By Tom Wood
Tony Blair has been the model by which to measure subsequent Labour leaders since his roaring electoral success over the Tory party in 1997. Unsurprisingly, the mention of Blair is never too far from talk surrounding Keir Starmer. Starmer is attempting to distance the party from the radicalism associated with the leadership of the recent past, a task executed to great effect by Blair in his day. George Galloway even made a direct comparison, labelling Starmer as Blair “without the laughs”.
However, the substantive comparisons mostly end there. If you place Starmer into the wider history of Labour leadership, beyond the 1997 watershed, it appears that he is kick-starting the same centrist revolution spearheaded by the Welsh firebrand and former Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Starmer has utilised suspensions, much in the same way as Neil Kinnock did with expulsions, as a means of excising left opposition from the party. It should be noted that it was Michael Foot who first attempted to expel the editorial board of the Militant Tendency. However, it was Kinnock who extended the purge during his speech at the 1985 Labour Party Conference.
In doing this, Kinnock sought to address the memory of the radical left in the Party in the minds of the electorate and the press. Arguably, Starmer is utilising suspensions as a means of achieving the same ends. This is seen in his brutal campaign against various staunch socialists who occupy positions as secretaries and chairs in their CLPs. Starmer, like Kinnock, has demonstrated that he possesses a vision for the Labour Party where electoral victory comes at the expense of the memberships of those deemed too far left to be marketable.
Both Starmer and Kinnock inherited the Labour Party when it had a reputation for high taxes and high spending. In order to address this, Starmer has echoed Kinnock by attempting to demonstrate that Labour is pro-business by distancing his leadership from left-wing economic reform. In his Policy Review, Kinnock effectively watered down Labour’s left-wing economic policies. This was materialised in the 1987 Labour Party Manifesto which saw Labour scale back its commitment to public ownership of BT and British Gas which had been privatised by Thatcher.
Kinnock was also very vocal about his new brand of ‘realist’ economic policies. In 1989 he made it clear that “stringent controls on both scale and balance of spending are vital.” In the present day, we have Starmer making the same signals that Labour under his leadership will be pro-business. Starmer has not held back in vocalizing his support for business, stating that “the Labour Party, under my leadership, is very clearly pro-business… we’re more than pro-business. We want a partnership with business.” Actions do speak louder than words, and Starmer’s capitulation to the interests of business over the interests of the 99% became even clearer in February when he opposed any new tax on businesses as a part of the COVID recovery budget.
Starmer has also distanced his leadership from the trade unions, once again mirroring steps taken by Kinnock to make Labour appear more electable. This is because the right-wing press has a penchant for slandering Labour’s relationship with the trade unions, often portraying Labour as in the pocket of the unions. This couldn’t be further from the truth but Starmer, much like Kinnock, has attempted to address this fallacy through tangible action.
Notably, Kinnock distanced his leadership from the miners’ strike in 1984, only delivering lukewarm support by stating that there was a “case for coal”. Empty words, to be expected from an empty, opportunistic leadership. In the 1992 Manifesto, it was made clear that Labour would not support mass or flying pickets. Now take Starmer’s response to the teachers’ unions in February and the similarities between him and Kinnock once again become clear.
Starmer publicly announced that he was opposed to teachers taking strike action in response to the government’s back-to-school plan. He stated this despite the fact nine teachers’ unions declared that it would be “reckless” to open schools on the planned date of 8th March. In more recent news, according to a tweet put out by Howard Beckett, Starmer has refused to sign Unite’s letter demanding an end to the ‘fire and rehire’ tactics used by employers to rehire employers on less pay. With Starmer now looking like a shadow Kinnock, it becomes almost comical that Beckett was suspended from the Labour Party shortly after.
The similarities become all the more coherent once you consider the contexts within which Starmer and Kinnock ascended to their leadership positions. Kinnock had become leader in 1983 after a staggering election defeat which Labour had suffered under the leadership of Michael Foot. Foot was perceived to be a leader who was out of touch with the new realities of society in Britain and was deemed too radical for office. Thus, Kinnock had the task of making Labour electable once again in the eyes of the public and believed that dragging Labour to the centre-ground was the way to achieve this.
If this sounds familiar, it is because in 2019, 36 years after that, almost the exact same scenario transpired after the apparently out of touch and radical Jeremy Corbyn apparently led Labour to a crushing election defeat and thus a more moderate, electable leader was needed. Much like Kinnock, Starmer rode the train car of socialism and hopped off it once he achieved the Labour leadership, quickly shedding his socialist façade.
Ironically for Kinnock, all the damage he did to the inner workings of the Labour Party in order to improve its electability was in vain as he never did secure an election victory. He failed to achieve a victory while Margaret Thatcher opened the floodgates to free market capitalism and permitted it to ravage the country. The need for socialism had never been clearer, yet Kinnock found this the perfect time to distance Labour from the very principles that would have improved society.
Presently we have Starmer repeating the same pattern and mistakes. All of the in-fighting he has started in order to make Labour more electable has proved fruitless. In Hartlepool, where there was a clear demand for socialist principles according to a poll done by Unite, Labour was dealt a devastating loss.
Distancing Labour from socialism is not the answer. Now more than ever, Labour should be leaning into its socialist character as that is what sets us apart from the rest of the parties. To paraphrase a quote from Dennis Skinner when he was criticising the centrist policies of Kinnock: we all know that those who stay in the middle of the road will be run down. We must fight to stay on the left and never veer from it.
Tom Wood is a student at the University of Birmingham, a member of the Labour Party and of Unite.
Image: Neil Kinnock, Glenys Kinnock and Bryan Gould in 1992. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotografiejc/7207045580/. Author: John Chapman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
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