. Not too different from Biden rebranding spending to benefit big businesses as "trickle down" leftism.