The View from the Sidelines: How the Left Can Adapt to Starmer’s Leadership

Corbyn's policies do remain popular with Labour members, but without the left building our influence independent of the leadership this is politically irrelevant.

6 min read

New polling by LabourList and Survation has confirmed what was perhaps already obvious – the Labour membership is deeply divided over Keir Starmer’s leadership of the party. When asked whether the Labour Party is “currently moving in the right direction or the wrong direction”, 55% of members surveyed replied “right” and 40% “wrong”.

Predictably, members on the left of the Party are much more likely to disapprove of Starmer’s leadership, with just 2% of those who backed Rebecca Long-Bailey in the leadership contest describing the current direction of the party as “right”. Furthermore, over a third of members who voted for Corbyn as leader in 2016 and then Starmer in 2020 believe that the party is moving in the wrong direction, as do over half of members who joined the party since 2015.

We should not overstate the drop in support for Starmer – 80% of members who backed him as leader still feel that the party is moving in the right direction – but, clearly, a significant proportion of left-wing members who backed his leadership campaign have quickly become disillusioned.

Disappointment in the new leadership has grown, and more than 50,000 members have resigned, despite prominent figures urging the left to “stay and fight” for socialist policies within the Party. These left-wing columnists and MPs argue that, rather than “shouting from the sidelines”, members should push Starmer to stand by the pledges he made during his leadership campaign as well as the policies that were developed under Corbyn.

It is certainly true that Corbyn’s policies remain popular with party members. The LabourList survey demonstrates large support within the Party for the left’s ideas, with 74% of those surveyed describing the policies of the 2019 manifesto as “broadly correct”. However, the Party’s national messaging, policies and election manifestos are not decided democratically by the grassroots membership but by the leadership office and Shadow Cabinet.

Indeed, Starmer has already watered down the Green Industrial Revolution, backtracked on commitments to public ownership, and whipped the PLP to abstain on reactionary bills. And, of course, he has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet and withdrawn the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, while his General Secretary has taken harsh disciplinary action against critics within the grassroots membership.

Within this context, encouraging members “to engage with Starmer’s project and to help shape it” only serves to establish unrealistic expectations about the ability of the grassroots to direct the leadership and influence policy-making. When left-wing Labour MPs are resigning from their frontbench roles and unions are reducing their donations over Starmer’s unwillingness to backdown on policy, what hope do the rest of us have? While Starmer worked hard to convince many Labour members of his left-wing credentials during the leadership campaign, he is now uninterested in maintaining that pretence. The claim that “a savvy left” can still somehow pressure the leadership into maintaining Corbyn’s policy programme rings false.

Encouraging members to engage with Starmer’s project and to help shape it only serves to establish unrealistic expectations about the ability of the grassroots to direct the leadership and influence policy-making.

Some on the left fear that speaking openly about Starmer’s successful bait and switch risks insulting the intelligence of, and alienating, those Labour members who supported his leadership bid. We should not, of course, replicate the patronising, snide, contemptuous attitude towards the membership taken by the Labour right under Corbyn’s leadership. But it should be possible to speak honestly about the realities of the situation without talking down to fellow Labour members.

Indeed, it’s perfectly understandable that members would fail to notice important differences in the politics of Rebecca Long-Bailey and Starmer when the latter’s pledges were carefully worded to disguise those differences. And it was reasonable for members to take at face value Starmer’s supposed left-wing ideals, track-record of activism, and ability to unite the Party when he had the public backing of large trade unions, Paul Mason, Laura Parker and Doreen Lawrence.

Ultimately, Starmer’s leadership election victory revealed both the success and failure of the Labour left between 2015 and 2019. Starmer’s ten pledges were an admission that the left had largely ‘won the argument’ within the Party on austerity, the Iraq War and free market economics. But, beyond these basic principles, we failed to adequately articulate what separated Corbynism from Milibandism – the desire to democratise and utilise the state to irreversibly shift wealth and power towards working-class people – and why that difference was important. By failing to pursue meaningful political education, the left made it easy for Starmer to borrow the language of Corbynism without committing to its substance.

We should not now repeat that mistake by playing down the differences between Starmer’s politics and our own. We should certainly not pretend that a return to Milibandism is sufficient to “advance the class struggle” or tackle the climate emergency. And if we are to “stay and fight” we must consider what that means practically and realistically.

Given Starmer’s hostile attitude to the Labour left, we should focus our energy on building our own influence within the party independent of and, when necessary, in opposition to the leadership. As part of this approach the left, including elected representatives, should publicly highlight and criticise the rightwards drift of Labour policy and Starmer’s authoritarian party management. Diane Abbott has taken the lead in adopting this approach and she should be joined by the rest of the Socialist Campaign Group.

With an eye to the next leadership contest, we should point out that, within the existing top-down structures of the Labour Party, the adoption of socialist policies requires the election of a socialist leader. To build for that contest, the SCG, Momentum, and the left media should work together to proactively raise the profile and ideas of those MPs who genuinely share our politics. If Unite, the BFAWU, and other trade unions withdraw funding from the national Labour Party, some of the money saved could be used to support and promote the work of these MPs. Electing left-wing members to the NEC could also be crucial in preventing rule changes that rollback the limited democracy that exists within Labour.

At a grassroots level, the left can work within the party to persuade others of our ideas and put those ideas into practice locally. We should aim to select left-wing council and parliamentary candidates, while using CLP resources to support community organising and political education in our areas. Kingswood CLP’s £1000 donation to a food bank is a good example of the membership using Party finances to support their local community, despite the bureaucracy’s failed attempt to prevent it. The conflict over this donation also reveals the differing priorities of the left-wing membership and bureaucracy and, in such cases, members who are uncertain about the direction of the Party would almost certainly be on the side of the left.

At a grassroots level, the left can work within the party to persuade others of our ideas and put those ideas into practice locally.

By taking such action, we can take positive steps to rejuvenate the Labour left after the crushing defeats of the last twelve months, ensure that our ideas remain popular with the party, and prepare to take control of the leader’s office once again. If, as a result of the left’s influence within and outside of Labour, Starmer adopts a radical policy programme that would, of course, be welcome. But we should not make that unlikely outcome our expectation or our aim, lest that detract from the real task of organising the left or limit our willingness to criticise the leadership.

There is, of course, no guarantee that this strategy will result in victory for the left. But, if we wish to capture the power of the state to implement our programme, this approach seems the most likely means of achieving that goal in the short-to-medium term. It is certainly more realistic and constructive than basing our hopes on Starmer adopting a transformative agenda.


Terry Cox