We Can’t Let Labour Return to the Pre-Corbyn Wilderness

As votes are counted in the Labour leadership election, the party faces a dangerous period: Keir Starmer, the favorite to win, is likely to try to drag the party back to the dark ages of top-down politics and centrist equivocating.

Labour leadership candidate Sir Keir Starmer speaks at a leadership campaign rally at the Roundhouse on February 16, 2020 in London. Hollie Adams / Getty.

Over the two months since the 2019 general election, ballots have trickled in for Labour’s leadership election. After the party’s defeat, figures throughout Labour spoke of the desperate need for a “period of reflection.” In reality, the near-instant leadership race essentially blocked that: with candidates jostling to secure enough backing at each stage, factions fought to gain a foothold rather than pause to consider precisely who the party lost, what policies or tactics turned voters off, or how the electorate could be won back.

This has been a problem for decades: with any crushing defeat, the leader is sacrificed instantly and a new figurehead is sought. In an ideal world, a genuine period of reflection would involve the incumbent leader acting as a caretaker while a broad section of party officials, from the shadow cabinet down through elected councilors and lay members of the party would conduct an inquiry into the demographics of who the party lost; the reasons for former Labour voters abandoning the party; why some people didn’t vote at all; and what happened in areas where Labour votes surged and bucked the national trend.

Instead, we’ve been treated to an incredibly lengthy procedure in which very little has happened at all. After a brutal election period in which many sections of the media ran riot in their over-the-top vilification of the party, the leadership battle has crawled along. Compared to previous selections, there are far fewer candidates: in 2010 six candidates vied for the top spot, while four did so in 2015. The three candidates this time — Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and the favorite, Keir Starmer — give voters slightly fewer choices, but also show that the right of the party is nervous about splitting the vote and allowing Long-Bailey through.

Long-Bailey has been very clear on her platform: working hard to push Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution policy, she has pointed out that Labour’s manifesto contained many policies with a great deal of public support. Some were ridiculed by the media, such as free broadband, but generally by people who had always been openly hostile to Labour. Anything new or genuinely innovative was shot down by centrists who viewed politics through an intensely narrow prism: Labour, in their view, should never diverge from a slightly softer version of the policies the Tories present.

Looking at the media’s treatment of Long-Bailey, it’s clear that the insistence she represents the “Continuity Corbynite” candidate is riddled with sexism: she is treated with little seriousness, her policies and pronouncements dismissed as though she is shadily controlled by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and the work she undertook in her shadow business brief largely ignored.

Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has set out little in terms of the direction he plans to take the party if — as current polling suggests — he wins. His focus has been on unity, bringing the party together, and ending factionalism, albeit with no clear details on how precisely he plans to achieve that.

Labour, like any other party, has always been subject to factionalism. Even ignoring the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, a left-wing group that included Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, the New Labour years saw a deeply ingrained bitter public battle between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, two men with ostensibly identical politics. The idea that factionalism has only come to the fore since Corbyn’s election and the birth of Momentum is a myth.

Starmer has been careful to avoid setting out a clear policy platform, presenting himself as a benign figure above politics who claims he can quell the dividing lines within the party. He has distanced himself from the Corbyn project by remaining largely silent on the party’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos. The tactical positioning is designed to appeal mainly to Corbyn’s critics. Despite serving as the shadow Brexit minister, Starmer has had relatively little to say on how the party’s Brexit positioning was responsible for losses in key seats. His appeal harks back to pre-2016 politics: if Labour can put forward someone who looks good in a suit, and maintains a moderate air, they can win an election easily against the Conservatives.

But there are multiple dangers inherent in that approach. The next general election is unlikely to be called before 2025: five years is an incredibly long time in politics. It gives Labour a long time to attempt to rebuild support in areas where the vote collapsed, but it also allows the Conservatives to set the political agenda, pass increasingly authoritarian laws, such as their points-based immigration policy, and it means the media will expect Labour to lurch to the right as the Tories present their platforms on the economy, social policy, welfare and health, and migration.

