Eric Shaw on why rule changes and bans have not enabled Starmer’s star to shine
More than two years have elapsed since Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour party. This article is not intended either as a description or a judgement of his leadership, but as a reflection on the impact of his leadership in two key areas: party management, or the inner face of the party, and political strategy, or its outer face.
Any leader will seek to entrench his or her control over their party, and this was Starmer’s first priority. He has built an unshakeable majority on the National Executive Committee (NEC) and eliminated Corbynite sympathisers from the shadow cabinet and the party apparatus – with most of their successors drawn from the right of the party. Beyond this, he has sought to consolidate his control and marginalise the hard left by using two instruments: discipline and rule changes.
Corbyn’s election motivated a significant number of far-left activists to join the party, their entry welcomed by the new leader. They were modest in number, but secured a disproportionate influence at constituency level because of their hyper-activism and because they organised in groups which concerted and co-ordinated their activities.
Many of these groups have now been proscribed (banned) by the NEC, including Socialist Appeal, Labour Left Alliance, Labour Against the Witch-hunt and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: nine, all told. Party members whose involvement in these groups can be substantiated are automatically expelled. The precise grounds for proscription have varied – from being Trotskyist entryists, to having close links with people or organisations previously expelled from the Labour Party, largely for their alleged antisemitic views – though all proscribed groups have been deemed to be in breach of party rules.
Hard-left organisations, notably Momentum, have, in contrast, not been sanctioned, and the NEC insists that it has no intention to do so. But the hard-left has not been exempted from discipline. In one much-publicised incident, Starmer demanded that eleven Socialist Campaign Group members (including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott) remove their names from a statement on Ukraine drafted by Stop the War Coalition or risk losing the party whip (all agreed to do so). Starmer objected to the statement’s assertion that NATO was an aggressive alliance and its insistence on the moral equivalence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with NATO involvement in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya.
The hard-left has condemned these disciplinary measures as undemocratic. Clive Lewis MP claimed that “proscription lists” and “mass expulsions” all indicated a “slide to authoritarianism”. Similarly, the threat to expel the 11 left-wing MPs from the PLP was portrayed as an attack on free speech and the right to dissent. “An unrivalled offensive against the left“, Labour Hub claimed, had been launched with “a flood of suspensions on spurious grounds”.
However, it could be countered that in banning the nine groups and expelling their members, the party was doing no more than protect its organisational and ideological integrity against interlopers from the far-left who felt little loyalty to the party, often did not subscribe to its basic values, and practiced a toxic politics of sectarian intolerance and abuse of opponents. That an emphatic response from the NEC was necessary was the lesson of the long and painful struggle to eliminate Militant and other Trotskyist groups in the 1980s. Equally, it is understandable that Starmer wished to disassociate the party unambiguously from those who charged that NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo (to protect Bosnian Muslims and Kosovans from Serbian reprisals) was “morally equivalent” with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The second instrument the Starmer leadership deployed to bolster its hold on the party were rule changes. In autumn 2021, the NEC unveiled a package of five constitutional amendments:
- The most contentious was the proposal to abandon ‘one member, one vote’ as a method of electing the leader in favour of a revived electoral college.
- As important was a modification of parliamentary selection rules to make it harder to remove sitting MPs.
- The power to compile selection longlists was to be transferred from local parties to the NEC and Regional Executive Committees.
- The number of resolutions debated on the Conference floor was to be reduced, enhancing the ability of the leadership to manage Conference by determining what gets debated.
- In leadership selection contests, the nomination threshold was to be doubled from 10% to 20%, making it almost impossible for hard left candidates to qualify.
The aim of the package was to lessen the influence of constituency parties by reducing their rights and by weakening lines of accountability, whilst at the same time bolstering the power of the party centre and of the PLP. Not surprisingly, these centralising measures were denounced not only by the hard left, but other sections too, as undemocratic. Further, many doubted the wisdom of exacerbating factional tensions – which inevitably had the effect of focusing media coverage on the party’s internal troubles.
All these rule changes were submitted to 2021 Conference. Such was Starmer’s hold on the party that, with the help of a little arm-twisting, all but one were adopted; but the exception was a notable one. The proposal to replace ‘one member, one vote’ balloting as a method for electing the leader by an exhumed electoral college seemed to many in all sections of the party to have no point or merit: it was, as Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham put it, “unfair, undemocratic and a backwards step for our party”. Such was the opposition that Starmer was forced to withdraw the plan, though not before doubts about his judgement and the quality of advice he was receiving were raised.
