DURING a fringe event at last year’s Labour conference, Jim Murphy offered his insight into how Keir Starmer would govern.
“I think they’ll be the first truly private-sector Labour government,” said the former Scottish Labour leader, admitting Labour intended to govern from the centre.
His reflections are not ill-informed. For a politician in search of power, Starmer has kept Murphy — who oversaw the near complete wipeout of Scottish Labour at the 2015 general election — remarkably close.
Together with his consultancy business, Arden Strategies, Murphy is firmly in Starmer’s tent. His unashamedly honest appraisal of the Labour leader’s plan is instructive in determining the direction of the Starmer project as the general election looms.
Today Starmer can barely tell you what it means to be working-class. Indeed, asked to do so on LBC, he stumbled and resorted to empty platitudes. This is hardly surprising when you consider that offering up anything more detailed would require distinguishing between the many who produce wealth and the few who profit from it, precisely the confrontation Starmer’s leadership has relied on ignoring.
In the absence of any discernible intention to deal in class politics, Labour’s ruling clique instead favour transitory clientelism, seeding power and influence to the highest bidder. They promise more competent administration, but little more.
Any popular demand for transformative change is dampened with reference to “fiscal rules” that prevent any break with the economic orthodoxy. The laws of the free market are taken as read. These are the politics of the extreme centre, defined by Tariq Ali as “the political expression of the neoliberal state.”
The consequence of this approach is a much-diminished offer to the parts of the electorate energised by the Corbyn project. In yesterday’s new year speech, Starmer framed his pitch in opposition to any kind of mass politics.
He promised a Labour government would usher in “a politics which treads lighter on all of our lives.” Removing politics from the popular arena is an important part of Starmer’s project.
The Labour leadership’s offer of better-managed decline can be far easier implemented with politics returned to its bubble and the potential intrusions of the public into the political sphere eliminated. This approach mimicks his management of the Labour Party, where for four years power has been stripped from members and centralised in the hands of unelected officials.
“Populism or nationalism,” said Starmer, is “exhausting.” Starmer plans to stroll into Downing Street carrying the votes of a disillusioned public like a good technocrat. Take young people, for example. Offered an end to tuition fees and investment in their future at the 2017 general election, more 18 to 24-year-olds voted than had done for a quarter of a century. Such transformational changes will be replaced at this year’s general election with promises to maintain the two-child benefit cap and abide by the “fiscal rules,” empty words that belie Starmer’s opposition to challenging capital.
As the trajectory of the Starmer project became clear, the movement that had erupted around Corbynism began to evaporate. Many of those young people who had been excited by a radical politics turned away again. This, however, was not simply a reaction to the Labour leadership. It reflected Corbynism’s failure to develop political depth. The Corbyn project was an “attempt to seize the state before developing class consciousness or self-organised communities,” notes Oliver Eagleton.
As a spontaneous left populist project, Corbynism lacked the capacity to build class politics among those the movement politcised. This bred a shallow politics that ran aground when faced with questions like Brexit. It illustrated the difficulty in marrying the divergent elements of Labour’s coalition. Corbynism, wrote Arthur Borriello and Anton Jager, “ultimately failed to bridge the gap between a metropolitan middle class… and a post-industrial working class.” Without the opportunity to embed lasting politics in its activists, a turn to apathy followed Corbyn’s electoral defeat, making it all the easier for Starmer to dismantle what had come before and lock out the left.
But the centre cannot hold. The last months of 2023 made that quite clear as Starmer failed to call for a halt to Israel’s genocidal war in Palestine. The Labour leadership has resolutely refused to deviate from Washington’s line, reportedly telling one MP that the party will not call for a ceasefire until the Biden administration does.
The inhumanity expressed in Starmer’s subservience to US imperial objectives, however, has sparked popular backlash. Labour’s clientelism has been exposed. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in support of Palestinian liberation, alienated by a political class that stood in lockstep behind Israel’s crimes. The public sees straight through Starmer’s attempts to play politics while Gaza is reduced to rubble.
As we enter an election year, the left’s strength is the political principle that Starmer and his ilk are determined to suppress. Our challenge is to rekindle the mass politics that the extreme centre fears, but to do so with an eye to political development. For this we can take inspiration from the Palestine solidarity movement that has gripped these islands and simultaneously breathed new life into anti-imperialist politics.
Coll McCail is a member of Scottish Labour’s executive committee and Momentum’s national co-ordinating group.
This article was first published in the Morning Star on 5th January 2024