Starmer’s victory: What next for the left?

Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet shows his concern to make sure both the left and right are represented in his leadership team. But Don Flynn argues that it is the extraordinary times we are living through which are generating the real opportunities for a decisive shift towards a new democratic socialism

The result of the leadership contest seemed settled weeks before Keir Starmer’s and Angela Rayner’s victories became official. The best evidence for this came from the signals being sent that party members who had considered themselves firmly in the Corbyn camp were prepared to vote for the party’s Brexit spokesperson rather than Rebecca Long-Bailey, who had been hyped up for so long as the Corbynite continuity candidate.

Why was this? A big part of the reason was the desire to see a politician at the head of the party who looked as if they might be able to actually win an election. Starmer also appealed to the part of the left who saw Brexit as an unmitigated disaster of historic proportions. The eventual winner got their vote because he had been seen to be the most effective person in the leadership group in opposing withdrawal on pretty well any terms.

Starmer, and his new deputy Angela Rayner, take positions which place them on the ‘soft’ left of the party. This is generally seen as meaning that, in the interests of getting into government, they will be willing to tilt towards the centrist and right wings of the party. But the choice of people to fill the shadow cabinet posts suggests a Wilsonian regard for achieving balance, with all the main wings and tendencies being represented at some level. The socialist left will particularly welcome the inclusion of Rebecca Long-Bailey in the top team in the important post as spokesperson for education. Chartist readers will also welcome Cat Smith’s retention of a place at the top table, giving her the chance to continue with her ideas on young people and voter engagement, regularly featured in the magazine, at the higher level.

Among the several important points to note is the appointment of Anneliese Dodds as the lead on treasury issues. This will bring her toe-to-toe with the Conservatives star-of-the-moment, Rishi Sunak, at a  time when he is being dragged at a startling pace in the direction of fiscal profligacy. Dodds hasn’t been strongly associated with any particular ideological tendency but her appointment has the strong endorsement of her predecessor in the post, John McDonnell. Just how she manages to dissect the government’s economic strategy during these fast moving times, making the case for vigorous public intervention and a final end to austerity, could well mark out Labour’s best chance to win back lost working class voters and regain power.

Crucial choices now loom before the activist left in the party which once styled itself as Corbynist. Those who use the Morning Star as their guide for action will be set to flounder if they follow its “return of Blairism” line. Seeing Starmer’s victory as portending a reversion to the blundering errors of the period of the Third Way is a serious misreading of where politics stands at the present moment. Most importantly, the enthusiasm for a dewy-eyed liberal version of globalisation, which was on the upswing in the 1990s and which propelled Blair into power, is no longer present. The absence of a key organising idea of this magnitude from the manoeuvrings of the newly formed “Labour to Win” outfit means that the right wing of the party will have a thin basis for their political appeal.

The extraordinary way in which state intervention has assumed dominance at this time, prompted obviously by the coronavirus crisis but also the still essential need to tackle the climate emergency, has marked out territory which presents the democratic socialist left with opportunities to make the case for democracy and a socialised economy. The places where these ideas have been discussed in the recent past – ranging from Momentum, The World Transformed, and Another Europe is Possible – now need to be reconfigured to fit in with the new situation which exists in the Labour Party. 

We no longer have a leadership team which closely reflects the commitments and priorities of the activist left, but we do have the enormous advantage of a political situation which favours the broad left, Corbyn-inspired programme that has been developed over the space of the last five years. This platform should now be cemented across the new leadership team and the whole of the Parliamentary party. Starmer’s ten pledges need to the bedrock of the programme to be developed over the next period. Socialist activism needs to place pressure on all the currents represented in the shadow cabinet to make sure that interventions in the national political debate develop and advance these positions. The elements of a mass democratic socialist party remain across the structure and politics of Labour and disciplined work on the part of the activist left will ensure they become its ruling ideas. Let’s not screw these opportunities up this time.

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