By Becci Heagney, Socialist Alternative (England, Wales & Scotland)
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour MP for Holborn & St Pancras and Shadow Brexit Secretary, is standing to be the next leader of the Labour Party. Prior to being elected in 2015, he worked as a barrister, was the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from 2008-2013, appointed to the Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 2002, knighted in 2014 and became part of the Privy Councillor in 2017. Already this shows his links to the establishment and whose interests he is likely to represent.
Despite being named after Keir Hardie, socialist and first Labour Party MP, Starmer went to a fee-paying grammar school and is now a multi-millionaire. As a barrister, it’s true that he did a lot of pro bono work, including campaigning against the death penalty internationally and working on the ‘McLibel’ case. However, as DPP for the CPS, he was responsible for the 2010 decision to not prosecute the police officer later found to be responsible for ‘unlawfully killing’ Ian Tomlinson (who died during the G20 protests in 2009). He oversaw the approach of quick and harsh sentences of young people involved in the 2011 riots and later defended the approach of “the speed [of processing cases] that I think may have played some small part in bringing the situation back under control.” He also argued for increased sentences to 10 years and a “tough stance” against so-called “benefits cheats”.
Starmer is ahead amongst Labour members in some opinion polls – perhaps reflecting that he attempts to appeal to both the left and the right within the party.His real politics, however, is very far from representing ‘continuity’ with Corbyn’s leadership. Starmer’s record, including backing the 2016 ‘chicken coup’, speaks to his real role in the last period – acting as part of the right-wing majority in the parliamentary Labour party and consistently seeking to undermine the leadership. In reality, he wants to take the party back to the right. But, is a so-called “return to the centre” really what the Labour Party needs?
Starmer’s role in the Labour Party
One survey by Opinium found that of 2017 Labour voters who defected to other parties in 2019, 37% did so because of ‘the leadership’ and 21% because of their stance on Brexit. And what was Starmer’s role in this?
It was primarily Starmer, backed by other Blairite figures such as Hilary Benn, who was the architect of Labour’s failed position on Brexit. He repeatedly undermined Corbyn’s position and as Shadow Brexit Secretary was given free reign to say what he liked. Notwithstanding criticisms that we can have of Corbyn, McDonnell and the left for allowing this to happen, it is completely hypocritical for Starmer to now blame Corbyn for losing the election because of Brexit!
It was absolutely the case that in order to win this election Labour needed to win both Leave and Remain voters to the Labour Party. This required taking an independent, pro-working-class approach, rejecting the pro-capitalist politics that dominated both the Remain and Leave campaigns during the referendum campaign. This would have required a principled opposition to the EU, using Corbyn’s demands for re-nationalisation as a way of exposing its neo-liberal character, and being more specific about what Corbyn would have tried to renegotiate and how he could deliver a Brexit in the interests of the working class . This approach, coupled with an internationalist position of actively linking up with workers across the continent, fighting to defend migrant workers and opposing racism along with opposing nationalism in any form (right or ‘left’), could have united Leave and Remain voters behind a socialist programme.
Instead, Corbyn’s position of remaining neutral and allowing the likes of Starmer to take the lead meant that Labour either came across as indecisive, satisfying neither the leavers who wanted an end to the Brexit impasse, nor the remainers who wanted to oppose a Tory Brexit.
Starmer consistently argued for a second referendum, including when Corbyn was arguing that the Labour Party would vote against Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill, by saying that they would vote for it if a second referendum was guaranteed. Starmer pushed for Labour conference to adopt a Remain position and when it didn’t and Corbyn abided by the decision to “stay neutral” (itself a mistake), Starmer was openly critical of this position. It was he who constantly said in another referendum that Labour would campaign for Remain, including calling the Labour Party a “Remain Party”.
As was mentioned earlier, Starmer was also part of the attempted “chicken coup” against Corbyn in 2016, where he resigned as a shadow minister in “protest” and backed Owen Smith as leader. We should remind Corbyn supporters of what this coup represented – an attempt by the Blairites to remove left ideas from the leadership of the Labour Party and to drive out supporters of Corbyn at all levels of the party. This was just one event in a 4-year campaign to undermine Corbyn’s leadership at every opportunity, which in no small way contributed to the impression many voters had of Corbyn as being a “weak leader”. Any MP who was part of this process should be judged as not just in opposition to Corbyn as an individual but anti-austerity ideas in the Labour Party more generally.
