Keir Starmer Has Spent a Year Pushing Labour to the Right
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has been an incompetent opposition to Boris Johnson. But he has fulfilled his immediate objective during his first year in charge: waging war on the Labour left, attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy, and pushing his party to the right.
As Keir Starmer approached the end of his first year as Labour leader, there was a sullen mood in the camp. An editorial in the New Statesman, would-be house journal of Starmerism, complained that his leadership was devoid of vision: “The Labour Party seems to have lost confidence in what it is, what it wants and for whom it speaks.”
Tom Kibasi, an enthusiastic supporter of Starmer’s leadership campaign in 2020, delivered a scathing verdict on his record to date in February of the following year. According to Kibasi, Starmer had “provoked a completely unnecessary war with the party’s left” and launched a “full-frontal assault” on the Labour membership that was equally avoidable.
As Kibasi observed, Starmer’s belligerence toward the Labour left contrasted sharply with his willingness to “go easy on the government, rather than developing a clear message of his own.” In thrall to focus groups and short-term media hype, Starmer’s leadership was already in sore need of a reboot before it had celebrated its first birthday: “If Starmer were to depart as leader tomorrow, he would not leave a trace of a meaningful political project in his wake.”
All of this was undeniably true, and yet it missed the central point. The chief goal of the Starmer leadership has not been to land blows on the Conservative government of Boris Johnson — that was a luxury, as far as Starmer and his team were concerned, desirable but dispensable. Factional warfare against the Left, which Kibasi saw as a wasteful diversion from the main effort, has in fact been their overriding objective.
Twenty Points Ahead
Let’s begin with the polling figures. By the start of 2021, there had been nine months for the new leader to set out his stall and distinguish himself from Jeremy Corbyn. In opinion surveys from the first three months of the year, Labour trailed the Conservatives by an average of nearly five points. Out of fifty-seven polls, Labour had the advantage in four, and there was a single dead heat.
If we break it down on a monthly basis, Starmer’s pursuit of the Tories has actually gone into reverse. Those Labour leads and the tied result all came in January, when the average polling gap was less than 2 percent. By March, the gap had widened to more than 7 percent. Starmer’s personal ratings have also taken a hit by every metric.
Starmer had an explanation at hand for this setback: Johnson, he insisted, was enjoying a “vaccine bounce” as his government rolled out a large-scale vaccination program. We might pause to wonder how Starmer’s most enthusiastic supporters in the British media would have responded to a similar line from Jeremy Corbyn. The Guardian’s court jester Marina Hyde would no doubt have composed a very droll column, stretching the limits of her thesaurus to find synonyms for the word “idiot.”
That said, there probably has been some kind of bounce in Johnson’s favor, which doesn’t mean we should let Starmer off the hook. By any objective standard, Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has been disastrous. In a recent paper, Stanford economist Charles Jones argued there was no trade-off between lifesaving lockdown measures and the health of the economy:
South Korea, Japan, and Norway have experienced between 25 and 100 deaths for every million people in their populations and lost a cumulative total of between 2 and 3 percent of GDP. The United Kingdom, in contrast, has around a 20-fold higher death rate of more than 1,700 per million and has lost more than 8 percent of a year’s GDP. And of course there are many countries in between. The United States, for example, has suffered 1,500 deaths per million people and lost about 3.5 percent of a year’s GDP.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto was full of promises to ensure that Britain “leads the world” in one field or another, but this is not what the party or its electorate had in mind.
We didn’t have to wait for a US economist to draw our attention to the facts, either. Barely a month after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, the Sunday Times had already published a damning exposé showing that the government had ignored warnings from its scientific advisors and that Johnson himself was missing in action at a crucial time. By midsummer 2020, the Financial Times was reporting on a “blame game” that was now in full swing, as Johnson and his ministers tried to shrug off responsibility for “one of the worst death rates and biggest economic disasters of any major economy.”
Johnson is now experiencing his vaccine bounce without having suffered much of a pandemic plunge. In a situation where the government was culpable for thousands upon thousands of unnecessary deaths, a man with a prosecutorial background should have been ideally placed to draw up the indictment. But Starmer has done nothing of the sort, signally failing to hang the fiasco around Johnson’s neck.
