Keir Starmer’s First Year as Labour Leader Has Been a Disaster for the Left

Last April, Keir Starmer was elected party leader on a promise to make Labour a “real opposition” again. Yet instead of pushing back on a dangerous right-wing government, he’s decided to make the socialist left his main enemy.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer visits the Leeds United Foundation, 2021. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

A year into his leadership, Keir Starmer has managed to defy the expectations of even his most ardent critics. When he was elected, polls found that he had broad levels of support across many demographics. In a relatively short period of time his Labour Party was neck and neck with the Tories in the polls. One year later, however, one in five Labour voters has an unfavorable view of Starmer. His net satisfaction rating among the general population is -9 percent.

For Starmer supporters, these numbers are evidence that Labour is suffering from some form of “long Corbyn.” But the reality of this reversal suggests otherwise; if Jeremy Corbyn had really put voters off voting Labour for good, Starmer would not have experienced such initial success in the polls. If anything, we would see the reverse: voters thinking Starmer represented continuity Corbyn would have viewed him in an unfavorable light before revising their opinions.

In reality, Starmer has no one to blame for his first year as leader of the opposition but himself. He has alienated socialists by waging a campaign against the Left and suspending Jeremy Corbyn from the party, while simultaneously losing liberals by refusing to oppose one of the most corrupt and authoritarian governments in living memory.

Rather than playing into liberal sentiments by condemning the government’s laissez-faire response to the pandemic, resisting authoritarian legislation, and proposing some ambitious policies to secure a just and sustainable recovery, Starmer has adopted his own form of authoritarian politics: one directed toward socialists within the Labour Party.

Meetings in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) across the country have been disturbed or shut down, democratic processes — like the selection for the next Labour candidate for mayor of Liverpool — have been obstructed, and MPs have lost their jobs for speaking out against the government. If any socialist leader had run the party the way that Starmer is today, there would be outcry.

And some of Starmer’s most egregious acts haven’t even received much attention. There has been little real coverage of the Spy Cops Bill and Overseas Operations Bill, which are effectively immunity charters for state actors involved in some of the most serious crimes imaginable. And liberal pundits have only seen it necessary to mention the government’s Police Crackdown Bill when repeating lies about the behavior of protestors trying to resist it.

To use a favored phrase of the liberal establishment in this country, the situation in the UK is becoming truly Orwellian. The government’s line is sacrosanct: it is repeated not only by the pliant media, but by the “opposition” itself. And these two factors reinforce one another: if the Labour Party doesn’t set the agenda by speaking out against government policy, then journalists are better able to avoid raising these criticisms themselves.

In a period during which hundreds of thousands of people have died, in which the government has been ravaged by scandal after scandal, and in which that very same government is now threatening our right to protest its abuses of its power, none of the most powerful institutions in the country have uttered so much as a peep of protest.

The only people actively resisting this government are ordinary people on the streets. And far from receiving support from Her Majesty’s Opposition, these protesters are repeatedly being condemned. It is at times like this when freedoms slip away without notice.

The relationship between liberals and socialists has always been tense — especially within the Labour Party. But these groups have also stood together at many points throughout history to fight against the abuse of state and corporate power.

Keir Starmer is less than a faint shadow of the liberals of the past, many of whom stood with socialists to fight for universal suffrage, for peace and in defense of basic human rights. But perhaps this has less to do with his nature than it does with the historical juncture in which we find ourselves.

Liberalism has always served to buttress the status quo. Today, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the status quo cannot be saved. Our economy is beset by permanent stagnation, punctuated by deep crises. Our democracy is under threat. And our environment is being destroyed before our eyes.

There are no moderate solutions to these challenges. Either we will follow this Conservative government down a path characterized by ecological, economic, and social collapse, in which the social order is buttressed through brute force and reactionary politics; or we will recognize that the post-COVID moment must be met with a radical, democratic socialist transformation of our economic, political, and social institutions.

After a year in position, there is no question which of these routes Starmer has chosen. But by failing to take a stand against the government, he will simply cede support to them. Many of his staunchest supporters are already beginning to distance themselves from Starmer’s leadership. But they are just as unlikely to offer any real opposition to this government as Starmer.

It is up to the Left, within and outside the Labour Party, to show that things do not have to be this way. We can live in a free, just, sustainable society in which our most important resources are socialized and governed democratically. As the government, supported by the opposition, seeks to foreclose such visions of the future in favor of a reactionary necropolitcs, it is up to socialists to keep this spark of hope alive.