Is Starmer doing enough to win?

Michael Calderbank reviews Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, by Mike Phipps, published by OR Books

Whilst of course the British Labour Party didn’t win the 2017 election, the members who had supported the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn felt to a large extent vindicated – the Tories had been deprived of their majority and the ‘moderates’ who predicted electoral apocalypse were forced to eat their words as Labour saw the biggest swing in its favour at any election since the landslide win of 1945.  As a recent independent report commissioned by his successors has confirmed, this was achieved despite the active complicity of senior Party officials in redirected spending away from democratically agreed campaign priorities towards the constituencies of their own factional allies.

Far from causing the Party’s support to plummet, as Corbyn’s opponents had predicted, the leak of the radical proposals contained in the manifesto entitled “For the Many” was warmly received by broad sections of the electorate.  A majority of Labour MPs may only months previously have declared they had “no confidence” in Corbyn but were mostly chastened by the result, whilst the mood amongst the membership at Conference later that year was buoyant and the prospect of electing a socialist Prime Minister on a radical manifesto seemed within reach,

Fast forward to Labour’s Annual Conference last year and the picture could scarcely be more different – with the left decisively on the back foot organisationally, if not necessarily in terms of policy and ideas. In Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, author Mike Phipps accurately recalls the widespread sense – by no means confined to the left of the Party – that the Party under the new leadership of Sir Keir Starmer was going nowhere fast. 

By prioritising a factional battle over the rules for electing his successor, even Starmer’s own office appeared be signalling that their own tenure was just a temporary stop-gap. The demoralisation and alienation of Party activists seemed to be considered a desirable outcome, as the Party was to be purged of undesirables. Meanwhile, the loss of the by-election in Leave-voting Hartlepool in the North East of England – a seat held twice under Corbyn – hardly signalled decisive progress in regaining support in the “red wall” seats. 

How had it come to this, and in such a relatively short period? In considering the reason for Labour’s crushing defeat in 2019, Phipps doesn’t seek to examine in full the context of the evolution of Labour’s position over Brexit.  The move from respecting the result (2017) to negotiating an alternative Brexit deal which would then be put to a referendum where the leadership would remain neutral but others would be free to campaign for Remain (2019) has already been substantially covered by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Len McCluskey, Oliver Eagleton and Owen Jones Phipps clearly sympathises with the picture drawn in the latter.  

 However, whilst not discounting the idea that the shift in the Brexit position cost Labour support in key battleground seats, Phipps does provide important correctives to the idea that the cultural, educational and generational cleavage in Labour’s traditional voting base could have been sutured as easily as some critics now suggest in retrospect.  Whilst accepting that mistakes were of course made by the leadership team, when seen in the light of the travails of left-of-centre parties in the West, Phipps seems to suggest the Corbyn project is seen as ultimately shipwrecked on historical tides beyond its power to control.  

This approach is perhaps more generous than other recent accounts in acknowledging the objective complexities the Corbynites faced, and avoids the temptation to create strawmen caricatures of Judas figures of lefts who made mistakes with the best of intentions. However, it arguably draws short of the necessary reckoning with those forces like leading figures in the Remain-backing Another Europe is Possible who worked with Starmer to force Corbyn along a route which ultimately proved disastrous, before endorsing the former’s candidacy for the leadership.  

But Phipps’s account is at its strongest in its explanation of Starmer’s ability to decisively win the leadership contest which followed Corbyn’s departure, and the rapid transition in both his organisational and policy priorities once in control of the Party machine.  Indeed, the book offers a blow-by-blow record of the period which will be an important resource for political historians.  

Significantly, we are reminded that in no sense did Starmer win the leadership on an anti-Corbynite basis. Quite the contrary, Starmer told Labour members what they wanted to hear: that the 2017 manifesto would be the “foundational document” for the development of policy going forwards; that the Party would continue to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with trade union struggles; that the pledge to return key public utilities to public ownership would remain in place and – perhaps above all – the Party could be re-united under a new leadership and given a more professional PR operation to secure more favourable press coverage to restore the Party’s electability.

A section of members who had supported Corbyn naively took these claims at face value, including figures such as former BBC journalist and author Paul Mason, and Momentum’s hired coordinator Laura Parker – together with former Corbyn staffers Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher (unrelated) who accepted jobs on the Starmer team.  Whilst Rebecca Long-Bailey was clearly the choice of much of the left, winning the backing of Momentum itself and endorsements from Corybn and McDonnell, another fraction of Corbynites were simply disillusioned by what they saw as the insufficiently robust position of the institutional left, which they saw as confirmed by Long-Bailey’s hire of Momentum chief Jon Lansman, and nomination of Angela Rayner for deputy. Having lost the support of big union backers in UNISON and GMB, it was clear that Long-Bailey would not seriously threaten Starmer’s chances.

