Keir Starmer’s Anti-Politics Is Taking the Labour Party Further From Workers

This year’s Labour conference will be a jamboree for corporate lobbyists, hungry to influence a future Keir Starmer government. Labour poses as a competent B-team for capital — while telling working people that their needs are simply too pricey to fulfill.

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking to the media during a visit to Shefford in the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire, UK, on July 22, 2023. (Jacob King / PA Images via Getty Images)

Five years ago, the Labour Party’s conference was a sea of Palestinian flags. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to support suspending the sale of arms to Israel, in solidarity with the people of Palestine. As this year’s Labour conference convenes in Liverpool, those very weapons manufacturers will be welcomed with open arms. Boeing — who earlier this year agreed to supply the Israeli Air Force with twenty-five fighter jets — will sponsor the New Statesman’s fringe events. They will be joined by an array of fossil fuel companies, banks, and industry lobbyists determined to woo the “government in waiting.” The days when an antiwar activist led the party will feel like a long time ago.

Business representatives will make up almost a third of conference attendees. Trade union delegates, on the other hand, form just 3 percent. Despite the imbalance, the leadership continues to restrict members’ influence. Last week, the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) agreed that next year only motions considered “contemporary” would be allowed. A further step toward total stage management, this will aid the leadership in its efforts to eliminate the space afforded views that do not match their own.

With debate stifled and power stripped from members’ hands, what purpose does this year’s conference serve? A further look at the sponsors of the New Statesman’s fringe events holds the answer. For Ovo Energy and SSE, the goal will no doubt be to herald the private energy market’s role in mitigating climate change. Private health care provider Bupa eyes an opportunity to charm Wes Streeting, after the shadow health secretary hinted at further privatization of the National Heath Service (NHS). Financial groups like TheCityUK, Santander, and TSB will be out to get their claws into Labour’s promised £28 billion green investment fund — a predictably easy task.

This year’s conference will prove Keir Starmer’s rightward swerve represents far more than a betrayal of Labour members’ trust or the principles outlined on the back of our cards. Politics itself has been banished from the Labour Party.

Politics is ultimately about competing interests. It’s the distillation of the conflict between the many who produce wealth and the few who profit from it, of the confrontation between labor and capital. It is this that Starmer is determined to ignore. Happy to be swept along by the prevailing political winds, Labour tells workers it is not their job to “take sides” in industrial disputes. Climate activists are instructed to “get up and go home.” Children can’t have free school meals because “economic credibility must be rebuilt first.”

Starmer declares himself ready to fix “broken Britain,” but dampens the public’s ambitions for transformative change by constantly narrowing the party’s horizons. Without ever explaining what they are or who sets them, Labour politicians point to “fiscal rules” shackling them to the spending commitments already made by Rishi Sunak’s Tory government. Their promise to the electorate is to steady the ship, but not to shift course.

After Social Democracy

This is also about a broader change in the way of doing politics, as the traditional mass party model is being picked apart. Class politics has been swapped for transitory clientelism as the Labour Party’s identity is put on the market. This leadership is prepared to accelerate class dealignment and take Labour even further away from its historic working-class base. Beneath Labour’s offer of better management lies a gap in who the party intends to represent, ready to be filled by the highest bidder. As Streeting was recently asked on Channel 4, “So it’s just competence isn’t it? That’s what you’re offering.”

This summer saw Starmer’s team fulfill their West Wing fantasy and meet with representatives of the US Democrats. Far from hanging around with like-minded progressives, these engagements signal Labour’s embrace of Atlanticism and offer an insight into how the leadership intend to manage the party. It’s clear they are set on abandoning the key tenets of social democracy.

This process predates Starmer’s election and was rapidly accelerated during the New Labour years. “Modernize or die” cried Tony Blair as his centralized party machine severed what remained of Labour’s link to working-class communities, taking activists, and the electorate, for granted. By 2004, seven years into the Labour government, membership had halved.

Corbynism bucked this trend as the Labour membership swelled to well over half a million. Since that peak however, more than 170,000 people have canceled their direct debits and membership has fallen to 385,000. Picking up where Blair left off, shrinking the Labour Party has been a priority for Starmer since his election in 2020. Labour’s NEC has sanctioned move after move to restrict members’ influence. Their latest proposal to downsize the executives of local Constituency Labour Parties demonstrates that they are little more than an afterthought to the leadership. It wants only passive subscribers, who will knock doors to rally voters at election time but have little say in how the party is run.