One gets the impression that Starmer and his team expect the Tories to self-destruct at some point without being put under external pressure. In the meantime, the priority is to establish their bona fides with the gatekeepers of respectable opinion by supporting much of what Johnson is doing and projecting themselves as a safe alternative government that won’t ruffle any feathers.
It’s possible that this strategy could work in the long run. The Conservative Party has been in office for more than a decade now; a time may come — suddenly perhaps — when a critical mass of the electorate has just had enough. As things stand, however, the Tories could easily win an election held in the near future.
The Enemy Within
For all his passivity toward the ruling party, Starmer has been very active in other fields. A clear sense of his priorities emerged from a recent article in the Guardian that reported “deep frustration” with Starmer’s “lack of direction” among senior Labour MPs. Some of the criticism focused on two key staffers, Jenny Chapman and Morgan McSweeney. But their friends in the party knew what to say in response:
Sources said they had been flat out during Starmer’s first year, securing a new general secretary, shoring up Starmer’s support on the party’s ruling national executive committee [NEC] and trying to improve Labour’s organization in Scotland, where it now has a new leader.
The three steps mentioned here — ousting Jennie Formby as Labour’s general secretary, changing the rules for Labour’s NEC elections, and removing Richard Leonard as Scotland’s Labour leader — all formed part of Starmer’s campaign against the Labour left rather than any push to unseat the Tories. As the Guardian’s source went on to say: “An incredibly important part of our strategy has had to be fixing the party.” “Fixing” is a pleasingly ambiguous word to describe what Starmer has been doing for the past year: images of Tammany Hall spring more readily to mind than of a diligent mechanic replacing a broken valve.
It’s hard to remember now, but this is precisely what Starmer promised not to do when he ran for the leadership after the 2019 general election. His ten pledges set out a policy agenda that would stand well to the left of Ed Miliband, let alone Tony Blair. Starmer’s campaign video presented him as a friend of striking miners and printworkers, an opponent of Blair’s War in Iraq, and an ally of Jeremy Corbyn.
The fact that this proved to be complete hogwash should not have surprised anyone. Along with his explicit campaign message, Starmer sent out clear signals to the right-wing faction that had fought tenaciously against Corbyn, appointing one of their most abrasive operators, Matt Pound, to his team. It’s easy to imagine what Starmer and his allies were saying behind closed doors — after all, they kept his full list of campaign donors under wraps until he had the leadership in the bag.
Even if there had been no public dog whistles, it was perfectly clear that Starmer was promising incompatible things. If he stuck to the ten pledges, there would be no end to party infighting and no improved relations with the British media. The real question is why the Labour membership — including a crucial segment of those who had voted for Corbyn — couldn’t see through this masquerade.
Buying the Scam
An openly right-wing candidate pledging to bury Corbynism would never have won the leadership election, but Starmer’s fraudulent pitch was enough for a landslide victory. The fact that he served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet gave him a certain aura, when his refusal to vote against benefit cuts in 2015 and his support for the heave against Corbyn the following year were much better indications of his core beliefs.
It wasn’t just a question of trusting individual politicians, either. A lot of people who voted for Corbyn and then Starmer must have thought the party’s shift to the left was locked in, because the membership wouldn’t tolerate a regression to Blairite policies. If so, they greatly overestimated the leverage of party members once the leadership election was over.
As soon as Starmer was over the line, he began stripping members of influence by changing the electoral system for Labour’s NEC. There is no straightforward channel through which the membership can mobilize against his right turn, and no way for them to mount a leadership challenge — that prerogative lies with the party’s MPs.
Even if there was a fresh contest, any left candidate would have to run the gauntlet of Labour’s existing parliamentary group. The nominations threshold is lower than it was in 2015 — 10 percent of Labour MPs rather than 15 percent — but nobody is likely to make the same complacent assumption about a future candidate’s prospects that they did about Corbyn.
