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7 May 2021

Keir Starmer must face the truth: he needs the left to win

The Labour leader’s strategy of marginalising Corbyn supporters has left him in a political no-man’s land.

By Paul Mason

The penny has finally dropped. With Labour’s abject defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, the loss of council seats in working-class areas – both to the Conservatives and to the Greens and progressive nationalists – and a clear majority for independence in the Scottish parliament, Labourism faces an existential crisis.

Values, not traditions or economics, now shape the political landscape. This is no longer a theory, to be disputed among political scientists. It’s a fact.

However, it is not “cultural” values we are dealing with. The moral schism in British society goes deeper than culture. It reflects a growing divergence of economic interests, experience and life chances between different groups of working people; and a growing separation in outlook.

Fifteen thousand voters in Hartlepool, where Leave won a 70 per cent vote share in 2016, backed the Conservatives despite a candidate who demonstrated zero knowledge of their town, the UK’s horrific Covid-19 death rate and the corruption allegations against Boris Johnson’s administration.

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Labour, by contrast, could mobilise just 8,589 of its 2019 turnout of 15,464. It ran a dire, bland, defocused and technocratic campaign – in Hartlepool and in many local councils – because its leadership and bureaucracy have for more than a year refused to present a strategic policy offer or narrative to the electorate. 

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[see also: How Labour’s Hartlepool defeat reveals its English problem]

Starmer’s logic, spelled out during the September 2020 non-conference, was that even if he did present a vision, it would not be heard by the electorate because the party had lost its right to be listened to. I said then that the decision was wrong – and last night proved it.

There are only two routes to power in a culturally divided country. Either you reach across the divide to create a common project with explicit compromises from both sides. Or you build a cross-party political alliance to maximise the effectiveness of the progressive vote, currently split across Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Starmer’s leadership campaign was focused explicitly on the first route. The Norwich MP Clive Lewis, who has toured virtual Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meetings to advocate proportional representation and a progressive alliance, is the figurehead of the second. 

But if you’re going to transform the party into a cross-cultural alliance, bringing ecowarriors and ex-miners into the same project, you need a unifying set of demands and a narrative to hold it together. Without radical politics, the alliance is unconstructable – as the Hartlepool result showed.

Labour will win in the cities and salariat-dominated towns – while losing some young voters to the Greens and Plaid. But it is still losing small-town working-class voters to Johnson’s mixture of xenophobic populism and blatant back-handers to places prepared to vote Tory.

[see also: Why Boris Johnson’s Conservatives keep getting away with scandal]

Since Johnson has abandoned austerity, and is prepared to borrow cash to spend on buying votes, the only thing that’s going to beat him is a clear and radical policy offer, backed by grass-roots organising and a clear, engaging narrative of hope, tolerance and progress. But that was never tried. What was tried was Blue Labour-lite: marginalise and stigmatise the left, wave the flag, speak of patriotism and – at all opportunities – abstain in the face of authoritarian legislation such as the Spycops or Overseas Operations bills. 

For the Labour right, the Blue Labour-lite strategy was a pretext for pushing the left out of the shadow cabinet and off the front bench. The result was that Starmer ended up with a monochrome team and a content-free programme. Even the good parts of Labour’s campaign – its last-minute party political broadcast issued on election day, its pledge to create 400,000 green jobs – contained messages that were forgotten, or de-emphasised, or left without policy content for most of the past four weeks.

There’s no mystery about where these mistakes were made. They were made by people in Starmer’s office, who staked everything on a demonstrative break with the left, a witch-hunt and a policy vacuum. Elsewhere – the Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan campaigns, plus the Welsh and Scottish parties – there was an assurance,a  rootedness in reality and a strategic focus that Labour HQ did not demonstrate with Hartlepool and the local councils. 

There is no viable left challenger to Starmer. The left of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is divided over the same issues that the working class are: Brexit, migration and identity politics. Meanwhile – though there are some promising newcomers – the bureaucratic selection process maintained under Corbyn has left the Socialist Campaign Group bereft of figures with the stature of Nye Bevan or Tony Benn.