But all other measures were passed; the leadership professed itself satisfied, and the outcome was to rebalance power within the party to the advantage of the leader. Whether this will bring any benefit to the party, time will tell.
Labour’s dilemma and Starmer’s response
Starmer’s principal task was, of course, reviving the party’s fortunes. Progress has been modest; mid-term, Labour would have hoped to be well ahead in the polls, but it is not. There are multiple reasons for this, some of them fortuitous. That the implementation of Brexit would dominate the newsreels in the first year of the re-elected Johnson government was predictable, but no-one could have foreseen the Covid pandemic and the first major land war in Europe since 1945. Both of these events have, for a range of reasons, benefited the Tories, not least in their access to airtime. But Labour’s failure to recover fully from the 2019 election’s crushing defeat has also to be put in the context of long-term and fundamental changes in structures of party alignment which have affected all of Western Europe. Labour’s plight is but one manifestation of a broader cross-national trend, the whittling away of support for social democratic parties. (There are a spread of social democratic-led coalitions, especially in Northern Europe, mainly because social democratic parties have negotiated coalition agreements with the Greens and left parties and, in Germany, with right-wing liberals.) Almost without exception, their share of the vote has shrunk over recent decades, and some parties (the French Socialists and the Dutch Labour Party) have imploded. Common trends suggest common cause, and overwhelmingly the most important one has been the replacement of traditional class politics by a new populist politics of nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment and Islamophobia, leading to mass working-class defections to far-right parties.
There is much truth in Paul Mason’s observation that “values, not direct economic interest or traditional allegiance, now define British electoral behaviour”, and here Labour faces a dilemma (shared by sister parties on the continent) in that its natural constituency comprises two segments which are demographically and attitudinally quite distinct: on the one hand, the disproportionately young, educated, often professionally employed and internationally-oriented city-dwellers with liberal views on immigration and asylum, welfare benefits, civil liberties, gender and racial equalities; on the other, older, working and lower middle-class, less well-educated voters living mostly in towns – the so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters – with decidedly more conservative, even authoritarian, views on these issues.
The Starmer leadership dilemma is how to restore confidence in the party whilst alienating neither of these two blocs. Its response has been twofold: to establish Labour’s credentials amongst Red Wall voters (seriously impaired in the Corbyn years) as a patriotic party which can be relied upon to defend British interests and security; and to reassure voters by adopting a stance of ‘ideological quietism’ and projecting an image of competence and reliability.
To take these in turn: Labour’s communications strategists have worked hard to dispel the perception, especially prevalent amongst working-class voters, that Labour was no longer a patriotic party which could be relied upon ‘to stand up for Britain’. Thus, Labour’s messages are full of positive references to patriotism, the family, the military and other symbols of national pride. For the hard left, reluctant to acknowledge that Labour even has a problem here, this is evidence that Labour has capitulated to conservativism. More nuanced criticism accepts that patriotism cannot be left as a prerogative of the right but contends that Labour should have formulated a more progressive version in which Britishness is defined by values such as fairness and social solidarity and by institutions that embody them, such as (most obviously) the NHS.
The second strategic prong has been called ‘ideological quietism’; that is, a “process of quieting, subduing or lessening” ideology. This involves eschewing policies, principles and language which might be deemed too contentious and too radical, and could be seized upon by a hostile press to frighten voters: a safety-first strategy which focus on the contrast between Starmer’s integrity, competence and trustworthiness, and Johnson’s ineptitude, dishonesty and unfitness to govern.
But is this enough to motivate voters to switch to Labour? Despite the many policies Labour has unveiled, a constant theme of opinion research is that many voters have no clear conception of what Labour is about. In fact, endless policy launches verges on the pointless; most people only attend to politics intermittently and have little interest in the twists and turns or details of policy. This accounts for the importance of leadership images as shorthand for appraising parties – which is why Starmer’s low polling poses difficulties. But Labour’s problems run deeper: the lack of a coherent communication strategy comprising a few crisp messages distilling Labour’s core messages. This, in turn, presupposes a convincing narrative; that is, a diagnosis of societal ills and some sense of how they can be remedied, and a set of values that can appeal to and enthuse people. Labour seems to have neither. Projecting a message of competence alone will not suffice.