Starmer has also thus far received far less criticism than Long-Bailey — the attacks on Corbyn have simply migrated to Long-Bailey — but should Starmer win, the press will direct as much ire against him as they currently expend on Labour’s left. Gordon Brown had been chancellor of the exchequer for a decade before becoming leader, was intensely cautious about policies and political decisions, and was vilified by the press, including being asked on live television if he had ever taken antidepressants.

His successor, Ed Miliband, was intensely nervous about appearing too far left, arguing not that austerity was a cruel and unnecessary policy but instead that the Conservatives were pursuing it too vigorously, accepting their argument that cuts were necessary rather than economically damaging and ruinous to the lives of millions. He was rewarded by being depicted as “Red Ed,” with his father Ralph Miliband’s Marxist politics raked over by the press to smear him by association, and a photo of him awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich splashed across the front page of the Sun and shared extensively in the media.

Should Starmer win, every policy move, every announcement, and every decision will be torn asunder in a sustained campaign of red-baiting. The decision to stick by any manifesto policy whatsoever will be greeted with hysteria and painted as proto-communist. The media and the right of the party will seek to expunge any vestiges of the Corbyn era, and Starmer will either be forced to ignore the hysteria, or more likely bend to the pressure. The dangers here are palpable: in the last five years Labour’s published manifestos were lengthy and comprehensive; abandoning so much leaves very little to cobble together and move forward.

Labour’s problems will also not be solved simply with a new leader. Winning the next general election will require proper, long-term grassroots organizing: getting organizers to ascertain local issues and campaign to win material changes for people who are otherwise ignored, abandoned, or treated with contempt by landlords, local councilors or their own members of Parliament.

Labour’s community organizing unit took years to set up, and had little time to fully embed itself in constituencies before an election was called. But the election showed it to be enormously helpful in building up support and its success, evidenced in a short time period, was buoying. If community organizing is junked, top-down attempts to win back voters will fail: if the party only contacts citizens to ask for their vote, it does little to address the profound dissatisfaction with politics.

By contrast, if Labour Party staff actually help you organize to help you get your accommodations fixed, fight to keep your libraries and public spaces open, or offer support when your employer treats you with contempt, politics becomes far more relevant to you and your community.

A friend remarked after attending a Labour hustings in Liverpool that she felt utterly despondent after hearing Starmer speak, stating that he “seems to want to run the Labour Party like the Crown Prosecution Service” (prior to entering Parliament, Starmer was the head of the Crown Prosecution Service), pushing for a return to the managerialism that characterized so many former Labour leaders. Winning back power will not be possible with a top-down approach that sees politics as largely about appearing professional to the media in Westminster.

Alienating the thousands who joined the party after 2015 by dismissing them as “Stalinists,” as one of Starmer’s most high-profile supporters has done, deprives the party of a committed and highly skilled army of campaigners. Those members had been driven away by New Labour and the lack of opposition to austerity under Miliband. Through the 2017 and 2019 elections, they knocked on doors in baking sun and pouring rain for candidates who often publicly attacked the Labour left with no trace of gratitude. Many younger people didn’t vote for Labour in 2010 and 2015 because the party abandoned socialist values. New Labour’s legacy was also intensely authoritarian, as journalist Jon Stone has catalogued. Returning to the managerialism of past leaders is likely to be just as electorally ruinous as the previous iterations have been.

Party members are now expected to take a leap into the dark with Starmer. If he wins, the party is likely to adopt a top-down approach to politics that ignores the grassroots while attempting to purge the policies associated with Corbynism. The next five years will be intensely difficult for many of the most vulnerable in society, with an authoritarian Conservative government led by a megalomaniac pathological liar. The role of ordinary Labour members will be to battle to prevent a right-wing drift, keep community organizing key to the party’s electoral strategy, and try to reform the party, from local councils upwards.