This, too, should have been clear before Starmer became leader. We have to chalk this down as one of the biggest failings of the Corbyn leadership: although they transformed the party membership in quantitative terms, they didn’t transform its understanding of politics, at least not to the extent required if their project was going to survive a major electoral setback.
“A Vision Nobody Wanted to Buy”
There was a revealing interview in February with Starmer’s parliamentary aide Carolyn Harris. Harris admitted that the Labour leadership now judges the success of its approach based on how much the party’s left wing complains about it, and said that the 2019 election result made her cry, not because of its consequences for people at the sharp end of Tory rule, but because some of her fellow MPs had lost their seats:
We lost them because we were selling a vision that nobody wanted to buy. Keir had to come in, get rid of all that nonsense and start putting together a credible opposition and come forward with credible policy when we are in a strong place to deliver on it.
The Labour MPs Harris mentioned all represented constituencies with a substantial Leave majority in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The “vision that nobody wanted to buy” in those areas was a second referendum, and nobody in the Labour leadership had been more anxious to sell that vision to them than Keir Starmer.
Starmer and his team clearly believe that Labour’s Brexit policy was a decisive factor behind the loss of seats in northern England and the Midlands. They have, to borrow a phrase from Carolyn Harris, got rid of all that nonsense. At the end of 2020, Starmer even whipped Labour MPs to vote in favor of Boris Johnson’s diamond-hard Brexit deal. The deal would have passed without Labour’s support, so it wasn’t a question of plumping for the lesser of two evils to avoid a no-deal exit. The Labour leadership wanted to send a message to Leave voters who had abandoned the party the previous year.
Liberal commentors who were so exercised by anti-Brexit maximalism when Corbyn was the Labour leader have taken all this in their stride. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee had no problem settling for the merest scrap of a loaf now that her man was in charge: “Of course Labour can’t vote down a deal, when even a damagingly inadequate deal struck by Johnson would still be better than none.”
But Harris wasn’t pointing the finger at Starmer when she railed against “nonsense” and claimed that the new leadership faced an uphill struggle to make Labour “credible.” Starmer and his team have set out to bury the left-wing policy agenda developed under Corbyn, replacing it with a bland managerial approach that promises as little as possible.
Adam Tooze recently complained about this “retreat from radicalism” into a “dangerous dead-end.” Tooze was particularly concerned about Starmer’s willingness to junk the plan for ecological transformation:
The Green New Deal was not radicalism for its own sake. It was radical because reality demanded it. Faced with the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath, the world-historic presence of China, Trump, the escalating climate crisis, and an unprecedented global pandemic, what more is needed to demonstrate this point? A politics that does not want to mobilize around these challenges, which prefers to deal in patriotic pastiche, forfeits any claim to be progressive.
Reasons of State
Nothing symbolized this lurch rightward better than Starmer’s decision to abstain on the notorious Spy Cops bill. This endorsement of impunity for state agents when they commit serious crimes was a message aimed at a much smaller audience than the vote in favor of Johnson’s Brexit deal. Starmer wanted to assure the people who control Britain’s security and intelligence machine that Labour now had a leader who would support them no matter what they did.
It’s worth recalling exactly why the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister evoked such uncompromising hostility from the British establishment. At first glance, it may appear baffling: under his leadership, Labour was not proposing to scrap nuclear weapons, withdraw from NATO, or disband MI5. If Corbyn had become Britain’s PM, he would have had to operate in a field of tight structural constraints. But there’s a certain amount of leeway for an individual politician to make choices of their own, especially when confronted with a sudden international crisis. It would also be very difficult to deny a lawfully elected prime minister access to classified information.
When figures like the former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove claimed that Corbyn would be a threat to national security, this is what they had in mind. Naturally, Dearlove dressed his warning up in respectable clothing, insinuating that Corbyn and Seumas Milne would leak intelligence to the Russians. He was really concerned that they might pass it on to the British public. The British state has been collecting skeletons in its closet for many years, and it simply wouldn’t do to have someone like Corbyn rooting around.