His leadership campaign
Despite his left rhetoric, there are also clear signs that Starmer is drawing from the right. For example, the chair of his leadership election campaign is former Progress (a Blairite trend) vice-chair Jenny Chapman. At the same time, Starmer has employed Simon Fletcher, who ran Corbyn’s first leadership election, as strategic advisor.
By Starmer saying, “We have had far too much division. We want to come together, we have to end factionism”, what he actually means is an end to the Corbyn project and the attempt to shift the Labour Party back to the left. His aim, as he has stated, is to appeal to both Momentum as well as “people who might self-identify as Blairites”.
The right wing of Labour, now mainly united around Starmer as a candidate, aim to reverse the partial gains made in the Labour Party for the left. Unfortunately, some sections of the left will also draw the conclusion that Corbyn was too left-wing and the next leader needs to be more “moderate”. As the above mentioned Opinium poll, as well as most other opinion polls show, it was not the policies of Corbyn that were unpopular. Policies such as nationalisation have majority support in the public.
Starmer clearly recognises this and is attempting to present a left-wing face by saying the party shouldn’t “lurch to the right”. It is a mistake for ‘lefts’ such as Paul Mason to support him and there needs to be an organised battle within the Labour Party to stop this from becoming leader, because of what it will mean in terms of a move away from left policies.
The loss of Labour votes didn’t start with Corbyn and the 2019 election. Blair repelled millions of working class voters from the Labour Party and Corbyn was tasked with trying to win them back. As well as issues around Brexit, the role of Labour-run councils in carrying out cuts over the last 10 years has had an impact. There was a jarring between the anti-austerity message of Corbyn and the actions of Labour councils in many working class towns. It would not be possible for the Labour Party to be transformed into a party that struggles against austerity whilst the councils are implementing it. Not to mention that the overwhelming majority of Labour councillors are opposed to Corbyn’s leadership.
CLP secretaries in the areas where Labour lost to the Tories in the last elections are said to be supporting Starmer. But they are mistaken if they think that he will be the answer to winning back votes from disillusioned working class voters in the North.
Starmer’s message is one of “unity” of the party, to not criticise Corbyn or Blair. However, even if we leave aside the cynicism of this approach, which is purely an attempt to gain votes from all sides, it also completely underestimates the civil war that has been taking place within the Labour Party. Other leadership candidates such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, as well as Corbyn himself, also made this mistake. It is not possible to sustain a “broad church”. This isn’t to say that there can’t be differences of opinion – in any workers’ organisation that will be the case – but it is not possible to combine the anti-austerity, pro-nationalisation and pro-worker message of ‘Corbynism’ with the diametrically opposed pro-austerity, anti-nationalisation and anti-worker record of Blairism.
For example, Starmer’s Brexit position is linked to support for the EU’s Single Market. This represents support for a race-to-the-bottom in wages and conditions across the EU, such as in the Posted Workers Directive, which allows companies to employ migrant workers based on the terms and conditions they would receive in their home countries, ignore existing trade union agreements and super-exploit migrant workers. This is reflected in his position that immigration is “too high” and needs to be reduced whilst at the same time arguing for “free movement of labour”. Socialists support free movement of people, including defending the right to asylum, but that is different to the free movement of labour which allows companies to move workers based on boosting profits. The Single Market also allows for privatisation of public services as part of “competition laws” – something completely at odds with the Labour manifesto demands of nationalisation.
It is for all these reasons that if Starmer is elected leader of the Labour Party, it will represent a set-back for the left and potentially a rapid move away from the anti-austerity message. We have commented elsewhere on the problems that the left candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey has, in terms of her policies and approach to the leadership campaign, as well as the problems she faces if she doesn’t tackle the Blairite wing of the Labour Party(https://www.socialistalternative.net/post/labour-leadership-race-mobilise-to-defend-socialist-policies). Despite these shortcomings we support her standing on a left programme.
In recent days Long-Bailey has taken the positive and correct step of declaring herself in support of Open Selection to increase the level of democracy in the Labour Party. Starmer has not committed to these basic democractic reforms, and as a representative of the Blairite wing of the Party should be fought against.