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11 January 2023

The left can’t shape Starmerism – it must resist it

Socialists cannot simply decide whether or not to pick a fight with the Labour leader – he has continually fought them.

By Oliver Eagleton

With Labour maintaining a poll lead of around 20 points over the Tories, a government led by Keir Starmer is now a serious prospect – one that has prompted renewed discussion of the left’s strategic approach to his leadership. Is it still possible, despite the apparent neo-Blairite renovation of the party, for socialists to influence its direction? Do Starmer’s new policy commitments, including the abolition of the House of Lords and the creation of a publicly owned energy company, suggest that his agenda could be less conservative than his persona? 

James Meadway, a former economic adviser to John McDonnell, has recently taken up these questions in a piece for the New Statesman, arguing that sustained pressure could yet push the opposition leftward. With Britain facing a secular economic crisis – marked by wage stagnation, inequality and underinvestment – Labour is at a crossroads: either it will confront such problems through public spending, or it will embrace the dogma of fiscal discipline. Were socialists to “win the argument” in favour of the former, Meadway writes, they could have a genuine impact on the party’s “programme and purpose”. 

Of course, Meadway is right that Corbynites should not retreat from high politics in the Starmer era. Their attempts to organise in local communities and workplaces must be combined with an overarching vision for society, with clear positions on inflation, nationalisation, climate breakdown and other defining issues. The left should continue to mobilise in support of this vision despite its non-existent chances of winning electoral power in the medium term – and, in this sense, there is still an obvious need to exert “pressure” on establishment politicians such as Starmer. 

But one should ask what type of pressure would be most effective, given conditions in the Labour Party and beyond it. For Meadway the answer is clear. He encourages the left to present “policy demands” to the Starmer leadership, advocating increased investment and “expanded public and collective ownership across the economy”, while mounting “a defence of the more radical elements of his programme”’. This non-antagonistic relationship with Starmerism is possible, he claims, because of deeper changes in Britain’s political-economic structure. In the “post-2008, post-pandemic world”, market-worship is waning and state intervention is widely accepted, creating opportunities for the left to impress its ideas upon putative opponents. Socialists should recognise their potential centrality in this ideological landscape, rather than consigning themselves to its fringes. 

Yet here we can see a possible inconsistency in Meadway’s line of thinking. He acknowledges that this “shift in elite attitudes” has affected both Westminster parties, with the Tories nationalising “energy suppliers, rail franchises and even a steel manufacturer”. But Meadway would never claim that the left should forego opposition to the current government and embrace the possibilities opened up by its supposedly “post-neoliberal” framework. Why? Because he knows there is a crucial difference between the Tories’ tactical response to the present economic conjuncture and their overall political project. The former may involve some creative policy adaptations, but the latter remains firmly fixed. 

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It goes without saying that the left’s relationship to the Tories is determined by this. Our approach to Conservatism is premised on the recognition that it is institutionally and ideologically opposed to our aims, regardless of its tentative steps towards dirigisme, or state-directed policy. Hence, “pressuring” the government cannot take the form of gentle persuasion or critical collaboration. It must involve industrial militancy, street protest, direct action and polarising political campaigns. 

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If we apply the same standard to contemporary Labourism, we may reach a similar conclusion. The viability of left-wing accommodation with the current leadership does not simply depend on the isolated appeal of its “statist” pledges (such as the creation of GB Energy) or the broader dynamics of the British economy; it depends on the party’s fundamental attitude to power relations

On this point, Starmer’s “programme and purpose” are explicit. They amount to a politics of unthinking deference to established interests. A Starmer government would jail climate protesters and tear up proposals for a Green New Deal, while relying heavily on the private sector to facilitate the transition to renewables. It would oppose the labour movement on pay rises and public ownership, while supporting the ongoing privatisation of the NHS. It would abide by the Tories’ “sound money” approach to social spending while pouring funds into the army and police. Meadway hopes that an incoming Labour government could be convinced to compromise with the left on public investment, but so far there is little indication that this is the case. Rachel Reeves used her first conference speech as shadow chancellor to attack the Conservatives for missing budget deficit targets, and promised strict fiscal rules to reassure the markets – a commitment Starmer has reiterated in increasingly reactionary terms.

Moreover, socialists cannot simply decide whether or not to pick a fight with Starmer, as Meadway suggests, for he has spent the entirety of his tenure picking fights with them: proscribing groups, expelling members, suspending the whip from his predecessor and changing party rules, making it harder for another left-wing leadership to emerge. It seems unlikely in this context that he would take policy advice from the very people he has sought to banish from the party. The truth is that the more progressive parts of Labour’s electoral pitch are not attributable to the left’s influence. They are adaptive responses to Britain’s post-crash malaise which, rather than addressing its structural causes – a skewed rentier economy and an exclusionary political system – aim to create the impression of “modernisation”. Detached from a transformative programme, they epitomise the “sticking-plaster” solutions that Starmer claims to reject. The left must confront this dispiriting reality and accept that it can only pressure Starmerism from a position of unflinching opposition. Otherwise it risks mistaking policies for politics.

[See also: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer still need to sell their visions to the public]

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