The Vision Thing

We are beginning to see murmurs of disquiet from liberal commentators for whom Starmer not being Corbyn is no longer enough. How should we understand Starmer's lack of vision?

18 min read

Nearly a year into Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, there’s some pressure on him to define his political project, to explain what its key objectives are and give us a better idea of the post-Covid society he aspires to build. So far, Starmer has considered it sufficient to remind us that he’s not Jeremy Corbyn—or, for that matter, Rebecca Long-Bailey—which he has done ad infinitum. His willingness to attack and humiliate the socialist left has earned him no shortage of goodwill among polite society.

The Tory government’s terrible handling of the pandemic, with over 100,000 dead and one of the worst per-capita death rates in the world, has seen Labour draw more or less level in the opinion polls, and the occasional poll has indicated a Labour lead. Starmer and his supporters will happily take this as vindication of their strategy, insofar as they currently have one. They will argue that, so soon after a defeat as calamitous as that of December 2019, just to be neck-and-neck with the Tories is an achievement in its own right.

However, any Labour leads have been within the margin of error and there are continuing reasons for pessimism around the party’s prospects in the medium term. With boundary changes impending, Scotland all but gone and the Tories likely to enjoy some sort of polling boost from the (so far successful) vaccine roll-out, a Commons majority in 2024 looks beyond Labour’s reach. But it may yet be in a position to lead a government of some sort, and there are renewed calls for an electoral pact to that end.

Such indications of a vision as we’ve had, however, have been less than inspiring. An internal presentation (produced, with grim inevitability, by an outside consultancy firm) leaked to the Guardian lays bare both the scale of the problem and the apparent inability of the current Labour leadership to address it. Voters are, the presentation says, “what we stand for, and what our purpose is, but also who we represent”. Focus group participants saw Starmer as indecisive if not shifty, and his party as aloof and unpatriotic.

The presentation concludes that what Labour needs to win back support in the former ‘Red Wall’—which appears useful mainly as a device for disciplining the party and dragging it back to the right—is more ostentatious displays of patriotism. The language used is distressingly robotic and condescending: “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.” Come back, speedy boarding, all is forgiven.

Labour Together’s 2019 election review made it clear that the party’s crisis runs much deeper: it is rooted in decades of working-class defeat, the steady disappearance of the labour movement from everyday life, changing demographics, and the long-term breaking of the bonds that once tied Labour to its old base. Without a clear purpose, and a vision that goes beyond chasing favourable headlines and the next opinion poll, the party is likely to find that even if it does lead a government, the pressures of office will soon overwhelm it.

The party’s crisis runs much deeper: it is rooted in decades of working-class defeat, the steady disappearance of the labour movement from everyday life, changing demographics, and the long-term breaking of the bonds that once tied Labour to its old base.

Murmurings of disquiet

There have been some recent murmurings of disquiet in the liberal papers, betraying some frustration at Starmer’s reluctance to put real flesh on the bones, and at the timidity of his criticisms of the government. Writing in the Observer last month, Andrew Rawnsley noted that only three of Labour’s 23 leaders to date had won Commons majorities—a fact that surely ought to raise more fundamental questions about the nature of British democracy—and that they had done so by offering “a compelling story of national renewal”.

Rawnsley’s implication, though he can’t quite bring himself to say it out loud, is that Starmer has yet to offer anything of the sort. He is keen to point out, by way of mitigation, the “deep damage done to the Labour brand during the Corbyn years, when many voters concluded that the party had become nasty, factionalised and extremist”—eagerly encouraged by pundits like himself. A shadow cabinet member is on hand to emphasise the point with characteristic tact: “We’ve got the bounce from not being as loony as Corbyn was.”

A nervous Guardian editorial also pondered why Starmer wasn’t making more of an impression on the electorate. The fact that Starmer’s approval ratings have declined the more people see of him, the paper suggests, “indicates that Tory attack lines are working”. Perhaps just as likely, it indicates that left-Labour opinion has generally soured on Starmer as, having come to the leadership pledging party unity and an end to factionalism, he subjects Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters to a ritual flogging.

The editorial laments Labour’s failure to draw greater attention to the consequences of austerity, a decade of which has left Britain especially ill-equipped to handle the pandemic. At pains to appear constructive, Starmer has restricted his criticisms to government incompetence—hardly adequate to the task, given its whittling away of the social safety net since 2010, its unwillingness to repair it now (in case it can’t then snatch that back at the first opportunity) and its lavishing of public funds on well-connected companies.

While the Guardian puzzles over why the public are so inclined to blame one another for the Covid death toll instead of the government, much of the explanation lies in the wilful neglect of the British social fabric—and the denigration of any notion of the common good—so central to the dominant political common sense (i.e. neoliberalism) of the last 40 years. Of course, venturing into this sort of territory would raise awkward questions for the Labour right and the liberal centre, both deeply complicit in this process. So those questions go unasked.

