Why Keir Starmer can’t afford to lose the left

The Labour leader’s strategy is correct but to win he needs the backing of an activist movement.

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For a whole 12 hours after Boris Johnson’s Conservative conference speech, Labour’s far left dominated Twitter, getting their chosen hashtag trending across the UK. It was #StarmerOut. With the government reeling from a series of Covid 19-related scandals, and minority communities seething over Priti Patel’s new threats to refugees, the priority of some on the left was to attack their own leader.

The trigger was understandable. Keir Starmer’s party managers have adopted a strategy of abstention on contentious Tory bills breaching human rights, imposing one-line whips on Labour MPs. They did so in September for the Overseas Operations Bill, which would introduce a presumption against prosecution for war crimes by British soldiers abroad, and this week on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (also known as the spy cops bill), which would legalise criminal acts by MI5 agents and informants in pursuit of intelligence.

As a result there have been two organised revolts, each led by the Socialist Campaign Group, and three left-wing MPs (Nadia Whittome, Beth Winter and Olivia Blake) have been sacked as parliamentary private secretaries. If this pattern continues, the position of the remaining left MPs on the Labour front bench looks doubtful.

The revolts were justified because the strategy of abstention is wrong doesn’t achieve its purpose  abstaining does not avoid Johnson stigmatising Labour as weak on policing and security  and because the decision to impose the whip undermines Starmer’s connection with those on the left of the party who support him. But the #StarmerOut campaign – which no left MP has supported – is lunacy, and betrays the utterly disoriented state of some Labour members. Starmer’s political strategy is right. It is based on the one outlined in the Labour Together election review: the party’s offer between now and the next general election will be radical economic change – but framed in a way that reconnects with ex-industrial communities in small towns, and builds trust in the professionalism and competence of the party itself.

The far left's grief-stricken rants throughout 2020 – against Remainers, the People’s Vote campaign, Another Europe Is Possible, former staffers at Labour HQ, this magazine, myself and any MP or activist who supported Starmer – betray a total inability to understand what happened in 2019. As is clear from both Left Out, written by the Times journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, and This Land by Owen Jones, Labour lost in 2019 because its leadership team could not deal with the strategic political problem facing them. 

Over ten years the party lost support among an older, socially conservative demographic – not just in the “Red Wall” but in places such as Swindon and Milton Keynes, which Labour needed to win. During ten months of indecision over Brexit, the party alienated at least a million voters from their socially liberal electoral heartland. They solved this with an ingenious conference motion, for which they orchestrated cheers to the rafters, which fell apart on first contact with reality.

Because they can’t accept this critique, a section of the left cannot see the point of Starmer's strategy. They don’t accept that trust in Labour is still abysmal. They still don’t grasp why Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Skripal poisoning was a reputational catastrophe. Or recognise how badly the party handled anti-Semitism. The left look at Rishi Sunak’s popularity – 41 per cent of the public rate him as the better prospective chancellor compared the shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds (who has the support of just 5 per cent) – and blame the media. 

Starmer’s strategy is to build an electoral coalition for the radical things Labour has to do – redistribute wealth, boost well-being, protect human rights and decarbonise the economy – by taking a social-democratic position on defence, crime and national security. I supported him in the Labour leadership contest because I’d argued for that strategy throughout the Corbyn years, without success. And because the party’s right have a different strategy: a return to Blairism, which Starmer opposes.

The problem is Starmer’s strategy is currently being executed in only one dimension: parliament. Faced with Johnson’s bluster, he counters with calm technocracy. Faced with the Tory tactic of springing votes on issues designed to stoke a culture war – such as the two bills that provoked rebellions – he orders abstentions and constructive amendments.

See also: Paul Mason on why Keir Starmer's conference speech lacked an inspiring vision

But this is a battle with three dimensions: parliament, mass sentiment and the organised labour movement, and Labour is currently misfiring in the latter two. Mass sentiment in the UK is currently a battleground – not between jokey bonhomie and technocratic competence, but between fascist ideation and progressive principles. If you can't bear to go and hear it in physical space, just follow it online, in the comments section of the Mail, or – if you can gain access – the closed Facebook groups that now shape small-town opinion.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement erupted in May after George Floyd’s murder, there has been a concerted racist backlash. Though racism isn’t new, it has taken a new form and intensity, switching from anti-Islam to anti-blackness and anti-wokeness. Its new obsessions are slavery, which was a good thing; the British Empire, which was also good thing because of the white man’s burden; Winston Churchill; and all historic racist symbols, from Bristol's Edward Colston statue to the memorial stone for the Dambusters' dog, whose name was a racial slur

It’s not being driven primarily by Johnson and Priti Patel: it’s being driven by Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, Tommy Robinson’s Telegram channel, the QAnon conspiracy and Nigel Farage’s YouTube channel. As Hope Not Hate warned last month, Britain’s far-right projects – from Ukip to Britain First, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance and Patriotic Alternative – have converged, and latched on to the anti-vaxxer movement, the anti-5G movement and the “Plandemic” conspiracists.

Though their obsessions are niche, some of the people being drawn in – through anti-mask sentiment and the anti-paedophile themes contained in the QAnon conspiracy – are new, young and mainstream. And as the Tory conference showed, Johnson and Patel are always happy to foreground the same issues: statues, refugees and the right to “free speech” for racists.

Labour’s current approach entirely ignores what’s going on beneath the surface. That’s the biggest problem – not the abstentions and the party’s whipping. And because some on the Labour right are as hostile to acknowledging plebeian racism as some on the left, there’s a mutual incentive not to talk about it.

While Johnson can project a vague, sunlit-uplands vision of a “New Jerusalem”, secure in the knowledge that this will stroke the mild racism of his voting base, Starmer has to stay away from the vision thing. He justified doing so at the party conference on the grounds that the party has to win back trust first. But politics is now a battle of utopias and Labour has to be in the fight.

Which brings us to the third area of concern: the labour movement’s activists. Since the days of Tony Blair they have only ever been motivated to act by a clearly communicated vision of the future. To win the narrative battle you need Labour’s 500,000-plus members saying the same things, fighting the same battles and posting the same hashtags: the phrase #StarmerOut isn't one of them.

Starmer won the leadership because around half of Corbyn’s base switched to him. But we still saw figures such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, Dan Carden and Nadia Whittome on the front bench as a commitment to inclusiveness. One by one, however, the left component of Starmer's team is being excised, to the delight of the Blairites. Unite’s decision to slash its funding to Labour – a party already struggling with the cost of legal cases – is one result.

Like it or not, Johnson will throw issues of principle at Labour thick and fast: if the party’s amendments to the spy cops bill fail to pass, Labour must oppose it at third reading. Incredibly, some on the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party are said to want to vote for it. When Patel introduces her new asylum bill, and Robert Buckland launches his attack on the Human Rights Act, there can be no question of abstaining.

Labour needs to fight the battle that is before it: the ideological struggle that is raging in British society between nostalgia and a sustainable and progressive future.

See also: Paul Mason on why the Labour left must change if it is to help the party win

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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