The consequences of Starmer’s approach are already visible in Labour’s accounts. When he was elected leader in 2020, trade union funding accounted for 80 percent of donations to the party. That figure was just 11 percent last quarter — and dwarfed by private donors. Swathes of the City are now also of the view that a Labour government would be the most “market-friendly” election outcome.

The leadership has locked politics out of the Labour Party. Next week it will disappear from conference too. In this “post-political” era, as Mark Fisher wrote, “class war has continued to be fought, but only by one side: the wealthy.”

Smashing the Class Ceiling?

On the night that he became Westminster’s youngest MP, Keir Mather was asked about Labour’s plan to keep former Tory chancellor George Osborne’s punitive cap on benefits, which limits aid to two children per family. “We’re going to have to make extremely difficult decisions,” parroted the twenty-five-year-old as he offered his support to the Labour leadership’s position.

Tony Benn famously spoke of two categories of politician: signposts who point a clear path of principle and weathercocks who blow around with the winds of opportunism. Mather picked the latter within hours of his election. Earlier that month, his namesake and party leader insisted that, although abolishing the two-child cap would lift 250,000 children out of poverty, his showily “tough” decision to keep it was the correct one.

Unfortunately, Mather is no exception. Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidates are ready to unquestioningly take the leadership’s line. Professional perhaps, but without politics or intellectual curiosity. While Starmer promises his government would “smash the class ceiling,” the composition of Labour’s candidates says otherwise, with many runners having already honed their craft in the corridors of Westminster as political advisers.

Indeed, the Labour right has jumped at the opportunity presented by parliamentary boundary changes to remove sitting working-class MPs, like Beth Winter and Mick Whitley. In both these instances, they succeeded in shrinking the size of the Socialist Campaign Group, the three dozen MPs on the left of the party.

Starmer’s conception of class, however, is skewed. Labour’s “glass ceiling” narrative compensates for its failure to promise transformative change in favor of the collective. The notion of rising with your class has been removed. So, you have to rise out of it.

“They have nowhere else to go,” said Peter Mandelson of those abandoned by New Labour during the Blair years. His complacency is reflected in today’s leadership (perhaps because Mandelson himself has returned to the fold). The other option, however, is that those elements of Labour’s traditional coalition who are promised little for their votes will turn away from parliamentary politics.

By ditching class politics and embracing dealignment, the Labour leadership breeds alienation among the only social forces capable of shifting the political paradigm after thirteen years of Tory rule. Depoliticization, however, is exactly what this cabal of technocrats desire. If they can succeed in placing economics beyond the control of meddling politicians in the public imagination, then their mission to abandon politics entirely, to lock out class conflict in favor of neutrality, will be assured.

Repoliticizing Labour

Faced with a leadership intent on erasing Labour’s historic purpose, an imperative is placed upon the party’s left flank to defend what the Starmerites want to abandon: politics. A Labour government gearing up to better manage the decline of public services will not cut it in our age of accelerating crisis. But neither will giving up on state power, especially after the battering that public services have taken over the last decade.

As things stand, Starmer will stroll into Downing Street with the votes of a disengaged, unenthused public convinced that a radical break with the economic orthodoxy is off the table. In rejecting this framing, those in and out of the party must endeavor to elevate the public imagination. History teaches that, as crises intensify, this malaise will lift. Our job is to create the conditions for resistance by those this leadership is determined to ignore.

For all its cynicism and anti-politics, there’s a gaucheness about Labour’s blithe assumption that crises can simply be managed. Can the frustrated material interests denied a seat at Starmer’s table just be shuffled off to the margins? Those who Mandelson said have “nowhere else to go” are for now taking refuge at events like the World Transformed, where climate justice groups will rub shoulders with union delegates, and sessions ponder the potential of class politics in the twenty-first century.

In applying pressure to an incoming Labour government, building alliances with those operating outside the party is key. Benn, of course, knew a thing or two about extra-parliamentary politics himself, understanding that the Left is at its strongest with one foot in the party and the other in the streets. This however, as Benn said, will require “a few more signposts and a few fewer weathercocks.”