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17 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:47am

How Keir Starmer lost Generation Left

A party which seeks to abandon its ideas-driven youth wing is doomed to failure, something all successful Labour leaders before Tony Blair well understood.

By Alex Niven

The left wing of the Labour Party is fatigued. After the catastrophic defeat of the 2019 election, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have been further demoralised by Keir Starmer’s series of actions taken against the left. These include the sacking of notable Corbyn supporter Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet in 2020, the suspension of Corbyn himself from the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Starmer’s support for the government’s controversial Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill, which, if passed, would authorise undercover agents or sources to commit crimes as part of their work.

Many on the party’s left have shredded their membership cards, retreated into apathetic silence, or succumbed to the sort of keyboard sniping against the leadership which bedevilled Corbyn between 2015 and 2020.

For those on the right and centre of the party this is good riddance – a long overdue clear-out that will detoxify Labour and revive its electoral fortunes. But with the party stalling in the polls – to the benefit of a resurgent Green Party – as well as facing electoral oblivion in Scotland and a Conservative challenge in the north of England, Labour needs to win back the trust and commitment of the younger activist cohort which embraced Corbynism if it is to ever regain power.

There is a vital infrastructure of talent and energy that is being ignored by the leadership; from the leading figures at Young Labour (notably its chair Jess Barnard), to the journalists and publishers involved in creative projects such as Novara Media, Tribune, the Waorld Transformed festival and Repeater Books, and the tens of thousands of party members still involved with Momentum.

A party which seeks to abandon its ideas-driven youth wing is doomed to failure, something which all successful Labour leaders before Tony Blair well understood. Blair bucked the trend by jettisoning Labour’s left, adopting the basic tenets of Thatcherism and alienating the youth vote over university tuition fees and the Iraq War. But he did so at a time when the word “socialism” was tarred by association with a creaking postwar world that Blair believed was in need of dynamic Third-Way reform. As Blair wrote in Marxism Today shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, “Everything and anything can be thought or rethought. We start again.”

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Starmer is failing to achieve the fragile accommodation between left and right which both Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson were able to engineer at key moments in the postwar years, when the likes of Nye Bevan and Tony Benn would sit awkwardly alongside more moderate politicians such as Herbert Morrison and Roy Jenkins in Labour cabinets. But neither does he seem able to emulate the more uncompromising blend of charisma and pragmatism that swept Blair to power in the 1990s.

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

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The result is a party which has shed some of the popular ignominy of the Corbyn years, only to be left with a soulless media machine that achieves mediocre polling figures while pleasing few and exciting almost no one. Not for nothing has the phrase “continuity Milibandism” – a dig at the insipid leadership of Ed Miliband – re-entered the political lexicon.

Something has to give, and it seems plausible to suggest that Starmer will have to attempt a rapprochement with the large numbers of left-wing Labour members who feel marginalised after the events of 2020.

It would take little for Starmer to reposition himself as a party unifier, one in tune with the modernising vitality of what the political economist Keir Milburn has termed “generation left” just as much as the cautious realpolitik of the Labour right. The most obvious – though least likely – way to win back support from the left would be to reinstate Corbyn as a Labour MP, after he had the whip removed in November 2020 for claiming that the party’s anti-Semitism problem had been overstated.

Starmer cannot continue to fight an indefinite battle against Corbyn and hope to inspire the sort of campaigning energy that will be decisive in local and national elections. Most left-wing members want to move on from the Corbyn era and help to develop a new reforming vision for the country – they even recognise that this will involve compromising with other sections of the party. But they cannot do so while the leadership is engaged in what looks like a factional tussle with the man who inspired many of them to get involved in politics in the first place.

If a truce with Corbyn is out of the question, there remain several concessions Starmer could make to the Labour left – if only he is brave enough to think beyond the platitudes of his supporters in the party.

The shadow cabinet is skewed to the right and centre of the party: one or two more high-profile briefs for members of the Socialist Campaign Group – such as Dan Carden, who resigned from the shadow front bench in October 2020 to vote against the CHIS Bill, and Zarah Sultana, the young radical MP for Coventry South – would signal that Starmer is serious about party unity.

Most importantly of all, however, Starmer needs to establish a more effective channel of communication between the leadership and Labour’s left-activist base regarding policy. Labour’s current messaging emphasises patriotism, respectability and political compromise. Such appeals are understandable given the need to build a broad voter coalition. But they risk obscuring the fact that Starmer has mostly retained the reformist agenda of the Corbyn years, such as commitments to nationalise industries and abolish tuition fees. Proudly articulating Labour’s most radical policies through leftist MPs and in left organs would help give the Starmer project a meaningful political identity beyond the management of his own image.

Building stronger ties with Labour’s idealistic grass-roots will be vital if Starmer wishes to succeed in the unforgiving electoral landscape of the 2020s. Forging links with generation left and its networks will not come easily to him, not least because of his sober, business-like personal style. But the alternative is a return to the half-baked economic and social policies which led to the electoral defeats of 2010 and 2015 – just as disastrous in their nuances as 2019 – and that is not an option worth contemplating. 

Alex Niven is the author of “New Model Island” (Repeater)

[see also: A consensus is forming among the commentariat that Keir Starmer is not up to the job. Does it matter?]

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth