This piece is a response to Joe O’Toole’s piece “Starmer’s critics were right — but need new tactics”. In the piece, O’Toole (a Labour member who voted for Starmer to be leader in 2020) expresses his frustrations with the current leadership and sympathies with some of Starmer’s most vocal Leftist critics. This is a wider response to Labour’s current predicament, I would also recommend you follow him on Twitter.
The term “Red Wall” (invented by the Tory strategist James Kanagasooriam) haunts the Labour Party still to this day — just over a year after its defeat in the 2019 general election. Any mention of the “Red Wall” poses for Labour a fundamental problem — how can the party ever hope to reclaim power again without its traditional vote in the Labour heartlands? Ever since Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation this question has posed an almost existential question to the party itself.
There have always been factional disputes in Labour (and as long as the FPTP voting system exists in England there always will be). Socialists will always point to the unexpected gains in the 2017 election as a vindication of “Corbynism” and likewise the centre-Left/the Blair centre will always cite Blair’s three victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 as proof that the New Labour thesis was (and still is) electable. However, in the face of a Conservative government that enjoys popular support from the public and which governs in a techno-populist way (“Get Brexit Done!”) the Left has never seemed more helpless — more immobile — and (if I dare to suggest it) sadly irrelevant.
Is radical change even possible? Is O’Toole right to lament how Starmer promised in the 2020 leadership contest socialist policies when he has not delivered them today? Is this merely a crisis of visionary leadership or a wider cultural issue with how the Left is institutionally perceived by those not aware of (or even indifferent to) the party bureaucracy and current state of Leftist politics?
Nihilistic? — possibly… but only because the current state of affairs is: a divided Left that is going through (let’s face it) a bit of an identity crisis and a nationalist Right that has never been this strong — a Right that has freed itself from Parliamentary checks and balances and which panders to exceptionalist attitudes about nation, racial and economic inequality.
Hardeep Matharu (easily one of my favourite writers on politics today) is attentive to the sadopopulist reality of what we see on an almost daily basis now, describing how — “The problem is it’s not just a case of English exceptionalism; an act of mere attention-seeking or an exercise in rebellion. It is an exceptionalism of an elite which claims it is anti-elite. It is a reflection of an imperialist belief system, rooted in our institutions and culture, which has found a renaissance in Brexit Britain — a place where imagined myths of the past flourish and divisive structural distinctions based on class and race remain entrenched. In which an Eton and Oxford-educated former journalist who was sacked as a reporter for making up lies and has referred to minorities as “letterboxes” and “piccaninnies” nevertheless exudes an air of pomp and privileged confidence; an entitlement which in the eyes of many makes him fit to rule.” (Matharu, 2020)
It was the French theorist Roland Barthes who argued that Myth “is a system of communication […[ it is a mode of signification” (Barthes, 1973, p. 117) that we refer to in the search for comfortable narratives that reassure us of our place (not merely in the world) but in time. Every action can signify a ‘common sense’ — and it is with the myth of Brexit Britain that the Right has imposed its political discourse on all of us. A discourse which even Starmer is aware of (clearly in his fascination with the flag and in his avoiding “culture war” issues. Whatever the detail, I believe that it is undeniable that this myth which the Left itself failed to challenge during the Brexit years of 2016–19 is now what we are dealing with.
The “Red Wall” issue clearly worries Starmer, this is evident in the leaked memo to The Guardian a few months ago: “make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”” (Chakrabortty & Elgot, 2021) However these issues cannot be solved just by the party’s image but instead by an ambitious strategy that makes Labour a force of strategic will. O’Toole is wrong to say that Starmer’s critics are vindicated; they had a vision (which they excessively indulged in time and time again) and lost the gains they had built on in 2017. Moreover, it is an infantile response on the socialists part to blame 2019 on the second referendum policy — both O’Toole and myself are remainers (true, O’Toole is a socialist and I am not) but we both voted (I think) for Corbyn on both occasions and recognize the extent to which the State has a role to play on issues such as the economy and the climate crisis.
I don’t agree with O’Toole on Starmer. Why?
- Keir Starmer has been received better by the general public than his two predecessors (although that is now coming to its end) — the first few months were not bad and I, unlike others, remain more than willing to give him another year to prove his worth as leader. At worst, he lacks the political instinct and ambition that is demanded from a leader. That being said, mistakes have been made…
- Whereas Corbyn was a populist who thought he could defeat the populism of the Right with an economic populism (“For the many not the few”) Starmer’s five years as a Parliamentarian establish him as a pragmatic technocrat — somebody who approaches political issues as a competent manager which is important but it is not enough.
- To say Starmer has made no visionary appeal to the public is wrong; his speech on the 18th of February was poorly received despite being actually quite good: an Atlee-esque case for an entrepreneurial state (which reminded me of Mazzucato’s work) in which he insisted “I believe there’s a mood in the air which we don’t detect often in Britain. It was there in 1945, after the sacrifice of war, and it’s there again now. It’s the determination that our collective sacrifice must lead to a better future.” (Starmer, 2021). Juxtaposing his Hutton-esque support for a Stakeholder Capitalism against the forty-year old myth of neoliberalism was a promising start. But the public need to hear more.
Unfortunately, pitches made by Starmer are not being developed into a more cohesive strategy and that is a worry.
The continuing delight from some in internal division amongst the centre-Left and the socialists is also worrying.
