The current Labour leader is a ruthless authoritarian. He has overseen the proscription of groups associated with the Labour left, suspended Jeremy Corbyn (who he still refuses to return the whip to), fired Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet for retweeting an interview in The Independent, and recently attempted to destroy the democracy that remains in the Labour party by moving toward the abolition of ‘one member, one vote’ in internal leadership elections and replacing it with an electoral college where a Labour MP’s vote weighs far heavier than that of the ordinary member. The last outrageous stunt he has been forced to walk back, but there is no question about his commitment, and indeed the entire Labour right’s commitment, to deterring democracy.
The problem with democracy is that it poses the risk of the election of figures like Jeremy Corbyn—and others who are genuinely serious about fighting concentrated private power—to leadership positions in the party. The Labour right therefore regards the membership of the party as a threat that must be confronted;1 it is using the party machinery to punish left-wing members and is openly carrying out political purges. Since it is the left that is victimised, these shameful tactics elicit no outrage from the mainstream press and broadcast media. If the elite sectors of the country valued basic liberal principles, Starmer and his allies would be condemned for behaving like a Stalinist clique.
Starmer has managed to combine his ruthless authoritarianism when it comes to internal party matters with the most timid political opposition to the Tories imaginable. This is in the context of a government responsible for an enormous death toll during the coronavirus pandemic, in large part due to reckless policy decisions; continual attacks on the living standards of the poorest, from trying to take away free school meals to cutting universal credit; an unabashed assault on civil liberties, particularly the right to protest; failure to adequately address the climate crisis; attacks on the rule of law including violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, illegal arms sales to oppressive regimes, attempts to destroy accountability for war crimes committed by our soldiers, and I could go on. Starmer has managed to make almost zero political progress in spite of the Tories’ disastrous record in office under Boris Johnson. In particular, he has failed to articulate any meaningful alternative political vision to the status quo. Policy ideas have been scarce.
As a kind of rejoinder to this critique, Starmer recently published an essay for the Fabian society entitled ‘The Road Ahead’. In fact he ended up vindicating the criticism. His ten principles, which he purports ‘will form the basis of a new contract between Labour and the British people’ are a collection of insipid platitudes, most of which would not be considered controversial within the Tory party:
- We will always put hard-working families and their priorities first.
- If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be rewarded fairly.
- People and businesses are expected to contribute to society, as well as receive.
- Your chances in life should not be defined by the circumstances of your birth – hard work and how you contribute should matter.
- Families, communities and the things that bring us together must once again be put above individualism.
- The economy should work for citizens and communities. It is not good enough to just surrender to market forces.
- The role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise, not stifle it.
- The government should treat taxpayer money as if it were its own. The current levels of waste are unacceptable.
- The government must play its role in restoring honesty, decency and transparency in public life.
- We are proudly patriotic but we reject the divisiveness of nationalism.
The penultimate principle is of some interest. Those familiar with Starmer’s ‘Ten Pledges’ and his campaign for the Labour leadership will know that he attaches as much value to ‘honesty’ as Boris Johnson. Starmer has trashed many of the substantive policy commitments he made when he needed the votes of Labour members and has shown himself to be a liar. Again, since his lies were at the expense of the Labour left, they are largely ignored in the mainstream press. Nonetheless, it is clear that under Starmer Labour is headed toward a vacuum in terms of principles and policy. Those dedicated to a radical transformation of our society must continue to fight wherever they can—in the Labour party, in trade unions, on the streets—against Starmer and his supporters and for the cause of peace and justice.
1 This is also true of the party historically. I have written about this here: https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/back-to-basics/