The Labour right and its allies have had plenty of time on its hands in recent years, having spent Corbyn’s leadership in a (largely self-imposed) four-year political exile. They could have spent that time engaging in some serious self-criticism, asking themselves hard questions about how they lost control of the party, then analysing the mounting crises facing us—economic, environmental, political—and what they might do to address them. There is no indication that they have spent the time undertaking any such discussion.

Strapped for any other ideas, Starmer and his advisers appear to have adopted a slightly watered down variant of Blue Labour, with its emphasis on ‘faith, family and flag’. Blue Labour’s advocates often like to present themselves as awkward outsiders telling hard truths to a snooty, hopelessly metropolitan party, but their analysis and proposed solutions prove an easy fallback for Labour leaders precisely because they make the party’s problems appear less intractable, and therefore simpler and easier to rectify, than they are in reality.

Earlier incarnations of the Blue Labour project did appear to recognise the labour movement’s institutional weaknesses, talking—always rather vaguely—of the need to revive earlier traditions of mutualism and self-help via community organising. For Blue Labour’s leading thinker, Maurice Glasman, Labour took a wrong (statist) turn with the Attlee government of 1945, effectively abandoning this heritage in favour of the alienating, cold and bureaucratic delivery of public services and social security via the state.

But with Corbynism having taken ownership of community organising, articulating it to a much more radical political agenda, Blue Labour has appeared to lose interest. Instead it has devolved into a bleak social conservatism, dismissive of supposedly metropolitan concerns like feminism and anti-racism. This is class politics as morality play, or as the identity politics it professes to oppose: “the authentic small-island impulses of the real working class” versus the “ivory-tower preoccupations” of university-educated urban elites.

The sight of Labour leaders wrapping themselves in the flag is as old as the party itself. But today, it’s not so much a matter of slapping the Union Jack on a package of social reform but, increasingly, of substituting for one. With both post-war Keynesian social democracy and New Labour having been undone by capitalist crises, and with all but a handful of Labour MPs furiously opposed to the more combative left reformism of Corbyn, there is a political void which is being filled more with signalling than substance.

Hattersley’s critique

The most compelling centre-left critique of Starmer’s timidity comes from Roy Hattersley. Hattersley, one of the last remaining ‘big beasts’ of the 1970s-80s Labour right and an erstwhile devotee of Anthony Crosland, has been more than willing to cross swords with subsequent Labour leaders, both left and right. Having started out as an ardent admirer of Tony Blair (here he is, for instance, enthusing about Blair’s 1994 ‘Clause IV speech’), he subsequently carved out a niche as an eloquent, if ultimately ineffectual critic of New Labour.

He was, if anything, even more vociferous as an opponent of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This was to be expected, given that Hattersley, as deputy to Neil Kinnock, played such a prominent role in the counter-revolution against the Bennite left in the 1980s. Indeed, his personal animosity towards Tony Benn appears to have dimmed little if at all over the years, as evidenced by his somewhat bitter contributions to the BBC’s ‘Labour’s Lost Leader’ documentary, aired shortly after Benn’s death in 2014.

So determined was Hattersley to wrench the party out of the hands of the Corbynites, he intervened in its last leadership election to assert that if Long-Bailey won, Labour MPs (“genuine democratic socialists”) should mutiny and refuse to accept her as leader. In the event, with Long-Bailey soundly defeated, we never got to find out whether that would have been any different in practice to the Corbyn years, when much of the Parliamentary Labour Party simply downed tools—and instead picked up their cudgels.

Hattersley seems a little lukewarm, however, about Corbyn’s actual successor. His critique of Starmer is a veiled one—the man himself isn’t mentioned by name—and is couched in something of a history lesson. Hattersley notes, correctly, that the Labour Party has always carefully avoided defining its ‘socialism’, citing the (possibly apocryphal) definition attributed to Herbert Morrison, in various formulations: namely that ‘socialism’ is whatever a Labour government does in office.

Regardless, Hattersley says, Labour has in practice been “the party of equality and was prepared, within the bounds of respectable moderation, to engineer the redistribution that would gradually reduce the disparities in income, wealth and power that disfigure British society”. The boundaries of this “respectable moderation” have been very tightly drawn indeed; if equality were its goal, Labour has been singularly unsuccessful in attaining it. It has, rather, been the party of mild—though not insubstantial—amelioration under capitalism.

In fact, Britain was about as unequal after 13 years of New Labour government as it had been beforehand. Absent any enduring shift in power, even the more progressive aspects of the Blairite settlement were largely blown away by the 2008 financial crisis, with five years of Tory-Lib Dem government then undoing much of the rest.1 Now, Hattersley points out, life chances in Britain are as unequally distributed as they were almost a century ago. The lopsided impact of the pandemic has also borne down hardest on the poorest.

