SKIP TO MAIN CONTENT

No, the problem with Keir Starmer is not that he hasn’t announced enough policies.

by Nicky Hutchinson
May 9, 2021

He's made his positions clear—the problem is that they're shit and unpopular. 1806 words / 8 min read

No, Labour was not held back in Hartlepool by the lack of a series of policy announcements to talk about on “the #LabourDoorstep”.

By-elections are not fought on manifestos. Jeremy Corbyn, as leader, defended ten Labour seats in by-elections and won nine of them—and seven of those were in the first eighteen months of his leadership, before any substantive policies had been announced.

“True,” you might say, “but everyone knew what Corbyn stood for.” Be that as it may (and, at that early stage, it wasn’t necessarily true), while voters could be forgiven for a lack of interest in Starmer, nobody who pays attention to Labour politics can claim for a second that they don’t already know what he stands for.

While voters could be forgiven for a lack of interest in Starmer, nobody who pays attention to Labour politics can claim for a second that they don’t already know what he stands for.

Leaving aside his very deliberate choice of the most right-wing General Secretary candidate possible, in order to smash, sack and expel the left at every level, Starmer has taken every available opportunity to distance himself from the previous leadership on political stances; far more so than any new other incumbent has done.

For someone with apparently no sharp principles, he acted quickly enough to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey and withdraw the whip from Corbyn. In Parliament, his leadership made a point of symbolically whipping an abstention on the presumption against prosecution of war crimes and torture by British soldiers, briefing the media that it was a welcome chance to distance the ‘new management’ from Corbynism. The same happened with the so-called ‘Spy Cops’ Bill, again briefing “that this posture is necessary to win back the former red wall heartlands, where voters, they believe, need to be convinced of the party’s commitment to national security”. Starmer has unilaterally repositioned Labour on Kashmir, and soundly reprimanded Stephen Kinnock for criticising Israel.

Ahead of the Budget, Starmer’s frontbench made a big point of opposing tax rises on business. We’ve had the dismissal of Black Lives Matter as a ‘moment’, Labour’s retreat from the Green New Deal, the frankly weird obsession with flags, and a refusal to back the NHS pay claim, in which he managed not only to repel health workers, but also, somehow, to position himself to the right of the Daily Express1.

In February, Starmer ineptly briefed the newspapers about his intention to launch “a major policy blitz” which would “paint a picture of what [Labour] would do in government”. Despite all the big talk, this ‘blitz’ fizzled out after the announcement of ‘British Recovery Bonds’, an embarrassing attempt to woo the comfortably off by painting a Union Jack on Government borrowing. All this after the Party’s earlier attempt to capture the imagination of the electorate via the much-vaunted, much-ridiculed JOBS JOBS JOBS campaign, which disappeared without a trace a few weeks later. The examples are endless. Starmer may have barely registered on the consciousness of some voters, but supposedly left pundits can hardly claim the more policy stances are needed, or that there would be any doubt about what those stances would be.

None of this should come as a surprise to those familiar with the work of his policy chief, Claire Ainsley, and the pseudo-empirical nature of her “public values-based policy agenda” and things are unlikely to improve with the hiring of New Labour guru Deborah Mattinson. The people with whom Starmer chooses to surround himself are the clearest possible indication of his political aims.

Yet, despite all this, major institutions of the left—from the Socialist Campaign Group to Momentum—continue in the charade of demanding a change in direction. This is understandable to an extent. The current balance of power within the Party does not favour the left and, while the option of a leadership challenge exists, the weakness of the left (including within the SCG) may mean that some feel that the only option is to ask nicely for a little bit of influence, as a treat. But the same weakness that makes a left leadership challenge unlikely to succeed also means that the left has very little capacity to influence the direction of the current leadership. Demanding a change of course obscures the reality of the situation, and pulls the membership in directions that are, at best, utterly useless. This doesn’t only bring the real risk of demoralising the remaining left membership—it’s also dishonest and undemocratic.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, for instance, seemingly envisions some smoke-filled room where deals are made, where he can stitch up some agreement on left-wing policy with the leadership. The membership, of course, have no access to these rarefied spaces in the first place. This feels like a salutary example of ‘the Biden delusion’, in which people mistake the US President’s few placatory concessions for a genuine engagement with the left. It’s a dead end.

But if a fear of being asked ‘Why don’t you put up a challenge?’ explains MPs’ hesitancy, what underlies the reluctance of left commentators to articulate what the dogs in the street know, and has been dazzlingly obvious to everyone else for months? To what can we attribute their bizarre insistence on pleading with a right-wing politician to stop kicking the left, please? Why are they so unable to acknowledge, loudly and clearly, that Keir Starmer is a committed ideologue of the Labour Right, whose demise as leader is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for any advance on the left?

