Tom Miller says Labour’s leader needs to find a new way to unity
Superficially, the election of Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour Party represented a defeat for Momentum and the bloc that surrounds it – by and large, this tendency in Labour’s membership and the trade union movement supported Rebecca Long-Bailey as a continuity pitch.
But the full truth is more complicated.
The real defeat of the post-Bennite portion of the left occurred on the night of the general election, for reasons both external and internal to the left. A healthy portion of those who backed Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2016 voted for Starmer as leader, and only their participation allowed him to gain the ultimately crushing majority that he achieved – a fact with which most of the left has yet to come to terms, and that the right too conveniently forget. Starmer could not be said to have run against the left in terms of policies or attitudes, and had served as a key member of Corbyn’s team.
His own origins in the party lie in a Trotskyist-adjacent position as a young activist, and his ‘10 pledges’ made up what, in usual circumstances, we would think of as a fairly left wing platform. In his election there was consolation; faithful Corbynites had lost the membership and the subsequent election, but had strongly influenced its terms and framing. What’s more, the broader left had achieved this with Starmer’s enthusiastic consent, and did not have to rely much on leverage against him in order to get a pretty progressive platform.
Starmer’s ‘unity’ messaging had focussed on bringing together trends which have been strongly at odds, recognising division itself as a threat. The initial reaction of many of his left opponents on his election was open minded and good spirited, with a general tendency towards a position of critical support and measured loyalty.
Much of this grudging goodwill now seems to have completely soured, and it is difficult to draw a clear line between where this has been valid or perhaps in bad faith. The sacking of Long-Bailey was a gut punch for Momentum-aligned members, but there is also a good argument that, whilst harsh, it was also very difficult for Starmer to do anything else. But further incidents such as a seemingly casual attitude towards BLM or existing policy have gone further to engineer a fast breakdown of trust. On the other hand, it is undeniable that Starmer is subject to strong criticism from the left over issues which his predecessor was able to float above, for example on immigration or pro-police rhetoric.
We can dismiss this latter point as opportunism, or we can try to understand what underpins it – a breakdown of trust. Where it became clear in January that the traditional left had lost touch with the majority of members, it is now also clear that Starmer risks doing the same with a substantial portion. For someone who ran on a unity platform, this has all been very quick.
Starmer is ultimately responsible for preventing and fixing it. To avoid disunity continuing as a key threat to Labour, he must permanently adapt. The alternative is to repeat what often went wrong for Ed Miliband – that context, policy and plurality all cease to matter to party members as relationship management comprehensively stalls. The measured and technocratic style of both men may have occasional advantages in defending against mainstream hostility, but they represent mere passivity when it comes to uniting the party or sparking enthusiasm.
Parliament and mainstream press are only part of Labour’s long story. Though over the years Jeremy Corbyn should have been more careful with events and allies, his involved and emotional style is one of the things we can be certain he got right as a leader. There are few regular activists who have not met him or heard him speak at an event. There are few from marginalised communities or campaigns for justice who doubt his instincts. From the left, this built loyalty and earned him innumerable passes when the going got tough.
Starmer started in the socialist left but now lacks the organic link or regular dialogue necessary to trust. Visibility, grassroots solidarity and emotional relatability are key to unlocking the unity Starmer wants to embody. Without it, he will end up mired forever in hostile Twitter discourse with a disgruntled, vocal and distracting left.
Abandoning technocracy will do more to rebuild relations with leftists than staying quiet, awarding token positions, or concentrating on Parliament ever could. If unity matters, then technocracy is the enemy.