Writing in The Times (‘Keir Starmer can’t win until he praises the Tories’, 26 December), Stephen Bush comments on the Labour leadership:
Although his Labour Party has made an astonishingly large number of granular policy announcements, most people have little idea what it stands for. That is in part because of the sheer quantity of the announcements, which have drowned each other out, but also because they are so atomised that they don’t form a bigger picture.
In other words, the policy that Labour has come up with, and which it often seems reluctant to talk about when asked, is a disordered jumble. But Bush is utterly wrong that there is no broad theme to Starmer’s politics or what he stands for. The ‘bigger picture’ is nothing more than anti-leftism, emblematised by Starmer’s decision to break pledge after pledge he made to the party members who elected him. The ‘bigger picture’ is that the Labour Party has abandoned any hope of radically redistributing wealth and power; has junked the idea of upholding human rights internationally, particularly when it comes to Palestine; and will repress party democracy and the voice of party members in astonishing ways. The most consistent aspect of Starmer’s behaviour are his repeated assaults on the left, which have often been more vicious than his opposition to the Tories. Starmer’s identity as a leader is thus almost solely defined by his opposition to the left; it is a negative political identity without positive content. His excruciatingly long essay for the Fabian Society, which was meant to set out his vision for the country, turned out to be a collection of insipid platitudes. Starmer himself encapsulated this identity better than anyone when, after spending close to two years as Leader of the Opposition, he said ‘I think that one thing the public know very well is that the Labour Party is now led by Keir Starmer, not Jeremy Corbyn, and we’re a changed party’. A ‘changed party’ indeed; a safe choice for British capital and no threat to private power. It is difficult for someone like Bush to identify this trend because the Labour left are not viewed in the mainstream as truly legitimate political actors. Thus outrageous attacks on party democracy translate into Starmer having ‘strengthened the power of Labour MPs and [making] them and him the major architects of the party’s direction, at the expense of the party’s activist base.’
Part of what is missing from the Starmer project is that broad identity. But the other thing that is missing is a Labour account of what the Tories have done well. Starmer’s Labour gives the impression that it thinks the story of the past decade is largely one of Labour failure: that the United Kingdom has elected Tory governments four times in a row for want of anything better. There isn’t yet any sense that Labour thinks that there has been anything of worth about the past decade, which you couldn’t say of Cameron or Blair. Setting out a case for Conservative success — and some vision of what about the past decade Labour would seek to preserve — is part of how Starmer’s Labour can make sure that the good feeling around Starmer is for life and not just for Christmas.
One wonders what Bush is referring to when he mentions ‘the good feeling around Starmer’. The commentariat and the people Bush hangs out with might think well of him, but YouGov polling shows that since mid-February 2021 the answer to the question ‘How well is Keir Starmer doing as Labour leader?’ has received net negative responses. A plurality of respondents (and since May, a majority) have said Starmer is doing badly for close to a year. That’s not a ‘good feeling’. Bush is more on point when he writes that ‘the turnaround in Labour’s fortunes also has very little to do with anything that [Starmer] has done.’ It appears instead that we are witnessing a public backlash at the Tories’ corruption and incontrovertible evidence of the government’s disregard for Covid-19 restrictions, which contributed to their recent humiliating defeat at the hands of the Lib Dems in the North Shropshire by-election, a seat vacated with the resignation of Tory MP Owen Paterson after he himself was implicated in a corruption scandal.
Bush’s advice is that Labour must give an ‘account of what the Tories have done well’, because Starmer seems to think Labour has failed the public for a decade. Starmer might, for instance, praise the Tories’ (and especially Boris Johnson’s) ability to repeatedly and continuously lie to the public during both the 2019 election campaign and in government, a phenomenon copiously documented by journalist Peter Oborne and others. Starmer might also praise the Tories for taking advantage of the populist wave associated with Brexit, whereas Starmer’s vocal endorsement of a second referendum policy helped destroy Labour’s electoral chances in the mostly pro-Brexit Red Wall. There is really not much to praise in Tory governance: austerity and the gutting of the welfare state, inaction on the climate crisis, cronyism and corruption, support for war crimes. So all Starmer is left with is to praise Tory duplicity, fakery and propaganda. Does Bush think Labour should celebrate that? As a matter of fact Starmer already incorporated duplicity into his 2019 leadership election campaign, and clearly does seek to emulate the Tories in various ways. Hence the phrase ‘Red Tory.’
Labour has played the game of managing capitalism and sometimes actively promoting the interests of capital since the postwar period. This strategy has not earned Labour long-term electoral success. When Labour has (very rarely) been led by someone who genuinely sought to challenge the status quo, it has faced extreme, unrelenting denunciation and internal sabotage, meaning that the strategy of fundamental change has never been given a chance. What Labour needs is a leftist leader committed to peace and justice who has the capacity to resist the machinations of the Labour right and to take on a hostile media. At that point all the party’s work is still ahead of it, but there is at least a possibility of change. Labour must do all it can to distinguish itself from the Tories, not replicate their destructive politics.
29 December 2021