I watched Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech last week in a hotel bar full of party activists and local councillors. When he said the words “…and yes, Great British Energy will be publicly owned”, many punched the air. Some punched the bar.
That was the moment Starmer sealed the deal – not just with the centre-left technocrats who form his natural base within the party, but with broad swathes of activists, from the left to the old Labour right, who’d been sceptical of his capacity for vision, passion and persuasion.
Starmer, long pilloried as a “wet wipe” by the left, pledged an end to austerity, repudiated trickle-down economics, launched a “mission-oriented” industrial strategy, and promised to renationalise the railways and decarbonise the electricity system by 2030. Shortly after he sat down, James Mills, a former aide to John McDonnell, tweeted: “Unpopular view, but this speech is very much a vindication of Paul Mason.”
Well, not quite. I backed Starmer because I thought he was the only candidate that could unite a badly divided party after 2019, and because I knew that – whatever compromises he would be forced to make – his politics are rooted in working-class experience in a way Tony Blair’s were not.
In his conference speech Starmer used the term “working people” or the “working class” 27 times. I have little doubt, given the party’s current polling lead, that this language is “landing” among the exact demographic Labour needs to win: lower-income voters who backed the Tories at the 2017 and 2019 general elections.
So where does this leave the left? Organisationally, Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy were trounced in most committee elections. They won a vote on proportional representation by combining with the Blairite right. And they passed conference resolutions on a £15 minimum wage and Royal Mail renationalisation with trade union backing.
Politically, it depends who you listen to. Momentum hailed the policy advances, telling members: “One thing is clear – socialist policies are now the mainstream in the party.” The Morning Star, by contrast, warned readers that “a ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ Labour won’t help working-class people”. Despite Starmer pledging new employment rights, it argued: “This is in reality an anti-union Labour leadership. It is not an ally.”
This polarised response to Starmer’s “statist” turn reflects a deeper problem: the Labour left is directionless, leaderless, riven into competing projects, with no guiding philosophy and – therefore – completely incapable of achieving its favoured objective: Gramscian “hegemony” within Britain’s progressive social majority.
To remedy this, we’re going to need a different left. There are some brilliant movements led by activists from the left: Enough is Enough, the Don’t Pay UK campaign, and much of the current wave of strikes – especially as it begins to mobilise the big public-sector workforces.
And there are some political points of light. There is the Open Labour group, which occupies the space between Starmerism and Momentum and, unlike the latter, commands some frontbench support. There is a subgroup within the Socialist Campaign Group around Clive Lewis doing some careful thinking about strategy and alliances in a fragmented polity.
But there will be no synthesis, and no progress, until some fundamentals are sorted out. The first has to be a complete break with the Stalinist politics that led one delegate to denounce the leadership for supporting “US war crimes” in Ukraine – gaining a ripple of applause from the conference floor. The same politics saw Momentum pressured into refusing to support a motion in favour of arming Ukraine.
The second requires overt commitment to the Starmer project. There are parts of it I do not like: the bureaucratic high-handedness over dissent; the narrow range of fiscal commitments; the tone deafness over frontbenchers attending picket lines. But it is clear now that Starmerism is how we’re going to defeat the Tories.
A Labour Party committed to renationalising the railways and decarbonising the electricity system, to redistribution through tax, benefits and increased wages, to full employment rights from day one and to a massive programme of green industrial investment is not “the lesser of two evils”. It is a project much more radical than Blairism and therefore the first chance of a “Labourist” government we’ve realistically had since Neil Kinnock squandered that opportunity at the 1992 general election.
The third task is to understand what the left brings to the project. We have the ability to mobilise from below – as with Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay UK – because we’re committed to working-class agency. Our concept of socialism is something achieved by people, not simply for them.
On top of this, we are anti-capitalists. We see the “exogenous shocks” that keep surprising the technocrats as the inevitable products of a wider crisis driven by climate change, deglobalisation, totalitarianism and the fragility of communities ravaged by inequality. For us, a party committed to the interests of working people has to fight the interests of the hedge funds, rentiers and surveillance capitalists who get rich through extracting profit from every aspect of our work, our leisure, our communications and the homes we live in.
Finally, we can be the force that leads the inevitable pushback as corporate money flows into the party in the hope of blunting the commitments to social justice and hitching the Labour government to the interests of speculative finance.
So my advice to the Labour left is to forget the “Kieth” memes. Let’s make a brief list of things we want to achieve. Let’s mobilise the grassroots both in defence of real wages and for a Labour victory. Let’s be proud that, since 24 February, not a single Labour MP has publicly opposed arms to Ukraine, and demand that every candidate backs the party’s position publicly come election time. And let’s get some left MPs back onto the frontbench, where they can influence the leadership’s language, priorities and direction of travel. The new generation of left MPs need to stop trying to be the next Jeremy Corbyn and start trying to be the next Nye Bevan.
The alternatives? Strikes are exhilarating – let’s link them up and pull the unorganised into the union movement – but they won’t dissolve the structures of oppression and exploitation, and they won’t stop climate change. Nostalgia, meanwhile, just corrodes your soul.
[See also: Behind Keir Starmer’s Great British Energy plan]