Pat Stack discusses Starmer’s attacks on Corbyn and his legacy, and the question of what attitude socialists should take to the Labour Party’s rightward lurch and a potential Starmer government.
Keir Starmer at the World Economic Forum. Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell, Flickr 2023
It is hard to remember a time when the Tories have been in a more shambolic mess than they are now. They are, at this point, in an even worse situation than during the dying days of John Major’s government, drowning as it was in sleaze, scandal and division. We have seen three prime ministers in the last 12-months; a compulsively lying charlatan, a bug-eyed ideologue, and now Rishi Sunak, a man so rich that he is out of touch with most people’s lives, and who has little support in his own party.
After 13 years of austerity and racism, the poor at the sharp end while the super-rich get even richer, the scale of the cost-of-living crisis seems to have shifted public attitudes decisively. Millions are relieved by a sense this is a government on its knees, dead in the water, and are lifted by the fantastic wave of strikes by workers who have had enough and will take no more.
One sensed the mood change very quickly, personified by RMT leader Mick Lynch’s emergence into the media spotlight. The Tories and their buddies in the media thought they could just rerun their decades old anti-union guff and that would be that.
To their horror, they found that Lynch was running rings around his interviewers and would-be character assassins. Worse, they found that this went down very well with the public. Despite attempts to blame the unions for the country’s ills, people hold the government responsible for the mess the country is in.
If they couldn’t effectively demonise rail workers, their chance of pulling it off against nurses, ambulance workers, or teachers was slim to none. Suddenly, all that hypocritical ‘clapping’ from Tories for essential workers during the Covid-19 lockdowns was coming back to bite them.
The language Lynch and others are using is striking a chord. One man not using this language or anything like it, though, is Keir Starmer. It is hard to remember a less inspiring, more insipid Labour leadership.
No doubt some wonks have advised, say as little as possible, do as little as possible, and avoid controversy at all costs and victory will be yours. Yet we live in a situation of real crisis. The Tories must go, but people desperately want and need more than a ‘safe pair of hands’ who will handle the current shit show a little less shittilly!
Starmer was elected Labour leader following the collapse of the Corbyn project, a collapse that he, in a very underhanded way, played a big part in. Such was the dishonest nature of his betrayal, that in the leadership election of 2020 he said Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto would be the ‘foundational document’ of Labour under his leadership. Labour would remain committed to nationalisation, tax hikes for the rich, scrapping tuition fees, scrapping the bedroom tax and so on. He persuaded many Corbyn supporters he was the least bad option to succeed Corbyn as leader.
Once elected, he abandoned all these commitments. Instead, concentrating his fire on Labour’s left wing, Starmer excluded Corbyn from the party, rigged MP selection processes, and purged his shadow cabinet of the left. He recently announced that Corbyn could not run as a Labour candidate at the next election, and declared anyone who disagreed was free to leave. Many who voted for Starmer have since left in disgust, as membership of the party haemorrhaged.
Although it seems most likely Labour will form the next government, you sense little real enthusiasm for Starmer. It is not just that he doesn’t present the 2017 vision or anything vaguely like it as an alternative to the austerity diehards or tax-cutting dogmatists that dominate the two wings of a divided Tory Party, but he also fails to support those who are standing up to those Tories.
His pathetic response to the strikes, has swung from the awful to the abstentionist. Initially, he clearly thought the strikes would be unpopular and issued instructions that MPs shouldn’t join picket lines, and sacked a shadow cabinet member who did so. However, he quickly found that he was being ignored by many.
The popularity of the strikes led him to drop the overtly hostile line, but of course his main aim, apart from getting elected, is to show the British capitalist class that he is a safe pair of hands. So, when he or any of his shadow cabinet are asked if they support the demands of, say, nurses, and if a Labour government would pay them, they repeat the ‘negotiations’ mantra. They don’t want to say nurses aren’t worth a 10 percent pay rise, but they are equally desperate to say to big business and the City that they will put the interests of capital first.
For this reason, socialists are confronted with a dilemma. Most working-class people quite rightly can’t wait to see the end of this Tory government, and the logical way of doing this, in England and Wales at least, is by voting Labour.
Yet the depth of the crisis and the incredible hardships people are facing cannot be solved by Starmer’s weak platform. His recently announced ‘five missions’ around economic growth, green energy, healthcare, ‘safe streets’ and removing barriers to opportunity, are a vague wish list, not a statement of intent. With no concrete plans for radical reform, he ultimately promises business as usual.
In a period of ideological mayhem in the Tory Party, sections of British capital instead see Starmer’s ‘moderation’ as a sane and safe alternative. This can lead to the conclusion that the two parties have become identical, and socialists should treat both with equal contempt.
Things aren’t quite that simple, though. It’s not so much what they do or say as what they represent that matters.
While on a formal level you can say well ‘at least Labour won’t be dominated by a hard-right, socially reactionary rabble’ you also have to issue a health warning.
So whilst it would be hoped that, for instance, the viciously racist Rwanda deportation policy would be dropped, anyone with experience of Labour governments know they can be truly awful when it comes to issues of race and immigration.
They won’t fight the ‘culture wars’ with the zeal of a Dories, Badenoch, Braverman or Patel, but you have only to witness the unwillingness of Starmer to back the Scottish Government around the question of gender recognition reform to imaging how he would react to a major scare in the Mail or Telegraph.
The history of Labour governments is scattered with strike-breaking, cuts in public expenditure, reactionary immigration laws, jingoistic foreign policy. Even the Atlee government, by far the most reforming and successful, was guilty of many of these things.
What is different between the parties are the people who join them, the people who support them, the people who vote for them, the people who in the main fund them.
Labour’s funding still overwhelmingly comes from the unions. Much as Blair hated the fact, and Starmer no doubt still does, they need the money. It is good to see the likes of Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, telling them they can no longer take this for granted, that there is a quid pro quo.
As for members and supporters, it is doubtful if on the recent picket lines you would have found many who describe themselves as Tories; the vast majority will be pro-Labour, and regardless of how angry and disappointed they are with Starmer, will vote Labour at the next election.
They have a vision of a better world, based on fairness, greater equality, a government more active in defending public services and keeping them out of the hands of greedy profiteers. Tory voters and supporters will believe none of these things.
Even amongst MPs the difference is clear – after all, Starmer had to warn his MPs to stay off picket lines, and some ignored him. This was not a warning Sunak had to issue!
Of course, there is an argument to be had with those Labour supporters about why Labour consistently fail. We must convince those that flocked to the party to support the Corbyn project that Starmer has killed that project within Labour, and a new alternative outside of Labour desperately needs to be built.
As we approach the general election, there will have to be an argument against the idea that we should avoid strike action to make it more likely Labour will be elected, and to not wage struggle once Labour is in office. We will need to assert that the interests of workers will best be protected under any government by fighting and winning these struggles.
It’s therefore vitally important that socialists don’t turn our backs on all these workers, activists, and Labour supporters, by simply saying ‘they’re all as bad as each other’. This is the tide socialists need to swim in, to respond to people who want to see the back of the Tories but still have some hope in Labour, whilst making it clear that a genuine, socialist alternative is sorely needed.