Trevor Fisher argues Keir Starmer is trapped in a Westminster bubble while trampling on member democracy
Labour’s direction since Keir Starmer abandoned the soft left platform that won the leadership contest in April 2020 has not embraced the challenges facing the party. While polls have improved as Boris Johnson has slipped back, the failure to tackle the gap between the metropolitan strongholds and smaller towns – highlighted by Lisa Nandy – undermines real progress. This shows LOTO is trapped in the Westminster bubble.
Momentum has argued that the autumn will see “a crucial conference where the objective will be to resist the continued efforts of the party leadership to crush democracy and to drive party policy towards the right”. It is true that a control freak regime on the New Labour model has emerged, but a clear policy agenda is absent, and Starmer has no clear identity. Indeed, policy has become a backwater, with a projected policy review having been launched and become conspicuous by its absence. However, the direction of travel can be tracked in the press.
For example, in the i paper of 24th May, the chair of the ConservativeHome blog, Mark Wallace, noted Ed Miliband had once criticised tax rises and that under Starmer “they’ve gone even further – proposing that the new Brexit freedoms should be used to cut VAT on energy, for example”. The idea that Labour can make Brexit work is a key dogma of Starmerism and will be shot to pieces if Liz Truss replaces Johnson. However, far worse was an article in the Evening Standard a week earlier giving an explicit view of the world as seen by re-emerging New Labour fantasists. Significantly, this spoke of “purges”.
Re-enter ‘purge’ politics
Written by Anne McElvoy, an editor at the neoliberal weekly The Economist, the piece presented the worldview of the Westminster bubble. Opening the piece with the claim that the problems of Labour derive from “long Corbynism”, this journalistic trope blames Corbyn for having “reignited a broader malaise for Labour”. McElvoy claims “insiders” are concerned “that old divisions may be proving more durable than Starmer hoped amidst the slog of re-centring the party and purging far-left figures from key positions”. McElvoy has no qualms about using the offensive term “purging”, with all its Stalinist overtones.
She went on to write: “Jeremy Corbyn is now widely expected to face a challenge to his candidacy in Islington North, a moment centrists feel will seal victory in a long tussle for power. My expectation is that Corbyn will be forcibly prevented from standing for reselection as he has had the whip withdrawn, but the myth here is that the members in the seat will overwhelmingly back the centre against the left. It is more likely a free contest will be banned as the opposite would occur. Starmer cannot risk losing.
Free contests look increasingly lacking in the world of LOTO. McElvoy contends that, “Internally, a ‘long purge’ of Corbyn allies has been underway”, and goes on to list the “holy trinity” of Starmer’s most trusted advisors: head of strategy Deborah Mattinson, a “polished performer”; Blair era staffer, Matthew Doyle; and chief of staff Sam White, who worked under Gordon Brown. McElvoy may not know Mattinson was also a Brown staffer, so some caution in seeing this as a Blairite coup is needed – the balance is 2:1 in favour of Brownites – but all have seen the failure of New Labour.
McElvoy sees the deputy chief of staff, Helene Reardon Bond, as “an intriguing political shape-shifter” who had worked for Corbyn along with her husband and son. Seen by McElvoy as a sop to “the left wing of a bruised party”, it is more important that McKelvoy defines her as a “prominent member of a so-called ‘Camden’ clique”. The role played in LOTO is less important than operating in the Westminster bubble.
The future is not member democracy
McElvoy’s most significant statement is the following:
“The battle to defeat the ‘old testament’ of Corbyn, according to one senior figure in the leader’s office, has just played out in Wakefield [which] highlighted the gap between some local party organisations and Starmer. The entire local executive resigned, accusing the leader’s office of stitching up the selection of Simon Lightwood”.
This is regarded by one source as Starmer “putting his stamp on the next election”.
At this point, a number of crucial issues open up for more extended discussion. The most important immediately, given that Wakefield is unlikely to be lost with Johnson struggling to survive, is the long-term message sent out by Starmer’s operation. In Stoke, according to the Guardian, he has visited seven times. Virtually no one that I know knows if this is so, and the local paper has knowledge of only two visits. The one covered by the Guardian featured a focus group and a photo opportunity for Rachel Reeves. The impression is powerfully created by the current LOTO operation that local people simply don’t count, and that decisions are made within the bubble. Given the pressure to shift policy to the right, the direction of travel is not to take decisions to an open vote.
Momentum are correct that this is not a world of member – or any other kind of – democracy. Sadly, as longlisting was their sole constitutional victory at the 2021 conference, and was kicked into touch with studied ease, it is unlikely Momentum can do anything effective to oppose it. Something more overarching will be needed.