But the left now has leverage and should – via the left-led trade unions – use it. Instead of recriminations we should focus on action. There are five concrete demands party members can mobilise around.

First, the leadership must within weeks draw up a comprehensive Biden-style programme of green investment and redistribution. The IPPR think tank has costed this at around £190bn (8.6 per cent of GDP) in additional borrowing and spending. Labour’s shadow Treasury team should outline a programme of fiscal and monetary expansion to pay for it and commit the party to such a programme from here until the general election. In return, the left should accept that on defence, policing, and foreign and security policy, the party will stick to its social-democratic traditions (just as Biden has stuck to traditional Democratic policy on these issues). Neither side might relish this, but it’s better than living in a one-party state until 2029.

Second, the left must be fully reintegrated into the Starmer project. That means Jeremy Corbyn back in the PLP; Rebecca Long-Bailey, Dan Carden, Richard Burgon and others in the shadow cabinet with senior positions; an end to disciplinary action against members and branch shutdowns; and a fully democratic conference to be held in September, where policy and strategy can be debated, with the option to vote on the ratification of David Evans as general secretary. Even now, with numerous CLPs shut down and many people quitting in disgust, the left remains the majority of the membership. Last night showed what you get when the members feel slighted, used and suppressed: they become a transmitter of despondency and doubt, not enthusiasm and hope.

Third, we need a return to grass-roots organising. Starmer shut down the Corbyn-inspired community organising unit, but the party apparatus did not seem capable of replacing the energy once provided by Momentum, the union rank and file and a CLP membership motivated by an engaged and trusted leadership. Crucially, the party must begin selecting its 2023-24 general election candidates for vacant seats now. Its excuse has been that forthcoming boundary changes make this difficult – but the imperative is too great. In all the Red Wall seats, the new Tory incumbents have campaign teams, while Labour does not even have a nominated face to front its fightback.

[see also: Keir Starmer cannot blame Labour’s loss of Hartlepool on Jeremy Corbyn – he must own this defeat]

Fourth – and this should be a prelude to a wider discussion about electoral alliances – Labour’s losses to the Greens signal the need for an immediate tactical engagement. Starmer should invite Caroline Lucas into the shadow cabinet, and begin negotiations with the party over a Westminster electoral pact – with the two parties engaging in open primaries for a united candidate in seats such as Stroud, Brighton Pavilion and other constituencies where the Greens could split the left vote.

Finally, Labour needs a narrative. Narrative writing is harder than policy writing, for it demands engagement at the level of political science, culture, history and theory – not just intuition and a way with words. Narratives work when everybody in the movement thinks, feels and acts in the same way, because they have a shared goal, and a shared understanding of the problems society faces. 

So long as it could rely on blind loyalty and economic resentment was stronger than racial, gender and cultural prejudice, Labour didn’t need to be expert at crafting narratives. Now it does.

What the party faced last night in Hartlepool was a narrative reinforced on every edition of Good Morning Britain, every phone-in on LBC and in every tabloid newspaper except the Mirror – that the values of tolerance, learning, social justice and respect for human rights are somehow “alien”, and that the large swathe of society that lives by these values are the new, anti-patriotic enemy within.

People have been persuaded that since capitalism is now a zero-sum game, with no rising wealth to be shared out, all attempts at redistribution will penalise them – the elderly homeowners in post-industrial towns – to the benefit of “scroungers”, migrants, “luvvies” and feckless students.

By the end of this weekend it will be clear that millions of voters still reject this view. They still believe in the ideals of social, environmental, racial and economic justice. They are the people who are still voting Labour and they want their values respected and advocated, just as loudly as Johnson’s cohort argues for racism and xenophobia.

So Starmer needs to forget Blue Labour-lite. A radical economic offermodelled on Biden-style borrowing to invest, is the key – together with a front bench prepared to fight for it, and candidates who can go toe-to-toe with right-wing populism in the communities we need to win back.