An exercise in lowering expectations

By Mike Phipps

There have been several media assessments of Keir Starmer’s first year over the last few days, but few miss the mark so completely as that by Polly Toynbee in yesterday’s Guardian.

It’s a veritable bombardment of euphemisms which cannot conceal the parlous state of the Labour Party one year after his election. There is no mention of the suspension of scores of ordinary members for lengthy periods of time, often on the whim of regional officials, nor the seizing control of entire local parties in order to impose electoral candidates that grassroots members would be unlikely to vote or organise for.

Just this week, the story came to light of a candidate chosen eighteen months ago by members in Walsall who found herself suddenly deselected without explanation and replaced by the incumbent councillor whom members had already rejected.

Such behaviour is troubling to activists, who are drifting away from active involvement in the Party in numbers. But nothing has demoralised members so much as the unprecedented and ongoing decision to remove the parliamentary whip from Jeremy Corbyn.

It is understandable that Keir Starmer would want to put some distance between himself and the man he replaced, given the 2019 election result. But a competent leader would see the huge strengths that the Corbyn surge embodied and understand what an asset his predecessor could be in revitalising the Party’s grassroots following the crushing electoral defeat. Instead, Starmer has shown weakness, allowing himself to be manipulated by right wing factional elements in the Party who are more interested in score-settling than securing Labour’s future.

It’s the same elements that are now briefing against Shadow Chancellor Annelise Dodds, suggesting she should take the hit for a poor showing by Labour in next month’s electoral contests.  Rachel Reeves, who Toynbee tellingly namechecks in her article, is being touted as her replacement.

The reality is that this wing of the Party won’t be satisfied until every vestige of the previous leader’s ministerial team is purged – and that may include Starmer himself.

Again, Polly Toynbee makes no mention of these divisions. She is convinced Starmer is playing the long game and is right to do so, in conditions of national crisis where normal politics is in a state of limbo. “Starmer’s real test will come when politics resumes,” she opines.

The only problem with this analysis is that politics has not been suspended at all. The COVID pandemic is not some natural disaster above party politics. It has been chronically mismanaged from the outset – not just because of the decade-long running down of the NHS, but because of conscious decisions made over the last year that have helped run up a UK fatality rate of over 125,000.

Corruption, cronyism and complacency have characterised the government’s response to the crisis. Thousands died unnecessarily because of the pre-Christmas official advice and because of its failure to listen to teachers and local councils about the spread of the virus in schools. Even now, a year in, there is still no adequate test and trace system, no functioning support for isolation nor quarantining for the thousands of people who enter the country daily. Placing all hope in a programme of vaccination may be insufficient when new vaccine-resistant strains develop.

Unlike the previous leadership, Starmer took the view that maintaining a systematic critique of the government’s recklessness over COVID would alienate voters. But in stepping back, he has allowed Boris Johnson a free pass and the daily bungles go unchallenged.

Nor has electoral politics been suspended. While Starmer has been trying to read the national mood, the Tories have been fighting a culture war against their enemies, with the intensified demonization of migrants and the skewed conclusion of the Sewell Report and its denial of institutional racism. On top of that, the spycops bill, the overseas operation bill and now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill all undermine the foundations of the rule of law and democracy. Keir Starmer’s response seems to be to calculate how patriotic he needs to look to win back support in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats. This micro-positioning convinces no-one. Labour’s poll ratings are tumbling and it could lose the Hartlepool by-election.

Starmer won the leadership a year ago, as Andrew Fisher has argued, for three main reasons: the priority of Party unity, the promise of competent leadership and continuity with the popular policies of the Corbyn era.

Party unity has been shredded. Policy continuity is clearly in jeopardy:  with no annual conference last year, shadow ministers have been free to move the agenda where they wish. In failing on these two, Starmer’s credentials as a competent leader are looking very flimsy.

Keir Starmer is not the Party’s first leader to look the part before getting the job, only to be overwhelmed by it in office. Think of Neil Kinnock, or Ed Miliband. Miliband in his day showed great promise: there was a surge in membership with his election as leader. He was popular in the unions and among members who had opposed the Iraq war. But very quickly, he succumbed to the agenda of the powerful right wing apparatus of the Party, pushing austerity, and in the 2015 election, those anti-immigration mugs.

The leaked report, which emerged a year ago this week, and is still being investigated by an NEC-appointed panel, revealed just how ruthlessly Party officials treated not just Jeremy Corbyn, but also Ed Miliband, Sadiq Khan, Emily Thornberry and a host of other more moderate Labour politicians. Any new leader who wants to stamp their authority on the Party and politics generally will have to confront this behaviour, signs of which have re-emerged under the current regime.

Polly Toynbee doesn’t see this and prefers to give Keir Starmer a glowing report card. His achievements include taking control of the national executive, installing a serious shadow cabinet and “a strong new leader in Scotland.”

Next month’s elections to the Scottish Parliament will be an opportunity to assess the wisdom of that move. Toynbee concedes that “the local elections may yield weak results.” To a great extent, her entire piece reads like an exercise in lowering expectations ahead of what could be an electoral disaster for Labour.

After summarising Starmer’s accomplishments, Toynbee adds gratuitously, “Naturally the Corbynites don’t like it.” 

But it isn’t just ‘Corbynites’ who are bitterly disappointed by the last year. Many of the members who voted for him – as well as the candidates running next month and the activists working hard for them – feel  profoundly let down by the landslide winner who promised a unifying way forward and has delivered so little.

And ironically, it won’t be so-called Corbynites who will be on the offensive against him and his shadow cabinet picks after May 5th but the unrepentant Blairite right who have already begun their hostile media briefings. Perhaps Keir Starmer’s ‘long game’ won’t be allowed the time it needs to vindicate him.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand; Author: Rwendland; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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