A recent report documenting war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan contained some revealing testimony from a special forces veteran: “Whatever we do, though, I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse. I’ve watched our young guys stand by and hero worship what they were doing.” Nor were such atrocities confined to faraway countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain’s state security forces extensively collaborated with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland responsible for hundreds of sectarian murders.
It’s little wonder that people like Dearlove were so anxious to prevent Corbyn from ascending to high office. He hadn’t gone through the usual process of selection or given them sufficient assurance that he would follow the rules of the game. Starmer is a very different kind of political animal. As Oliver Eagleton has shown, his record in the Crown Prosecution Service shows him to be a man who has fully internalized the values of the British state.
There’s no need to express this in conspiratorial terms. Starmer has not infiltrated the Labour Party on behalf of the “deep state.” Labour itself has been part of the British state system for many years, and its front bench is usually full of people who would happily collude with secret torture programs. Corbyn was the exception in this regard.
An Interesting Tell
One Starmer ally, Tom Hamilton, published a recent defense of his record as leader. He brusquely dismissed Tom Kibasi’s assertion that Starmer had picked a fight with the Left:
It is a reflection on Labour’s blind spot for antisemitism over the last few years that a section of the party interprets disciplinary action against those displaying or downplaying a form of racism as a factional attack — identifying themselves with something that need not be integral to their politics but perhaps, for some, is. It is an interesting tell. Starmer, elected on a specific platform of eradicating antisemitism within the party, simply cannot back down on this.
This is a risible argument, and Hamilton certainly doesn’t believe a word of it, but it is — to use his own phrase — an “interesting tell.” Starmer has decided to use false allegations of antisemitism as his principal weapon against the Left. He has stretched the idea of “displaying or downplaying a form of racism” to encompass stating the most basic and undeniable facts. With that conveniently elastic definition in hand, his supporters can present anything he does to marginalize the Left as an essential step toward “eradicating antisemitism within the party.”
This was how Starmer decided to stitch up his leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey. He had reluctantly appointed Long-Bailey to a position as shadow education secretary as a token gesture toward party unity. Her position turned out to be more important than Starmer had anticipated because of the pandemic and the arguments about reopening of schools. Long-Bailey sided with the education unions in the dispute, much to the displeasure of Starmer’s inner circle.
Instead of coming clean about his reasons for wanting to sack Long-Bailey, Starmer grasped hold of a miserable pretext when she approvingly shared an interview with the actress and political campaigner Maxine Peake. Peake had recently been in the occupied Palestinian territories, and that was naturally to the forefront of her mind when she spoke about racism as a interconnected global issue: “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
British journalists subjected this one-line spoken statement to an absurd degree of scrutiny. These are the relevant facts. For many years now, the Israeli military has provided training sessions to US police forces, including the police in Minnesota. Israeli soldiers also use the same restraint techniques that killed George Floyd, kneeling on the heads and necks of prisoners. The only dispute concerns the relationship between the training sessions and the restraint techniques. If US cops were indeed kneeling on necks long before they started receiving instructions from the Israeli army, Peake was guilty of a minor imprecision, based on an article she had read, while making a wider point that was unquestionably true.
She could certainly have reformulated her off-the-cuff remark in the following terms: “The Israeli soldiers who routinely kill Palestinian civilians and torture prisoners in custody also give training sessions to US police forces based on all the lessons they have learnt from an illegal occupation that has lasted for half a century.” The people who insisted on fact-checking Peake’s interview to within an inch of its life would have been just as angry if she expressed the point that way, so we can safely ignore their fulminations.
The idea that Peake was expressing an “antisemitic conspiracy theory,” and that Long-Bailey had committed a sackable offence merely by publicizing her interview, was a repulsive charade. Those who went along with this parlor game had to lie about the content and significance of what Peake had said to make the charge stick.
For the New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush, it didn’t really matter whether Peake’s statement was accurate or not. Talking about Israel at all in this context was inherently suspicious:
Why should Israel’s security services be treated as more responsible for the killing than those of the United Kingdom or France, or any of the countless forces that use aggressive restraint techniques? Why is Peake, a British actor, singling out the world’s only Jewish-majority state as the point of origin for the killing of an African-American? Why not focus on the country she lives in? Why not on the United States, where the killing took place? It is an example of the all-too-common behaviour of parts of the British left: of placing Israel at the heart of a global nexus of various ills.
