This Thursday’s elections will be the first major challenge for Keir Starmer since becoming Labour Party leader. Peter Rowlands says Starmer must row back from Corbyn’s suspension and open serious dialogue with the left about the party’s direction if Labour is to succeed
I am concerned here not only with the dispute within the Labour Party, centred on the withholding of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn and how the left should respond to that, but also with the direction that Keir Starmer appears to be taking the Labour Party.
Until last November, in a view similar to that of John McDonnell and Paul Mason, I believed that the left should not isolate itself but instead seek to co-operate in promoting perhaps somewhat moderated policies and views adhering broadly to the 2019 manifesto – which of course Starmer’s ‘ten pledges’ did.
The lifting of Corbyn’s suspension could have been an opportunity for Starmer to seek to unify the party, indicating to the right that he was not afraid of criticising Corbyn, and to the left that he did not intend to extend sanctions. This would probably have largely worked, after some initial objections, and could have consolidated Starmer’s position as leader, but it was not to be. The removal of the whip (as far as I can see against PLP standing orders, as it is only the PLP that has such power) has effectively extended Corbyn’s suspension in another form.
Why was this done? One answer could be that it was the only way to maintain the ‘no tolerance of antisemitism’ policy; but this is barely credible owing to the selectivity with which it has been applied, otherwise Rachel Reeves and Steve Reed – both of whom have opened themselves to criticism on the issue – would not be in the Shadow Cabinet. It can therefore only be understood as an attack on the left within the party, symbolised by the previous leader, and buttressed by orders prohibiting any expressions of support or demand for the whip to be restored. Starmer and Evans are of course fully aware of the significance of their actions and how they will be interpreted by the left and others.
Their assumptions must be that they will win the fight with the left, and that not pursuing it by not removing the whip from Corbyn would have created a situation in which greater apparent unity would in practice mean giving the left more power to defend and/or promote left policies, thus making it more difficult to amend policy than if the left was significantly less powerful. This is the only rationale for pursuing the fight, with many in the centre having questioned its necessity.
The left cannot accept the exclusion of Corbyn from the PLP. What he said about antisemitism being exaggerated in some areas is clearly true. Nobody has denied it, and as ex-leader he certainly had the right to say so, as the EHRC report confirmed. But his exclusion also effectively amounts to a repudiation of everything that the left stood for during his tenure as leader. Given that Starmer stood on a platform of the policies developed under Corbyn’s leadership, that, by definition, is unacceptable.
In the run up to the elections on May 6th there has been less focus on this issue, for obvious reasons, but the left must vigorously resume the campaign for the whip to be restored to Corbyn, with a demand that this be agreed on May 25th, the date of the first NEC following the elections. Failing this, the campaign must continue up to the conference, where for this and other reasons it is vital that there is a left majority among delegates. Failing this, and if feasible, the left could consider a challenge to Starmer for the leadership.
What might happen? Starmer might be convinced that continued conflict would prove counterproductive in terms of Labour’s electoral appeal and his own position, and reinstate JC, but it is more likely that he will decide to slug it out. If so, he would probably have the support of a majority of MPs, although there could be pressure to settle from some in left-controlled constituencies. But some on the left are not supportive of Corbyn, including many on the ‘soft left’ in or around the Open Labour and ‘Love Socialism’ groups. This could also rule out a leadership challenge, which requires the nominations of 20% of MPs – currently 42. The total membership of the Socialist Campaign Group is 35. This also begs two questions: would there be a membership majority for a challenge, and who would the challenger be? The membership has almost certainly shifted rightwards, with left departures and right arrivals, but it is difficult to be more precise, particularly as some Corbyn supporters voted for Starmer in the absence of a stronger left candidate, and could shift back to supporting a left candidate. However, a recent poll indicated substantial majority support for Starmer. As for who might emerge as a challenger to Starmer is not clear. Jon Trickett and Richard Burgon have been mentioned, but I cannot see either of them displacing Starmer. There are only two credible candidates: Ed Miliband and McDonnell, neither of whom are likely to be available.
There is little point in speculating further. Let us hope that it proves possible to restore the whip to JC within the next few months; but if not, the left should seriously consider how it can best continue to promote its objectives.
In conclusion, it is worth trying to establish what the political approach is that Starmer represents. It is said by some that he is a long-standing Blairite, who has posed as being more left wing than he really is in order to gain the leadership. I doubt this. There is no evidence that he strongly supported neoliberal or Blairite ideas, or had or has any particular connection with Progress, the Blairite group. However, he probably has more in common with Labour First, the group of the traditional Labour right, which explains their leader Luke Akehurst’s greater prominence in supporting him. This reflects the influence of his director of policy Claire Ainsley, whose Blue Labour ideas can be seen in the promotion of traditional patriotism and strong defence, in an effort to win back socially conservative voters who switched to the Tories in the Red Wall seats. I do not believe that Blue Labour thinking is likely to prove a way forward for Labour, and its applications so far are crude and unconvincing.
My view is that Starmer became leader with much less of a developed set of ideas about how to go forward than most previous leaders, reflecting his relative lack of experience in politics. Quite apart from the question of Corbyn and the position of the left, I do not believe that Starmer has the political capacity to lead Labour in a positive direction. This is being increasingly recognised by the right as well as the left, as the following quote from the New Statesman, one of the strongest ‘progressive’ critics of JC’s Labour, makes clear: “[the Labour Party] seems to have lost confidence in what it is, what it wants and for whom it speaks”.
We should aim to restore that confidence on a left-wing basis – but it could happen in the other direction, with someone like Rachel Reeves becoming leader. You have been warned!