Articles  •  Britain  •  TUC - Trades Union Congress

Labour Disconnected: Starmer’s strategy of non-opposition

20 October 2020

When Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader with 56.2%, of the vote, Red Flag said that the Corbyn revolution was over. With Rebecca Long Baily getting less than a third of the vote, it was plain that half of Corbyn’s 2015 and 2016 supporters had gone for Starmer in desperation – believing a former Director of Public Prosecutions would be a sure-fire election winner in 2024. And of course, in a party that historically believes winning elections is far more important than the policies you win them on this is just fine. The fact that this method gave us Blair has to be pushed to the back of the mind.

Of course Sir Keir did try to calm the left’s fears with a smattering of emollient statements:

“There’s no hiding from it. It is a devastating result, but it’s important not to oversteer. The case for a bold and radical Labour government is as strong now as it was last Thursday. We need to anchor ourselves in that.”

Plainly many members were taken in by this, hoping that he would not stray too far from Corbyn’s policies. But his victory speech made his intentions clear:

“This is a new team that will take the Labour Party forward in a new era. Under my leadership, the Labour Party will be utterly focused on working in the national interest, rebuilding people’s trust in our party and winning the next election.”

New, New, New Labour?

In the months since his elevation he repeatedly emphasised the need for a clear break with Corbynism. When Starmer taunted Boris Johnson with the claim that “the Labour Party is under new management”, the jibe was aimed at his own party membership, particularly those on the left still operating under the illusion that Starmer represented some form of continuity with Corbyism.

Starmer’s commitment to the ‘broad church’ was made plain when, having accepted a junior shadow cabinet post, Rebecca Long Bailey was sacked within two months for backing the National Education Union’s five conditions for a full opening of the schools. Meanwhile Stammer had already informed Johnson he would support the government. In fact he was actually trying to outflank them and force the teachers into schools with no adequate protection or test and trace facilities. The bogus antisemitism charge did the job of getting rid of her. No wonder Starmer is so keen on this trope – it is the gift that keeps on giving for the right wing.

Until October the new leadership refused to criticise Johnson and Rishi Sunak on the substance of their coronavirus pandemic policies, emphasising instead their muddle and incompetence. Now with all the health experts having denounced the governments ridiculous three-tier lockdowns system and with the Tories split – many calling for ‘open up and be damned’ in the middle of a second wave – he has finally plucked up the courage to call for a two-to-three week circuit breaker. 

Lo and behold the billionaire press and the BBC are utterly charmed, laying on praise for his “forensic” performances at PMQs, his responsibility, statesmanship, patriotism etc. with a trowel.   Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC MP is just the sort of opposition leader our rulers like, one who hews to their “national interest” and ignores the interests of the unions and members who get the party elected in favour of sleazy ‘cash for access’ schemes in which wealthy bosses can pay for privileged access to the party leadership.  While the Guardian’s rejoices that “the Tories cannot lay a glove on him” they the fact that he has hardly even tried to lay a glove on them.

The Disconnected Conference

Labour Connected was the sort of conference most Labour leaders dream of: no annoying speeches from the floor, no inconvenient resolutions to ignore once it was over. Just an atomised and silent audience listening to the suits droning in front of the webcam.    

The Leader’s speech launched a new slogan, replacing “For the Many Not the Few” with ‘opportunity, family and security’ –  a triad could grace any Tory manifesto, and a return to the pre-Corbyn era policy of triangulating to the right on positions of immigration, security, and the so-called ‘national interest’.

The lack of imagination and ruthless focus on small subsets of voters who play an outsized role in our undemocratic electoral system has seen the return of the Brexit policy vacuum. Starmer’s policy is to let the Tories make a mess of Brexit and let them take the blame for it:

“If the PM fails to get [a deal], he will be failing Britain. If that happens, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself. And he will have to own that failure. It will be on him”.

