Sean Bell: Keir Starmer is doing exactly what he was selected to do

“Starmer was put in place in order to bury Corbynism and those radical instincts its enemies associate with it… In that sense, his leadership is working entirely as intended.”

TO HEAR SOME TELL IT, Keir Starmer is having a good plague year.

According to a poll conducted by Opinium for the Observer, the UK Labour leader has narrowly overtaken Boris Johnson as the British public’s preferred choice for prime minister. Such findings compliment the results of Ipso Mori polling earlier in June, which awarded Starmer a net approval rating of +31 per cent – higher than any opposition leader since Tony Blair in 1994 – and also indicated the gap is closing between Labour and the Tories on ‘party favourability’. According to his plentiful media cheerleaders, Starmer has given Johnson “a rival to worry about”, demonstrating over the course of the Coronavirus pandemic his ability to “hold the government to account for its failures” (if not actually force a change in any of its policies).

And yet, the past few weeks have not been free of discord for Starmer; in quick succession, he has backed Scottish Labour’s unconditional rejection of a second Scottish independence referendum, ejected his former leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet, and alienated Black Lives Matter UK whilst burnishing his law-and-order credentials. That each of these developments have prompted criticism from the Labour Left is unsurprising, not least because those critics must now confront the uncomfortable question of whether these controversies – each of which Starmer could have avoided, had been so inclined – are a bug of his leadership, or a feature.

You may remember that Starmer was supposedly elected leader as a ‘unity candidate’, which according to political mythology is a strange hybrid creature featuring a social democrat’s passion, a technocrat’s flexibility, a populist’s charm and a platypus’s beak. There are people who have spent years patiently scanning the ripples on Loch Ness less credulous than the political cryptozoologists who convinced themselves they had finally found this mysterious beast in Starmer. Still, for the sake of argument, say that maintaining unity within the fractious, ungainly vehicle of the Labour Party truly was Starmer’s overriding motivation – why pick these particular fights?

As Source’s Ben Wray pointed out in the immediate aftermath of Long-Bailey’s sacking, it was inconsistent to say the least that no similar fate befell shadow minister for the cabinet office Rachel Reeves for her celebration of Hitler apologist Nancy Astor – or, for that matter, any of those prominent Labour figures accused of Islamophobic conduct in recent years. Despite protestations from Starmer’s inner circle that the Long-Bailey affair was a confrontation he did not seek or desire, the double-standard to which the bruised Labour Left has been held is hard to ignore, particularly when it gives ghouls like John McTernan – a seasoned veteran of saying the quiet part loud – shivers of joy to hear their “screams of pain.”

On Scottish independence, Starmer’s positioning is again undercut by his own apparent sense of priority. Reasonably enough, many suspect the renewed synergy between Scottish and UK Labour over their hardline opposition to a second referendum is intended to contrast with the party’s cryptic – and, theoretically, more flexible – stance on the issue under Jeremy Corbyn. On the face of it, this might seem reasonable: the task of decoding the positions of Corbyn and John McDonnell on indyref2 (I was there; I was that soldier…) created some justifiable confusion. Nevertheless, during their tenure, it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend Labour was anything other than a unionist party. I mean, what more was Corbyn supposed to do – dress up in a Union Jack blazer, like some kind of idiot?

So while it may be perfectly understandable for a political party to seek clarity on an issue which shows no sign of going away anytime soon, returning to a unionism which could politely be described as ‘muscular’ – or, if you prefer, meatheaded – is less so, considering how well that’s worked out for them since 2014 (or even 2007).

There are figures within Labour who recognise the dangers of this strategy, but they are lonely in their perspective. Former shadow Under-Secretary of State for Scotland Paul Sweeney this week cautioned against “hyper-unionist messaging” and advocated that Labour and the SNP work together to increase the powers of Holyrood, arguing: “Why not? We have a common enemy in the Tories.”

The case for some form of cooperation between Labour and the SNP has been made before; arguably, it has been Labour – either through intentional obstinance or their electoral misfortunes – which has seen such scenarios rendered unworkable. Furthermore, it is worth noting that even Starmer’s admirers generally admit he has no realistic route to power that does not run through Scotland. The school of thought which believes regaining Scottish seats requires hammering the SNP – encapsulated by the recent ‘Labour Together’ report, which has been widely attributed with inspiring Labour’s revitalised “kamikaze unionism” – appears to hold sway for now.

Starmer’s faith in unionism as a political force around which a vibrant movement can be built only becomes more risible in light of how he has reacted to the actual movement unfolding before the eyes of the world. Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Monday, Starmer dismissed the Black Lives Matter protests as a “moment”, which merely reflects “on what happened dreadfully in America just a few weeks ago, and showing or acknowledging that”. This may come as a surprise to Huugo Boateng and Jordan Walker-Brown, as well as the families of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, and Sheku Bayoh, among others – not to mention a relief to the 4,284 officers of the Metropolitan Police alone accused of racism or racial discrimination between 2011 and 2018.

