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Labour’s setbacks are the fruits of Keir Starmer’s listless shamble in the direction of centrism – Andrew Murray on #Elections2021

“It has been a rare opportunity for radicalism.  Instead, Starmer’s Labour has been a study in political constipation.  His leadership has been marked by nothing except a fervent desire to establish that he is NOT Jeremy Corbyn, to the extent of trying to hound the person who actually is Jeremy Corbyn out of the party.”

By Andrew Murray

Labour’s setbacks in the recent local elections are the fruits of Keir Starmer’s listless shamble in the direction of centrism over the last year.  This has without doubt made a challenging situation for Labour, rooted in social changes it has barely begun to grapple with, worse. 

The answer to the setback, we are now told by a siren chorus from the New Labour past, is a more vociferous and purposeful march in the same direction.  Millions of people remember only too well that at the end of that road lies imperialist war and economic collapse. 

The attempt to blame Corbyn for the results is pitiful.  While Corbyn’s Labour lost votes heavily in one direction in 2019 – working-class communities across the midlands and the north who felt Labour’s u-turn on respecting the 2016 Breixt vote was a betrayal too far – Starmer has managed to lose them in two:  a further haemorrhage in the ex-industrial areas and also, significantly, to the Greens in many metropolitan areas. 

At best, Labour has wasted the last year – a year in which Britain like the rest of the world has suffered the trauma of a pandemic and prolonged lockdowns, economic slump and social dislocation.  A year in which the government has bungled almost every aspect of the response to Coronavirus, the significant exception of the vaccination programme aside, and has focussed on enriching its friends and stoking up “culture wars” that almost no-one was looking for.  And a year in which the totality of the programme Labour offered in 2019 – dubbed as irrelevant and unaffordable at the time – has never looked more appropriate. 

It has been a rare opportunity for radicalism.  Instead, Starmer’s Labour has been a study in political constipation.  His leadership has been marked by nothing except a fervent desire to establish that he is NOT Jeremy Corbyn, to the extent of trying to hound the person who actually is Jeremy Corbyn out of the party.  Starmer has mobilised such energy as he can assemble in hounding not the Tories but constituency parties and activists up and down the country. 

The fruits of this were gathered in on May 6.  Those of us – author included – who argued that Starmer should be given a chance, and that the Left would be foolish to respond to his election as the right did to Corbyn’s now have the right to say it is time for a reset. 

The case could not be put better than it was in the words of Paul Dennett after his re-election as Mayor of Salford:  “Red wall voters have not moved away from the Labour party. The Labour party has moved away from them… 

“There is a path Labour can take which unites our traditional voters with young, and new voters. It is a path which isn’t ashamed of our party’s radical roots, which taps into our history and tradition, which puts forward a progressive and dynamic vision for a new and inclusive economy in the future. It’s a path which is socialist in its core. 

“The ‘centre ground’ no longer exists as it once did. The public now expect us to pick a side and articulate a bold, ambitious and progressive vision for the future, which tackles poverty, inequality, whilst placing the needs of working people and families at its core.” 

There is indeed such a path – it is the path of 2017, and the coalition assembled under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, a coalition which represented forty per cent of the electorate, a share of the vote Keir Starmer can only dream of at present.  It is remarkable that his personal ratings as Leader are now worse than Corbyn’s given that he not had to endure the smallest fraction of the media and parliamentary abuse that Corbyn endured. 

Some Labour politicians get it – Mark Drakeford in Wales (home to a large number of ex-industrial communities where Labour improved its position) as well as Burnham and Dennett in Greater Manchester.   Burnham’s success incidentally exposes the shallowness of the argument that the pandemic has stopped Starmer setting out his stall.  It has been the making of the Greater Manchester leader.  A progressive, fighting approach, showing people that Labour is on their side gets results. 

This approach also recognises why the Tories presently appear strong.  It is because they have abandoned some of the dogmas of Thatcherism, if not its class focus, in favour of a sort of Heseltine-ism, which prioritises state intervention to patch up the worst consequences of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, it has stolen social democracy’s traditional clothes as the party which uses the sovereignty, power and resources of the nation-state to address social problems.  Ben Houchem, the massively-endorsed Tory Mayor of Tees Valley exemplifies this new interventionism. 

Johnson’s strategy may well turn out to be all fur coat and no knickers – so far it is at least nine parts rhetoric – and we can be sure that his flirtation with statism will not trespass on private property or social hierarchy but rather be aimed at their reinforcement.  But that is no reason for a denuded social democracy to stubbornly remain naked, as Tony Blair urged in the New Statesman where he continues to insist on a small state together with running up the white flag in the so-called culture wars. 

In my view the “war on woke” is only making the smallest contribution to Tory strength.  Most people are little exercised by the obsessions of Tory columnists, and banging on about statues and the “cancellation” of obscure academics may serve a purpose in maintaining the cohesion of the Tory party and preventing the emergence of a “cultural UKIP” to its right, but it does not float many voters’ boats.  The issue rather is whether the nation-state can still be a centre for democratic intervention and social amelioration.  On this, Labour has been sending the wrong signals for years, from new Labour’s uncritical embrace of capitalist globalisation to the more recent infatuation with the European Union which gripped the party membership but not its electorate. 

Blair’s misdirection is not the only blast from the New Labour past in the wake of the elections.  Proving that there can be life after being buried at a crossroads at midnight with a mouthful of garlic and a stake through the heart, Lord Mandelson eased himself off whatever oligarch’s yacht he was cruising on to announce that it was all Corbyn’s fault and that the answer was to disencumber Labour of the trade unions via another round of party reform.   

Mandelson is fond of describing Labour’s electoral record over the last forty years thus:  Lose-lose-lose-lose-Blair-Blair-Blair-lose-lose-lose-lose.  It is not the most helpful contribution, unless the proposal is to embalm Tony Blair and wheel him out to be adored every election.  

But the record could equally well be rendered as lose-lose-attack the left-lose-lose-war-slump-lose x 4.  And now rinse and repeat.  The fact that Mandelson will not learn from history is no reason for the movement to be doomed to repeat it.  It was said by Tony Blair that his mission would only be complete when the Labour Party “learned to love Peter Mandelson”.  Since that day is no longer anticipated, Mandelson is instead trying once more to make an end of the unloving Labour Party, at least as historically constituted.  His main demand since the elections has been to break or further dilute the trade union link to the Party, an objective he has been pursuing for around forty years. 

That may not happen.  But clearly the hard right in Labour see this as the moment to establish their unchallenged hegemony over Starmer, probably as a prelude to pushing him aside when they can be confident of winning any subsequent leadership election.  They do not seem to be planning for the distribution of portfolios in a Starmer administration, and on that they are on the right side of the psephology at present. 

However, they have not got off to a good start with the botched political execution of Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader and, for all vacillations, still seen as on the left.  Indeed, she is one of the very few Labour politicians who can honestly claim to have been completely loyal to both Corbyn and then Starmer in turn.  Her fire-and-rehire treatment exposed both the spite and the post-election weakness of the Starmer team, in particular the hard right advisors he has selected to crew his office. 

The Left need not despair.  As noted, its policy prescriptions have never seemed more relevant and, thanks to the lethargy of the present leadership, they have the field to themselves.  Its main focus needs to be on uniting, not refighting the wars of the Corbyn period, and bringing together the biggest coalition of Labour members and trade unionists behind a socialist agenda.

MP Portraits Project in The Reasons Room..

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