This Pollyanna opportunism rests on two big assumptions. Firstly, that if Johnson’s brinksmanship ends up in no deal, there’s no certainty that the Tories rather than the EU will be held responsible. Secondly, there’s no guarantee that Labour will escape unscathed from the debris.

Brexit will not just mean trouble for the Tories it will mean big trouble for working class people across the country. Severed from integrated production chains and regulatory frameworks in Europe, the British minnow will be bait on the hook of a takeit-or-leave it US trade deal. Just saying “its all their fault” without having a radical alternative will not mean a shortcut to a Labour government but a social crisis like that wracking the USA today.

 Unemcumbered by the presence of a physical membership, Starmer’s speech was free to float focus-grouped lines primed for BBC bulletins:

“We love this country as you do. This is the country I grew up in and this is the country I will grow old in. And I want it to be the country I know it can be.”

The implication that Corbyn’s lifelong opposition to wars, warmongering and racism meant that he did not love the people of this country is scandalous. In fact a nation is an “imagined community’ made up of antagonistic classes. Anyone who seeks to subordinate class to nation is subjecting the huge majority class of the nation to the tiny minority of exploiters who rule it. It also means turning your back on the allies we need, the workers in other countries. It alienates those who come to work here whether from the West Indies in the 1950s or the Europeans of the 2000s.

Over the past five years we had more than enough of this brazen chauvinism from the Brexiteers and a somewhat shamefaced version from Lexiteers. In the end Labour will never be able to out-patriot the Tories because Tory patriotism is not muddled by trying to square it with the needs of the working class, transmitted from the unions and the grassroots of the Labour Party. Labour patriotism is just poisoning the class-consciousness and internationalism that workers need to consistently defend their own interests which are diametrically opposed to those of Britain’s bosses whispering in Starmer’s ear and reflected in the pages of our billionaire media.

Starmer’s triangulating as highlighted particularly starkly during the media’s hateful panic-mongering over the migrant channel crossings this summer. Instead of condemning it outright and calling for migrants to be rescued and rehomed in dignity, the Labour leadership criticised the government for its inefficiency in securing the borders.

Of course they said it should be done in a humane way rather than Priti Patel’s plans to send the navy to patrol the Channel, to lock up those who reached Britain in disused hulks, and perhaps deport them to a speck of rock in the Atlantic.

Keir Starmer QC, the famous human rights advocate, failed to use his lawyerly skills point out that under countless international treaties people have a right to seek asylum in a country of their choice, and that those countries a duty to admit them. Labour, in pursuit of voters in the “red wall” which turned blue, is painting itself red-white-and-blue.

After abandoning refugees, many of them victims of Britain’s colonial history and 21st century wars, Starmer led the party in swallowing another bitter fruit of patriotism, by abstaining on the Overseas Service Bill. This aimed at protecting British service personnel from war crimes charges, reflecting the supreme law of patriotism – my country right or wrong.

Starmer quite cynically lured disoriented Corbyn supporters by decorating his leadership manifesto with assorted Corbyn-era  policies. These included Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution, “no more illegal wars,”  utility nationalisation, the abolition of universal credit, tuition fees, the Trade union Act, the House of Lords. And of course he would save the NHS. This was enough for the witting and unwitting to fall into line, helped along with the endorsement of luminaries like Andrew Fisher, key adviser and author of the 2017 manifesto, who claimed Starmer’s pledges were “still basically our policy programme”. The Labour left, he said, must “work constructively” the new leader and resist the temptation to go “back in our sealed tomb”.

Meanwhile from the ranks of the commentariat, Paul Mason, for two decades a Trotskyist, and more recently treading the well-worn path to social-patriotic reformism, wrote a piece entitled The Left, the Party and the Class, in which he declares himself “part of a left that wants to engage with Starmer’s project and to help shape it, defending its core agenda of climate, social and economic justice from the inevitable pushback from the party’s right”. 