Defeatism clearly plays a role, reflecting the belief that the left must sue for any little influence it can get. Maybe personal connections even motivate an honest belief in the hallucinogenic fantasy that there are still decent left-wingers around the frontbench, with whom a quiet word can be had in the hope of a change in course.

Similar in its Westminster bubble orientation has seemingly been the idea that the left should not be seen to be undermining the leader elected only last year. The passive voice always comes in handy for these arguments: it is never made clear by whom we are supposed to be afraid of being “seen”, or what we should fear from their disapproval. Perhaps this is the careerist’s fear of being laughed at on panel shows, of not being booked by TV producers; in short, of being seen as beyond the pale by the media establishment. If this has belatedly ebbed somewhat since the Hartlepool defeat, it will no doubt be back in force again come the next elections, when either Starmer or his replacement will be ‘given a chance’ while they continue to marginalise the left.

Then there is the labourist economism which pleads for policy elaboration, as if the aforementioned foreign and civil liberties issues were not ‘real’ policy areas, and as if statements and votes had no real effect. Presumably we can’t judge Starmer on his behaviour; we’ll only be able to tell where he stands when we have set-piece speeches pledging commitments on income taxes and other emblematic ‘wallet issues’, ahead of a General Election. Everything else can be overlooked, or so the argument seems to go.

Then there is the labourist economism which pleads for policy elaboration, as if the aforementioned foreign and civil liberties issues were not ‘real’ policy areas, and as if statements and votes had no real effect.

Finally, there is the mistake of mistaking Starmer’s lack of resonance with the public for an absence of political commitments. The greatest mistake that Labour socialists can make is to take at face value their internal enemies’ protestations of empiricism and lack of ideology. Starmer has acted ruthlessly in defence of his politics, but it is such a vapid, empty, substance-free politics that it chimes with nobody: a vague nostalgia for a slightly fairer capitalism, or for the 1990s neoliberal boom which temporarily concealed economic tensions, and a ruthless but clueless commitment to getting back to something similar. What is erroneously put down to a reliance on focus groups (which all politicians use) is actually a firm commitment to wrenching Labour back onto its pre-2015 neoliberal trajectory—a trajectory that leads nowhere at every stage, to the perpetual bemusement of its protagonists.

Starmer’s steely commitment to winning control of Labour and setting it back on its Atlanticist course could hardly have been telegraphed more clearly. It is hard to imagine that those who insist on pleading with him to change direction actually still believe it could happen. Until last week, adopting this stance of “constructive lobbying” might plausibly have come from a belief that the scale of 2019’s defeat meant the best the left could hope for was to push the leadership a bit on certain policy areas. But Thursday made it clear that this is not the case. While mistakes were made under Corbyn that should never be repeated if the left again wins power, Corbyn’s Labour, even at its lowest point, was far more popular in Hartlepool than Starmer’s.

Hopefully, Thursday’s results will have put paid some people’s illusions that the current leadership could be pushed to the left. But little will be gained if the same sort of approach is taken with Andy Burnham, Angela Rayner, or even - god forbid - Rachel Reeves. Nothing could be less inspiring to members, or threatening to the Tories, than the idea of the Campaign Group as a travelling policy roadshow, willing to offer its support to any ‘big beast’ willing to trade a few left-ish policies in return—only for as long as they’re in opposition. Starmer’s purpose was, after all, never to actually become Prime Minister, but to seize power from the left and make the Party ‘safe’ again for whichever non-socialists come after him.

As well as demonstrating, once again, the unpopularity of ‘moderate’ labourism, recent events have shown that politics and policies cannot be separated, and that if socialist ideas are again going to dominate Labour, that will only come from the left once again seizing control of the Party, by and for itself.

As well as demonstrating, once again, the unpopularity of ‘moderate’ labourism, events last week have shown that politics and policies cannot be separated.

Anyone who still persists in wailing that ‘we’ still don’t know Keir Starmer’s intentions is either too credulous to be trusted, or is actively trying to pull the wool over our eyes. The rest of us saw more than enough, long ago, to know exactly where he stands. Complicity in giving us more of the same—in the form of Starmer or anyone else—will be a serious dereliction of duty by those who have the power to speak out, or to do something about it.


  1. The Express, on 4 May, described Starmer’s hedging over the NHS pay demands as “embarrassing”, a “car crash”, and a “refusal to give nurses a pay rise”. 


Author:

Nicky Hutchinson