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24 March 2021

The problem for Keir Starmer’s Labour is that no one knows what it stands for

The party is struggling against the Conservatives because it has no clear narrative, vision or coherent policy offer.

By Paul Mason

Last week four Labour MPs did something we’ve become unused to, both because of the pandemic and the style of the Starmer leadership. They set the agenda by taking direct action.

Nadia Whittome, Zarah Sultana, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Apsana Begum stood together and addressed an unapproved demo against the new policing bill. The photo of them – four women of colour standing in front of an angry crowd and representing the Labour Party – trended on social media not only in the UK but in the US and Australia. 

The reason is obvious: this is Britain’s equivalent of “the Squad” and instead of simply trying to make their points from the back benches they have, like their US counterparts, put themselves at the head of real struggles. The moment was important because, if we read between the lines of recent police activity, we are in for a summer of discontent. 

The policing bill is merely the biggest finger to be flipped at working people and the left by those in power. Others include the 1 per cent pay rise for health workers, the “Spycops” bill and the Supreme Court ruling that care workers are not entitled to the national minimum wage for sleep-in shifts.

As a result of the prolonged lockdown, police expect – as in Bristol – that any mass protest event will attract not only the organised but the unorganised: young people sick of being locked down and forbidden to go on dates, while bearing the brunt of the job losses, pay cuts and insecurity that the pandemic has triggered.

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I’ve no doubt that some in the Labour leadership will see a summer of discontent as a terrible risk, to be avoided, managed and swerved around with platitudes. I don’t. Because the place of the Labour Party at a time like this is at the head of powerless people who don’t like the injustices of the world.

[See also: How Keir Starmer lost Generation Left]

Labour is stagnant in the polls and Starmer’s personal ratings are falling. That has intensified pressure on the leadership both from the right, which wants him to ditch the commitments he made to former Corbyn supporters during the leadership campaign, and from the left, which wants him to start opposing the Tories more robustly.

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The shadow cabinet’s excuse for the poll ratings is that the Tories are enjoying a vaccine bounce and that the government has a near monopoly on airtime. But some privately acknowledge they are also dealing with a much tougher “brand” issue than most of Labour’s members recognise.

In essence, the legacy of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn handed Starmer a brand that, in marketing speak, is “trashed”. In the space of 20 years it has signified everything from imperialist invasion, austerity and neoliberal privatisation through to anti-imperialism and fiscal expansion. The rearguard action fought by the Blairite wing against the return of the party to its social-democratic and redistributive roots, aided by the right-wing press, has come at a high reputational cost to the whole party.

And the problem is not just legacy issues. Though the left derides the use of focus groups, the picture emerging from them is fairly consistent, if you read the leaks intelligently. Under Starmer, voters say, they simply don’t know what Labour stands for.

His 18 February speech was meant to set the frame for Labour’s attack on the Tories through the Budget, the Integrated Review of foreign policy and defence, and the 6 May local elections. Starmer’s argument was clear: ten years of Tory austerity have pushed the NHS, the armed forces and local government to breaking point. After Covid-19, the UK needs radical reform on the scale of 1945. Labour has the answers, revolving around dramatic investment in green technology, higher wages, lower inequality and social care.

One month on, did any of this cut through? From the polling the answer is no. The Tories countered Labour’s attack with a short-term fiscal expansion in the Budget and then moved on the debate to policing, immigration and defence. 

[See also: The crackdown on the Clapham vigil shows why the policing bill is so dangerous

The police’s actions at the Clapham Common vigil (and the resulting pressure from female MPs) bounced the Labour front bench into opposing the policing bill. On defence and security, Labour’s John Healey has set the party firmly against the cuts to army numbers and the increase in the number of nuclear warheads. And on the reported proposals for Nauru-style refugee camps offshore, Labour is rightly indignant.

But its strategic problem is simple: the party has no clear narrative, vision or coherent policy offer. It has had a year to come up with one but deprioritised it, in favour of a loyal critique of the Tory pandemic response. This is not enough because, as numerous commentators keep repeating, the game has changed.

Labour faces a Tory party whose strategic goal is to stay in office, handing out lucrative contracts to its friends, until it works out how to manage the long-term economic disaster of hard Brexit. The Conservatives’ aim is not fiscal sustainability, nor privatisation, nor a new Cold War with China or Russia. It is simply to retain power.

And the precondition for doing so is, first, to go on stigmatising Labour, the Lib Dems and the nationalist parties. It has to become unthinkable for there to be a non-Tory government. And to continue this, the Conservatives will go on cementing an alliance of small-town racists and affluent Home Counties residents using state subsidy and culturally divisive rhetoric.

I understand why the first year of Starmer’s leadership has been spent reassuring elderly voters in “Red Wall” seats that he is electable and bears no resemblance to Corbyn. But the limits of that strategy are now obvious in the polls. By alienating the left, Starmer has cut off the vital transmission mechanism for enthusiasm and communication at a grassroots level.

A social-democratic party has to be defined by what it is against and what it is for. During David Cameron and Theresa May’s premierships, Labour was against austerity – and the devastating social ills it caused – and Brexit. Faced with Johnson’s government, Labour has to be defined by what it’s for. And that’s the trickiest area for Starmer because he has the Blairite right calling for him to fully abandon the 2019 manifesto and even the “Ten Pledges” of his leadership campaign – the basics of a recognisably left programme.

On the left, interestingly, all the running is now being made by Momentum. Today (24 March), the activist group begins its “policy primary” at which members get to vote on what resolutions they will send to Labour’s annual conference in September. They will pick eight from a longlist of more than 30 motions drafted by members and affiliates. And the longlist is interesting as much for as what’s not there as for what is. There is no mention of Trident or unilateral nuclear disarmament. The only war referenced is a trade war with China, which is to be opposed. The obsessions of the pro-Moscow left – the defence of Assad’s regime in Syria, genocide denial over China and the Uighurs or hostility to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong – are mercifully absent. 

The left’s new generation of activists have sat down and asked themselves: what can we realistically commit a social-democratic party to? The centrepiece of the left’s policy effort is now concretising the Green New Deal, which pits it against a shadow Treasury team that does not want to commit to a spending plan on the scale of that in the 2019 manifesto.

It’s also notable that Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services – policies that reflect the post-work project of the post-2011 generation rather than traditional Labourism – are prominent in the mix. From Momentum’s policy longlist alone it would be possible to build a coherent left platform in advance of the party conference.  

But the most important thing Labour activists have to do is act. Many have been present at the protests over violence against women and the policing bill. Now – and yes, even though it’s election season – we need to see the shadow cabinet itself on the streets alongside the people who form the party’s new emotional heartland.

You don’t tell a story through press releases and speeches, you tell it through your actions and reactions to political events. The outpouring of grief and frustration over Sarah Everard’s death and against the policing bill will be just the start.

[See also: Keir Starmer needs one big, defining idea if he’s to avoid being another doomed Labour leader]