If Starmer had adopted a mask to appeal to the Labour selectorate, it didn’t take long at all for the true face of the new leadership to emerge, as Phipps documents.  The appointment of the Blairite fixer David Evans to the position of General Secretary was a major warning sign, as was the press suggestions that a certain Lord Mandelson (spin doctor to Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, and architect of the ‘New Labour’ rebranding) was acting as an informal advisor.  Another worrying hire was that of Matt Pound, the organiser for the right wing faction Labour First.  A team was being put in place to take on a frontal assault against the left and on Party democracy at grassroots level more widely.

I won’t attempt to discuss in any detail the litany of scandalous events documented by Phipps. These include the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey for tweeting a wide-ranging interview with famous actress and local Salford celebrity Maxine Peake; the publication of an internally-prepared submission on Labour’s handling of antisemitism accusations which appeared to show that the machine under right wing General Secretary Iain McNichol had deliberately frustrated attempts by Corbyn’s office to take more rapid action; the refusal to restore the Party whip to Jeremy Corbyn following his response to the EHRC report on antisemitism; the issuing of a blanket edict forbidding local CLPs and branches from even discussing Corbyn’s treatment or criticising the leadership’s actions, leading to the suspension of hundreds of local Party office holders; the leak of internal WhatsApp group discussions in which senior party officials hostile to Corbyn were making racist and abusive comments, and clearly acting to further the interests of their own allies rather than maximise the party’s electoral support. The list is depressingly familiar and such actions appear deliberately designed to encourage left activists to give up in desperation and leave the Party.

Starmer’s supporters could respond by saying that the electorate at large don’t really care about these internal issues and what counts is the party’s electability.   After the loss of the Hartlepool by-election and near-scare in Batley and Spen, things have since taken an improved turn, with the Wakefield seat comfortably taken back from the Tories – although the conviction of the former Tory MP for child sex offences may have had a little to do with this.   The polls aren’t looking too bad – and with Boris Johnson revealing a blatant lack of honesty or respect for standards in public life, the Tories are currently leaderless and turning furiously on each other in public. So far, so good it could be claimed?

However, with honesty now at a premium in the eyes of the electorate, can Starmer really be seen as a man of his word, given the sheer volume of promises made as a Labour leadership candidate which he has been happy to tear up?  Former Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey accuses Starmer of lying to him in meetings organised about returning the whip to Corbyn.   Footage from BBC Newsnight shows Starmer raising his hand when asked if he’d continue Labour’s pledge to renationalise the energy companies – something he has since unilaterally decided to renege upon. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has now cast doubt on the commitment to public ownership of the railways – which polls consistently show enjoys huge public support, even amongst Tory voters.  

The sacking of Shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry for supporting striking rail workers is a clear violation of Starmer’s promise to defend trade unions and workers’ rights. If Starmer is believed to have lied so cynically to Labour Party members, will voters at large be sure they can trust him?

Another important aspect of Phipps’s account is the picture he draws of Starmer’s failure to expose the Tories’ catastrophic mishandling of the Covid crisis.  Just as Labour under Ed Miliband failed to nail the myth that the economic crash was the result of Labour’s public spending levels, so the current leadership is in danger of letting slide the myth that Johnson ‘got the big calls right’ on Covid, getting us through a crisis with a successful vaccine programme.  

For all the claims about his ‘forensic’ abilities, has Starmer really made the public aware of the vast scale of excess deaths (especially of the elderly and vulnerable in care settings) that occurred as the result of conscious policy choices?  Have we done enough to expose the billions lost in fraudulent applications for Covid support, or contracts handed out to the mates of Tory ministers, irrespective of their ability to deliver what was needed? The Downing Street parties have rightly caught the headlines, but have we done enough to expose the serial incompetence at the heart of the government policy?

Phipps does a thorough job of documenting the rapid shift to the right under Starmer and this makes for an important – if at times depressing – read.  If there is less focus on ideas and strategies for the left moving forwards, this is perhaps an indication of the present situation.

But there’s no reason for despair. The wave of industrial action and urgency for solidarity in the face of the cost of living crisis will be a clear focus for organising against an increasingly threadbare neoliberal agenda. 

There is no intellectually coherent analysis coming from the right. The tired old cliché that “elections can only be won from the centre” might be tested as never before. Can Labour really hope to win an election without offering anything substantial in terms of significantly improving the pay and conditions of millions of working people?  

Michael Calderbank is a member of Tottenham CLP and a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, by Mike Phipps, published by OR Books can be ordered here. The author is available to speak at meetings – contact the website.

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