Again the illusions of a journalist for the liberal papers and social media are on display. The idea that their think pieces could produce major change in Labour policy is a joke. First Starmer actually is the pushback from the party’s right. And he hasn’t finished pushing either. Secondly, Labours’ election policies will be determined by the weight of public opinion as expressed in the billionaire media, and recorded in the polls masquerading as public opinion, around the time of an election. While Corbyn was a partial if not complete exception to this, pattern, Starmer is the total embodiment of it. There is not a principle he would not sell to get into Number 10.  But journalists like Mason are weathervanes and the winds are certainly not blowing left at the moment.


From the moment Starmer abandoned teachers and students to returning to unsafe schools and universities, it has been clear that the ‘new management’s’ priority is to avoid opposing the government from the left with an alternative programme that addresses the fundamental problems exposed by the pandemic and economic crisis.

This would have had to be based on putting control of the safety of workers into their own hands, in the factories, hospitals and schools and by raising taxes on the rich to continue to pay all workers a living wage. Instead Labour has limited itself to criticising the Tories for the way they have implemented their own policies.

It should have been obvious that Rishi Sunak’s policy of using the windfall of historically low interest rates to borrow huge amounts was a process that had its limits and that a time would come when it was a matter either of raising taxes or cutting payments.

On the critical issue of furlough and job protection, Labour’s position has simply shifted in line with what the government is considering. So we have gone from demanding the furlough scheme be extended to demanding it be replaced with a targeted scheme – to supporting the government’s subsidy scheme. The TUC Leadership and big trade unions have shadowed this policy all along the line. The fight to retain the already-inadequate furlough scheme from March has been left to northern mayors and new red wall Tory MPs.

The fact is that in a deepening crisis of the economy, public health, climate, and with a new cold war developing between the older and newer imperialist powers, Labour has decided not to fight the main party of British imperialism, but to shadow it, hoping its mistakes will somehow hand it an electoral victory in several years’ time.

After the downfall of Corbyn, the Labour leadership, the shadow cabinet and the PLP sees their job as getting into partnership with capital by finding a common solution to the economic crisis and the pandemic. Hence their endless pleading for Johnson’s government to ‘work with’ the opposition. The hopes of the soft middle ground of Corbynism that “giving Keir a chance” in the hope that some of the 2017 and 2019 manifesto pledges might survive is survive is totally naïve.

Labour’s decision to vacate the field of struggle presents a sobering perspective for the next 6-12 months.

While the Labour leadership has adopted the strategic decision of not seriously opposing the government with an alternative programme, the Labour left, represented by the Socialist Campaign Group and Momentum, have decided not to oppose the Labour leadership with a programme of their own, let alone fight for leadership. Instead we have small rebellions on minor issues of principle – larded with cynical or abject pledges of loyalty and support for Starmer’s leadership.

Clearly we are right back to the days of Harriet Harman in 2015,  or the dark days of warmonger Blair when only a tiny band of rebels, isolated in the right wing  PLP,  kept to their principles. With the aid of the lockdowns internal party life will continue to be in a state of suspended animation well into next year.

So indeed the “Corbyn Revolution” is over and just at the time when a fighting party is needed more than ever – the huge wave of unemployment requires combined action by the unions and the party. But the initiative for a militant response based on organising the unemployed will have to come from below, from the branches, from building coordinating bodies at local level. Of course, if there is a revival of class struggle against mass unemployment and against making working class taxpayers foot the bill for the coronavirus crisis, left wing constituencies and the Corbynite core of the Campaign Group should be heavily involved with this.

Starmer, whatever his momentary success across the despatch box, will find his management of the party in crisis once his triangulation comes unstuck. Then the control of the right wing both in the unions and the party will be faced with a severe crisis.

We should not accept the idea that we have to tolerate five years of either Johnson or Starmer Indeed we should model ourselves of the relentless resistance that the right mounted against Corbyn from day one, not through their vile methods of slander and sabotage, but through telling the truth and developing a fighting programme based on democratic and working class control of the public health response, taxing the rich to pay for the crisis, and opposing the rise of inter-imperialist competition which can only set back the fight against the coronavirus and climate change.

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