Recent books on the Corbyn project have highlighted the disorganised chaos that plagued Labour in the run-up and during the 2019 election. The new Labour leader, Keir Starmer, does not appear disorganised, but he is using the chaos of the pandemic to mould Labour in a more conservative image.
His Leader’s Speech to Labour Connected [Labour’s online mini-conference, 19-22 September] made it clear that the Starmer of just a few months ago, with his 10 pledges, his commitment to Labour’s more radical manifestos, and his campaign video starting with his support for the miners’ strike, might as well have been a different generation.
“When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. You don’t look at the electorate and ask them, ‘What were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask, ‘What were we doing?’” For Starmer that does not mean looking at the failures of Corbynism to mobilise the membership and become a campaigning movement of the kind that could galvanise workers’ struggle. Nor does it represent a rethink on Brexit, where Starmer is now on Corbyn’s old line of promising Labour will be defter Brexit-negotiators than the Tories.
Starmer has set out to present himself as a kinder, gentler patriot, against Johnson’s harder-right bluster.
Now, the Corbyn leadership made “more police on the streets than the Tories” its main pitch for a long time, and its 2017 manifesto, promising to end freedom of movement with Europe, was substantively colder on migrant rights than Labour had been for decades.
It is a myth of the Corbyn loyalists that Starmer is making a complete break from a firmly internationalist and radically anti-statist past. Starmer is building on ground already laid. But building high.
At its 2019 conference, Labour backed freedom of movement and swung to probably the most radical and democratic policy on immigration in its history. Now Starmer appeals to patriotism and to a vision that criticises Corbyn as unable to convince the electorate that he was not a threat to Britain. “I want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in.”
Those are not the words of an internationalist (which country do we want to be worse?) Unlike Paul Mason in the New Statesman, or Rebecca Long-Bailey during the leadership contest, we do not think those nationalist ideas can be reclaimed by the left. Or that we should try.
As if to spell out what Starmer’s speech meant, the Labour leadership whipped MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill, which gives “statutory presumption against prosecution” once five years are past to all the military who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Tories claim that vexatious legal claims being made against soldiers for actions undertaken in conflict, but the Bill will allow British soldiers to avoid prosecution for war crimes and torture.
Only 19 Labour MPs rebelled and voted against it. Three of them lost their junior roles on the frontbench as a result of voting against the Tories.
Starmer has used the virus emergency and the consequent suppression of meetings to accelerate a shift to the right. Decision-making local meetings, online only, are only just restarting in the party. The left must use them to organise against this turn.
Conference must be the sovereign body that decides Labour policy. Let’s organise to stop the leadership from pushing out conference policies in favour of playing a junior role in Johnson’s “culture war”.