In a ‘letter’ to Keir Starmer following his first conference speech as leader, Bryn Jones questions whether the moderate character of much of the new leadership approach will trump the Tory narrative on tough times
Your successful leadership election campaign promised unity by offering continuity with the main ‘Corbynist’ policies to the Left and electoral respectability to the Right. So why is there little evidence of either voter enthusiasm or promotion of radical policies? Yes, these are early days: only six months into the leadership job with no general election for nearly five years; and the completely unexpected Covid crisis that has disrupted all the political parameters. But your response to that crisis has been, at best, cautious and, for many, politically timid. Much of the scientific and health establishment has condemned Government incompetence, callousness and strategic failings. Yet Labour only seems to find fault with specific details of Government action.
This ‘constructive criticism’ strategy may explain why a majority of poll respondents believe that the Tories have done a good job, and explain why Labour’s poll ratings are only on level-pegging with the Tories’. Is there a cunning plan behind all of this emollient moderation? Do you believe that the public, or its media influencers, is not yet ready to accept that both the severity of the pandemic in the UK, and government failings in containing it, stem from laissez-faire economic liberalism and crony capitalism? Or, maybe you think that by 2024, Covid-19 might be just a raft of tragic and comic anecdotes in the public consciousness? Isn’t it more likely that your stance will undermine Labour’s prospects? Consider the dominant narrative for the 2008 financial crash: a myth of Labour overspending and lax financial regulation that tarnished Labour’s reputation for nearly 10 years.
Will voters remember the Covid crisis as a chaos of Tory ill-preparedness, dodgy contracting and incompetent management of over-stretched health services? Or as a time when a plucky government made mistakes, yes, but bravely soldiered on to pull together a shaken but united people to victory over the virus? Unless challenged and rivalled by an alternative one, the dominance of their media allies and ruthless propaganda mean the Tory narrative is more likely to triumph. Labour should emphasise the Tories’ indifference, incompetence and prioritisation of a return to (big) business as usual. The pandemic could do to the Tories what the financial crash did to Labour – but only if you and the rest of the Party agree and work together on a common perspective. An attack on the outsourcing of the failing test and trace system would kill two birds with one stone: exposing the Tories’ incompetence and showing why such privatising contracts are inferior to public health service operations.
Despite stress on “unity” in the leadership election, your cautious approach to Covid and the popular Black Lives Matter campaign has badly dulled the early glow of Party solidarity. These convey an apparent antipathy to the sentiments of what is still, probably, a Corbynesque majority of the membership. The realpolitik behind your zeal to slay the well-publicised, but partly confected, threat of antisemitism is understood. But could not your determination have been more measured? The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey appeals to the ‘strong leadership’ trope beloved by the press but it has created confusion and suspicion. Critical comment on Israeli state bodies seems now to be classified as antisemitic. Yet the original tweeter, actor and party member, Maxine Peake, has not been sanctioned. The limits of debate on international affairs involving Israel are unclear.
You could unite the Party and distance it from the Tories by focussing on transforming the pathetic and degenerative status of British democracy. Yet, within the Party itself democracy seems to be shrivelling. Wouldn’t you agree that a party that prefers a managerial bureaucracy and wealthy donors to active member participation contradicts internal democracy? A conflict well illustrated by the recent nomination of Labour’s candidate for the forthcoming West of England Combined Authority mayoral elections. Having authorised online nomination ballots for constituency parties and affiliates, regional officials then declined to submit the results to the final shortlisting panel. So the panel chose the two candidates with fewest (one and two) nominations. Another cause for concern is the General Secretary’s ban on motions about the compensation settlements to former Party officials involved in the Panorama antisemitism programme. The Secretary rightly warned CLPs of legal ramifications if motions questioned the Party’s culpability. However, David Evans’ diktat went much further by stating that even “the circumstances behind” the Party’s decision to compensate “are not competent business for discussion”. So CLPs cannot even discuss the decision-making process involved.
Democratic renewal must include transparency and accountability in decision-making. These episodes suggest Labour is determined to avoid transparency. In sum, Keir, your attempts to portray a moderate and responsible Labour Party look likely to flop both electorally and organisationally. The Covid crisis has been reduced to questions of competence rather than transformative policies for health and the economy. Yet both the early Corbyn surge and the Brexit camp won people over because they offered a vision. Meanwhile, the democratic vitality needed to inspire members to campaign in future elections is being sapped by arbitrary managerialism. With nearly half of members polled by Labour List recently being ‘unhappy’ or ‘very unhappy’ with your leadership, a strategic reappraisal is urgently needed.