We have heard a great deal in recent years about the nature of antisemitism, but very little about the nature of anti-Palestinian racism. Bush reproduced some of its classic tropes. The British and French police forces are responsible for many abuses, but they are not occupying armies keeping an oppressed, stateless people in subjugation, demolishing their homes, confiscating their land, killing and torturing them with impunity. When London’s Metropolitan Police shot one man dead in Tottenham under suspicious circumstances in 2011, it sparked off weeks of rioting in Britain’s major cities. We can only imagine what the reaction would be if the Met began imitating what the Israeli army does in Gaza or Hebron.
The fact that US police forces seek out training from Israel speaks volumes about their attitude toward the communities over which they exercise power. It is eminently worthy of note in discussions of global racism. The only “singling out” in evidence here was Bush’s insistence on protecting Israel from the same kind of scrutiny and stigmatization that other states have to face for engaging in gross human rights violations.
His column also drew upon another standard trope of anti-Palestinian racism — the idea that Palestinians are so worthless, so undeserving of solidarity, that anyone who talks about their oppression must have an ulterior motive, presumably rooted in prejudice against Jews. The fact that Peake had just travelled to Palestine and seen what was happening there at first hand still did not grant her the right to talk about it, so far as Bush was concerned.
The Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud previously worked with Maxine Peake on a play about conditions in Gaza. He composed a fine retort to the orgy of racism against his people that attended Long-Bailey’s sacking:
The UK media has been debating whether it is antisemitic to draw any links between US state violence against African Americans and Israeli state violence against us. As a Palestinian, I apparently have no voice in any of this — no one has come to ask me why we consider Israel an apartheid state. As it happens, I am tired of trying to prove my own suffering to the white man so that I can earn a measure of his empathy.
The idea that Palestinians might have a right to be heard in discussions of what constitutes legitimate speech about Israel simply does not register with the British media. That, too, is a sign of how endemic this form of prejudice has become.
One Too Many
The story of how and why Starmer came to sack Long-Bailey is vitally important because it leaves no room for misunderstanding about what was going on. Starmer could fake an allegation of antisemitism in full view and have it reproduced uncritically by the entire British media, including its more liberal elements.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland seized the opportunity to add new fabrications about the Labour politician Clare Short to the media narrative, claiming that she held Israel responsible for climate change. Freedland had clearly learned an important lesson from his previous experience of defaming a Labour election candidate, Maajid Mahmood: if you’re going to spread a false story, remember to stay just on the right side of the libel laws.
Long-Bailey, it should be recalled, had gone out of her way to avoid antagonizing the groups that branded Corbyn as an enemy of Britain’s Jewish community. During the leadership election, she immediately signed up to the ten demands of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD), which claimed the right to define what constitutes antisemitism. The BOD leadership systematically blurs the line between antisemitism in the true sense of the term and support for Palestinian rights: it successfully lobbied for the doctoring of school textbooks in Britain to suppress evidence of what Israel has done to the Palestinians. Long-Bailey’s submission to its demands did her absolutely no good when Starmer decided it was time to trash her reputation.
While some people on the Labour left were unwilling to learn any lessons from this experience, Jeremy Corbyn was not one of them. He showed a commendable reluctance to buckle in the face of relentless pressure. In July 2020, Starmer paid out a six-figure sum to settle a libel action arising from the BBC Panorama documentary “Is Labour Antisemitic?” Corbyn issued a statement describing that as “a political decision, not a legal one,” and standing by the criticisms that the Labour leadership had originally made of the program.
This was a curtain-raiser for the real show, which came with the publication in October of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report. The EHRC had launched an investigation in the summer of 2019 that looked at allegations of “institutional antisemitism” in the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn’s response was the very least that he could have said while maintaining his own dignity, and, more importantly, the dignity of his movement:
One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.
Starmer and his general secretary David Evans immediately suspended Corbyn from the party for making that statement.