And while all of this is going on, the Conservatives are clearly playing with the idea of an early 2023 election after they scrap the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
Much of the punditry is reactionary to Starmer’s Labour. Now there are fundamental issues I have with Labour (my position right now is almost similar to my position on Corbyn three years ago) There is too much complacency, there is too much resentment — I will gladly support Labour in the upcoming elections but the incompetency over internal affairs is just ridiculous and on this I agree with O’Toole.
So leave the punditry aside — the usual ‘politicians are all the same’ fluff and read pieces like Paul Mason’s “The Left, the Party and the Class” which I believe is more or less spot on in terms of a driven strategy for the Left (even if I am questionable of Mason’s class analysis — is class theory really applicable to the situation we are in today? Eg., the belief not from Mason but others that Red Wall voters would always vote Labour and never Tory) and another piece I would recommend is Paul Waugh’s masterful sketch of the reaction to Starmer in “A Year of Keir”. Waugh shares accounts of Starmer not as the Blairite schemer on a war against the Left as some claim but instead as “an absolutely conspicuously decent, able person” (Waugh, 2021) who is “incredibly inexperienced in politics and in some ways very separate from politicians” (Waugh, 2021).
If Starmer does manage to go on his country tour this year to talk to voters across the country before Labour Party Conference then that could have the potential to be promising — one shadow cabinet member is quoted as saying that on a visit to London Ambulance Service, “He’s got that trait that some American politicians have of remembering details of people’s lives, their kids, and asking after them when he sees them again. That’s a real skill and it shows he has a natural empathy with people.” (Waugh, 2021)
Obviously Starmer is going to need more than this but my point is that the Tories want to present the Labour movement as a totally ideological part of the country that are intolerant of a shared national identity which apparently the Tories embody. They want to caricature Labour as a party that sees itself as a revolutionary force in politics — a party that is self-indulgent, reckless with the economy and resentful of those who hold different politics. Starmer needs to break this perception and of course centre-Leftists and socialists need each other to prevent this myth from being widely-accepted by the public.
I had hoped that Starmer would move Labour away from the internal conflict between Socialism or Blairism onto a new political destiny — one that was more communal, more reflective of the country and of the need to be internationalist. This had not happened with Brexit and that was a huge shame. The very people whom O’Toole is sympathising with in his piece may say they have a vision but I don’t believe so. All they hold is the poverty of an idea. They are as Jean Baudrillard once wrote “constantly forced to exonerate itself from being in power and to sacrifice itself, as it has often done, on the altar of the Right” (Baudrillard, 2014, p. 141).
Harsh? Yes but not without reason to be so. The legacy of Corbyn will always be the feeling of almost winning in 2017 — it was a great feeling but that ended when Corbyn, in defiance of any political sense, finally agreed to Johnson’s proposal of a winter election two years later. Corbyn had Johnson exactly where he wanted him and he let him go. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that that was an incredible mistake and in an ironic way sealed the fate for the Left today. Principles but no political instinct.
Starmer needs a strategy and fast. That much is clear — the verdicts by poll, indifferent vox pop and latest column from his critics will only get worse if he does not fix the atrocious state of his party’s communications, or if he gives speeches in empty rooms that sound nice but lack substance. The next few months will be a test of his political character. The stakes are high — coming out of the pandemic (which I appreciate has made his introduction to the public difficult) Labour should review each policy through the central plan for a national Green New Deal to tackle the climate crisis. It needs local links to the areas and local communities which feel either let down or dismissive of the Labour Party as a political organisation and should encourage a culture of positive discussion and inclusive involvement, away from the bureaucracy of New Labour or factionalism of leftist populism. If Starmer fails, then the only way to deny the Tories another damaging majority will be a cross-party electoral pact whenever the next election will be.
I admire O’Toole’s involvement in internal Labour matters (he has more determination and stamina than I could ever hope to have) but he is absolutely right that if you ever want to change things then you will have to do it from the inside. Outside you’re having no impact at all and that’s not political activism. However I believe he is wrong in totally exonerating Starmer’s most vocal critics on the populist Left as being vindicated. The Labour Party does not need to switch back to another failed orthodoxy — it must become something different, only then can power be in its grasp.
You can read Joe O’Toole’s original piece here: https://josephotoole.medium.com/starmers-critics-were-right-but-need-new-tactics-5dcdc7c4252f
Barthes, R. Mythologies. Translated by A. Lavers. London: Paladin.
Baudrillard, J. (2014) The Divine Left. Translated by D.L. Sweet. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Chakrabortty, A & Elgot, J. (2021) “Leak reveals Labour plan to focus on flag and patriotism to win back voters”, in The Guardian. [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/02/labour-urged-to-focus-on-flag-and-patriotism-to-win-voters-trust-leak-reveals (Accessed: 7 April 2021).
The Labour Party. (2021) “Full text of Keir Starmer speech on A New Chapter for Britain”. [Online]. Available at: https://labour.org.uk/press/full-text-of-keir-starmer-speech-on-a-new-chapter-for-britain/ (Accessed: 7 April 2021).
Matharu, H. (2020) “Beyond Exceptional: The Etonian English Imperialism at the Heart of a Deadly COVID-19 Crisis”, in Byline Times. [Online]. Available at: https://bylinetimes.com/2020/06/05/beyond-exceptional-the-etonian-english-imperialism-at-the-heart-of-a-deadly-covid-19-crisis/ (Accessed: 7 April 2021).
Waugh, P. (2021) “A Year Of Keir: Can Starmer Inject More Passionate Politics Into His Leadership?”, in HuffPost. [Online]. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/year-of-keir-part-1-jittery-mps-politics-and-passion_uk_606654ccc5b6aa24bc60a48d (Accessed: 7 April 2021).