Responding to Starmer’s assertion that “nobody should be saying anything about defunding the police”, Black Lives Matter UK did not betray noticeable surprise: “As a public prosecutor, Sir Kier [sic] Starmer was a cop in an expensive suit. While black people are now incarcerated at the same rate as African Americans, the prison population in Britain has almost doubled since the 1980s. This has affected all working class people in Britain.”

Given the opportunity to make common cause with a mass-movement seeking social justice, Starmer evidently decided that he prefers some forms of unity over others, choosing to signal solidarity with the kind of right-wing cranks disturbed by BLM’s anticapitalism and abolitionism, who unsurprisingly welcomed the Labour leader siding with the so-called “sensible law-abiding majority”.

The lessons drawn from these developments – and the trend they appear to represent – will depend on one’s perspective. For BLM protestors, Starmer’s allegiance to the political and legal establishment and his resistance to significant reform will reinforce what they likely already knew: that they have few allies amongst the UK’s political class that will back them to the hilt, and endorsement or practical aid from figures such as Starmer will only be achieved through sacrificing key goals and principles. Right now, the independence of BLM from such compromise is among its greatest strengths.

For supporters of Scottish independence, the conclusions will be equally unsurprising: Labour will oppose both independence and the democratic means necessary to achieve it, and looks set to repeatedly step on some very familiar rakes while doing so. Same as it ever was.

Those facing a more intractable problem are the continuity Corbynites who remained within Labour after the party’s defeat in the 2019 General Election, and who still hold out hope that it can be salvaged as the only game in town for advancing socialism. A few months ago, some Labour left-wingers desperately tried to convince their comrades – and themselves – that the party could lash pretty much any leader to a ‘progressive’ manifesto (warning: contents may have shifted, etc) like a Mad Maxian blood-bag, and any cognitive dissonance could be safely ignored. This notion has aged badly.

Back in April, the journalist Owen Jones – whose capacity for unwarranted optimism knows no bounds – warned that “every socialist who rips up their membership card, who retreats from political activity, who finds sanctuary in a dead-end leftwing sect, will be cause for celebration for those hankering for a Blairite revival” and argued it was time “to wish a genuinely decent and progressive politician well”.

Such views are not surprising from Jones – a tractor pull couldn’t separate him from the Labour Party – but his predictable admonitions to other socialists have been echoed by thoughtful commentators such as Dawn Foster and Luke Savage. As someone who has never been a member of a political party – insert Groucho line here – it is not for me to offer any instruction to Labour members; I can only suggest they consider precisely what circumstances would convince them to give up their membership card and take it from there. In a similar vein, those urging left-wingers to remain in a party whose leadership seems set on frustrating them at every turn might reflect on what sort of reaction is likely to be inspired from the message ‘Don’t forget, you’re here forever.’ In Scotland, we can offer some insight on how that works out in the long run.

Beyond such strategic conclusions, what does all this say about Starmer, the alleged unifier? For pure giggles, we may allow that Starmer might genuinely mean everything his says. In isolation, it is perfectly possible that he regards the opinions voiced by actor Maxine Peaks in the interview shared by Long-Bailey as anti-Semitic; it is not outside the realm of the credible that a UK Labour politician would consider Scottish independence a bad move; and it would be pretty surprising if a former director of public prosecutions was not dubious of calls to defund the police. However, even if there were some variance between Starmer’s public positions and his true feelings, there are few more pointless preoccupations in political analysis than trying to discern what’s in a politician’s heart – what matters is what they say and do, and the context in which they do it.

The context of Starmer’s leadership remains the circumstances which propelled him to that position, and those forces that continue to support him. In February, Tom Blackburn presciently wrote: “With Jess Phillips’s leadership campaign seemingly a nonstarter, much of the Labour right will be looking to Starmer as a more viable route to reclaiming the party. Perhaps Starmer thinks he can play both sides off against each other while rising above the fray, but this is not how it’s likely to work.” As the past week has proven, it hasn’t.  

Starmer was put in place in order to bury Corbynism and those radical instincts its enemies associate with it (often erroneously – Corbyn, with his vow to put 10,000 extra police on British streets, would probably not have been embraced uncritically by advocates of abolition either). In that sense, his leadership is working entirely as intended. The fact that it has so far been a dull rehearsal of busted flushes, weird entreaties to “patriotism”, and a death-march towards the centre-right is, as far as the majority of the PLP and Starmer’s most prominent supporters are concerned, nothing to complain about. His current polling will only strengthen their resolve.

At a time when the limits of electoralism could not be more painfully obvious, both Black Lives Matter and the Scottish independence movement largely understand the power and necessity of extra-parliamentary action. By contrast, one of the Labour Left’s greatest mistakes under Corbyn was to believe that they could supplant independent mass-movements, yoking their strength and their integrity, smugly assured that without Labour, such movements would fall apart.

Now, whether they like it or not, the Labour Left must face the reality: they have lost control of their party, have no apparent ability to influence its leader or direction, and even if they were to regain it, they would face all the same problems which beset Jeremy Corbyn at every turn during his own troubled tenure. Their inability to imagine a Left outside of Labour has become a prison of their own making. Whether they escape is up to them.

Picture courtesy of Chris Boland