Everything that Corbyn said was incontrovertibly true. The prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party was indeed “dramatically overstated” in every conceivable way. By the time of the 2019 general election, it was standard practice to depict a Corbyn government as an “existential threat” to the Jewish population of Britain. Countless interviews and op-eds drove home that message in one form or another. Guardian columnist Rafael Behr joined the dots in an article denouncing all those who had campaigned for Labour in 2019:
That complicity animated a pungent hereditary fear: no matter how rooted Jews felt in a country, a movement, a culture, one day there will come along a mob carrying tools to dig us up, telling us we don’t truly belong. It is the cautionary tale our grandparents told about keeping a suitcase packed and a passport close at hand. “At least we are finding out who would have hidden us in their attic,” one Jewish friend said to me. We laughed because it wasn’t even a joke.
If Behr genuinely believed any of this manipulative guff, he could certainly never be reconciled to Starmer, who served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and campaigned to make him Prime Minister, not once but twice. In fact, he’s been perfectly willing to praise his leadership and dispense advice on how to challenge Johnson more effectively. That is not the way you relate to the willing collaborators of a man you consider akin to Adolf Hitler (the Holocaust analogy “wasn’t even a joke,” remember). The sheer bad faith of this high-octane rhetoric is enough to make Boris Johnson look like a paragon of straight-talking sincerity.
The Labour left can either accept being presented as a uniquely malevolent force in British politics on the basis of sheer fantasy, or else defend the right of party members to state the facts without being subjected to disciplinary action. There is no middle ground between these two options, no room for triangulation.
When Starmer had Corbyn suspended, left-wing MPs could have issued their own statements, restating and expanding upon the key points that Corbyn had made. They could have pointed out the striking inconsistencies between John Ware’s Panorama documentary and the EHRC report. They could have noted that the report itself made assertions about legality that clearly have no basis in law. They could have reminded people of all the stories that crumbled into dust after a moment’s scrutiny, or challenged the remorseless drive to redefine the whole concept of antisemitism so that it no longer has much connection to prejudice against Jews.
These arguments would have put Starmer in an awkward position: would he now have to suspend a whole batch of Labour MPs for telling the truth? What was needed above all was the will to escalate the crisis. Instead, the MPs of the Socialist Campaign Group waited a week to issue an underwhelming statement, opposing Corbyn’s suspension without defending the substance of what he had said.
When John McDonnell gave an interview at the end of November, a month after Corbyn’s suspension, he insisted on a rhetorical framing that makes it impossible to mount a defense of any kind against the most outlandish claims: “You don’t calculate the numbers, you calculate the pain that’s inflicted, and that’s been immense.” If the British left follows McDonnell’s advice, it will spend the foreseeable future looking at itself in the funhouse mirror held up by its opponents, promising to go on a diet and eliciting only mockery in response. To avoid that fate, it’s necessary to smash the mirror, no matter how much shrieking it provokes.
This propaganda campaign is not really about Corbyn as an individual. It’s a vicious attack on everyone who supported his political project after 2015. People who signed up to that project out of idealism and a desire to challenge the many injustices of British society will not accept the absurd falsehoods propagated by their opponents. Nor should they be expected to.
Five months on, Starmer has been able to normalize the suspension of his predecessor as part of a general push against the Left. The Labour right and its media outriders still defend Tony Blair, a man of vertiginous unpopularity long after his departure from office. If Corbyn had tried to expel Blair from the Labour Party when he rejected the findings of the Chilcot report, they would have fought tooth and nail to protect him. The party’s left wing could learn a thing or two from that tenacity in defense of a lousy cause and apply it to a much worthier one.
The leading figures on the Labour left have been urging members to “stay and fight,” but so far it’s been all stay and no fight. They’ve brought a petition to a barroom brawl, and it’s little wonder that Starmer is now twenty points ahead in the battle he really cares about, against his inner-party foes. Whether they decide to stay in the Labour Party or take their chances outside, socialists in Britain should see Starmer in exactly the same way that he sees them, as an opponent to be fought against at every turn.