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28 May 2021

Why Keir Starmer’s Labour has no true interest in power

Rather than endless waffle about “values”, Starmer needs a theory of social power: who holds it and how to build it.

By Richard Seymour

One of the pathologies of British politics today is that the Labour Party has a theory of communications, but not a theory of power. If Labour talks about power at all, it is to conflate it with being in office. 

Keir Starmer’s abstentionism and his pneumatic waffle about such concepts as patriotism, are grounded in a theory that what drives voters is “values”. Informed by the sociological work of his policy chief Claire Ainsley, the former head of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the author of The New Working Class, Starmer has been trying to align himself with the “core values” of a small group of swing voters in the much-mythologised “Red Wall”. In so doing, he hopes to lay the “moral foundations” for his bid for No 10.

This isn’t actually much of a theory of communication. In Hartlepool, Starmer’s “pints and flags” strategy was patronising, particularly in the absence of any discernible political programme. On television, it looks worse. When asked by the presenters of Good Morning Britain to explain what Labour stands for, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth fumbled. “The Labour Party understands,” he said, “that we have got to speak to the British people about their priorities, and their interests, and their concerns.” At best it comes across as a form of internalised defeat, the kind of self-loathing timidity that inspires no one to vote. At worst it resembles a version of the Groucho Marx joke: “These are my values. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

[see also: Keir Starmer’s Labour has dozens of policies. So why don’t I know what it stands for?]

The problem is not that Labour talks about values. The problem is that the party believes that values are abstracted from power – that they are not shaped by power. Why, for example, do working-class voters back the Conservatives? Political sociologists in postwar Britain obsessed over this question. Even at the height of Labour’s electoral support among workers in the 1960s, a third of manual workers still voted for the Tories. The answer given by a range of theorists from the political scientist Eric Nordlinger to the historian Raphael Samuel, was deference: these workers had been placed in an infantilised relationship of dependence to their social betters. 

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However, as the sociologist Frank Parkin put it in The British Journal of Sociology in 1967, the question was being posed the wrong way round. Why, given the conservative nature of all the dominant institutions, from the media and business to the armed forces and the Bank of England, did anyone in Britain not vote Conservative? How did a society in which only the Nonconformist churches, trade unions and cooperative movement dissented from this basic conservatism, nonetheless regularly produce socialists? For Parkin, the strength of the working-class Tory vote had similar roots to the extraordinary pressures that Labour always faced to abandon its basic tenets once in office: the Conservatives and Labour each had a fundamentally different relationship to private capitalist and state power. While Conservatives slot seamlessly into the circulation of power, as the historian Perry Anderson wrote in his famous 1964 essay on the “Origins of the Present Crisis”, Labour governments tend to occupy an “isolated, spot-lit enclave, surrounded on every side by hostile territory, unceasingly shelled by industry, press and orchestrated ‘public opinion’”.

[see also: When red walls come tumbling down]

These issues of power press even more firmly on the left today. In the decades since intellectuals such as Anderson and Samuel were diagnosing the condition of progressive forces in the UK, the right has captured the press, colonised the British state, taken out the big battalions of organised labour  from the miners to the printworkers  and reformed society so that not only would cooperativism and trade unions shrink, but so would the space for solidarity in daily life. The concentration of wealth at the top of society, partially reversed in the postwar era between 1945 and 1975, resumed so that today, the richest 1 per cent hold a quarter of all wealth in Britain. And as Margaret Thatcher abandoned industrial strategy and converted the UK into a hub for multinational investment and financial speculation, wealth began to circulate on a global scale. Profits from all over the world are pooled in Wall Street and the City of London, before being offshored, making it far more difficult to fund even basic social-democratic commitments.

[see also: Why talking about tax rises presents a political opportunity for Labour]

Labour’s challenge, then, is not simply to “regain trust” with a cluster of voters through marketing techniques and gimmickry. It is to understand the limited power it once exercised, and how that was destroyed. It is to understand how Labour’s material ability to assist and organise working-class people has been destroyed, and how the ascendancy of its professional cadres of Spads and party managers accelerated its decline. 

And, finally, it is to understand how power might be built. It is useless trying to empathise with Hartlepool voters’ “patriotism” without grasping that the same processes that demolished labourism in such constituencies have also left those voters powerless, and increasingly contemptuous of a Labour Party that approaches them now with quasi-zoological bafflement. Brexit was a futile pseudo-rebellion, but it was also probably the first time in decades that those voters felt that their vote made the slightest difference. What is more, the Tories delivered it and immediately started talking about investment. That’s power, not euphemised “values”. But to put the question like this, to prioritise power over values, leads to political solutions that, in Labour terms, are associated with the left: such as the Community Organising Unit that Starmer quickly scrapped when he became leader.

[see also: Philip Collins on the rise of the new Toryism]

This curious aphasia about social power is not peculiar to Labour. A number of writers have recently produced book-length empirical reflections on how power works in Britain, from Owen Jones to the Goldsmiths academic Aeron Davies. But almost none of this work filters into daily political discussion. Rather, in both news studios and social industry platforms, politics is overwhelmingly discussed in grossly personalised, moralised terms. Where there is any attempt to hold the government to account, it tends to be in the form of “gotchas” identifying personal incompetence, lies or venality.

Starmer, who has largely resisted attacking the government on salient political issues, instead opting for a “forensic” emphasis on the detail of delivery, embraced this approach when he used the Greensill scandal to attack Tory “sleaze”. As a form of critique, this has made no difference whatsoever. If anything, such frenzies tend to reinforce the agnotology of power: the deliberate production of ignorance as to its existence.

After the British state’s repeated political and constitutional crises in recent years – think of the phone hacking scandal, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Brexit, and the New Left’s capture of the Labour leadership – one might expect some curiosity. But those who are committed to the status quo have no need for a theory of power, and may even find such reflections counterproductive to its effective exercise. Labour, if it has even the slightest reforming impulse left, can’t do without one.