It is worth reflecting briefly on this stress on equality and its political implications. For Hattersley, greater equality would “extend the ability of the poor to make choices they were previously denied”, while curbing the excesses of the rich. But this idea of ‘equality’ also precludes more far-reaching change, including in relations of production. The conception is of a “reforming government” smoothing out social antagonisms from above, not a thoroughgoing transformation from below. The poor would still be with us, and the rich, though no doubt somewhat chastened, would still be rich. The fact that so much of the contemporary socialist left thinks along similar lines is a product of defeat and narrowed horizons.

Hattersley rightly adds, though, that if Starmer and Labour aim to change society, even in this more limited sense, they cannot hope to win “by grudging default”. Their policies should be grounded in “genuine belief” and deep conviction; Labour must also foster “the enthusiastic support of the people to sustain it through the years of obstruction and sabotage by the rich and powerful”. Refreshing as this recognition is, the sabotage under Corbyn wasn’t just coming from the rich and powerful—it was also coming from inside the house, from Labour’s own self-interested bureaucratic and office-holding layers.

To redress the balance, Hattersley argues, Labour should initiate a “national debate” on the subject of inequality, and nail its own colours firmly to the mast: it should make a full-throated case for a more egalitarian society. Detailed policies, at this stage, can wait—by 2024 they may have been rendered inadequate by events anyway—as the more important task is making a moral-philosophical case for greater equality. But can we have any confidence that Starmer and Labour will prove to be up to it?

Vacating the battlefield of ideas

It isn’t its originality that makes Hattersley’s argument worth engaging—there’s little in it that the Labour left and socialists in general haven’t debated for years—but the novelty of hearing these arguments made by a veteran Labour right-winger. Calls to ideological struggle from such quarters are as rare as hen’s teeth; as Hattersley himself acknowledges, the Labour right has usually made a point of being averse to ideological and philosophical speculation altogether, preferring to pride itself on its bluff common sense. This isn’t to say that it has been genuinely non-ideological, just that this is how it’s tended to see itself.

New Labour, in fact, was itself a rare exception to this. In the formative years of the New Labour project, its court intellectuals often liked to talk about hegemony and to namedrop Gramsci, but their reading of him was no less skew-whiff than the Tories’ reading of Adam Smith. Far from advancing a successful counter-hegemonic project, New Labour instead accommodated itself to the prevailing (neoliberal) hegemony. It was a more redistributive neoliberalism than the Thatcher incarnation, but such redistribution as there was came at the cost of accelerated marketisation and privatisation, along with deepening precarity.2

The incoherent nature of Labour’s ‘broad church’ makes any attempt to sharpen and clarify the party’s ideology a potential minefield. Raymond Williams made the point more than half a century ago in his classic essay, ‘The British Left’. The Labour alliance, composed of contending wings forced into the same party primarily by an unforgiving electoral system rather than shared common ground, is noteworthy for its “evident poverty in theory”. Electoral pressures compound the problem, leading to “a muting of necessary arguments”.

As those who raise awkward questions—usually the Labour left—risk being blamed for dividing the party and weakening it in the face of the Tory enemy, they more often than not tend to swallow their misgivings. The left in particular is easily guilt-tripped about ‘party unity’. The immediate beneficiary of this state of affairs is the Labour right, “those already large elements in the Party who broadly accept the existing political and economic system and who, apart from substituting themselves for Conservatives as Ministers, wish to make only comparatively minor reforms”.

Corbynism attempted to break out of this rut, gesturing towards counter-hegemonic ambitions. It changed the political debate somewhat, but couldn’t realise them: its lack of media support, its organisational weaknesses at the base and its isolation in parliament all tended to muffle its message. Nor could it consistently and convincingly articulate an intention to overturn four decades of neoliberalism, not least as that would have implicated those elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party still wedded to New Labour nostrums.

Corbynism gestured towards counter-hegemonic ambitions. It changed the political debate somewhat, but couldn’t realise them: lack of media support, organisational weaknesses at the base and isolation in parliament all tended to muffle its message.

All this contrasts sharply with the Tories, at least post-Thatcher. For Hattersley, the Tories are “knee-deep in dogma”, steeped in an ideology drawn from Friedrich Hayek and a tendentious reading of Adam Smith. However, the recent shift towards a more interventionist though still ill-defined ‘national conservatism’, ditching much of the discredited free-market theology of haute neoliberalism, reminds us they’re not too drunk on ideology to let it impede self-preservation. Right populism in the United States has continued to funnel wealth upwards, but this has done little to tarnish its appeal in the eyes of its supporters.

To Hattersley’s evident frustration, the Tories are so skilled at waging ideological warfare that they’re successfully able to present a deeply regressive political project, intended to buttress the power and privilege of a particular class, as the common-sense ‘national interest’—as the national-popular collective will, in Antonio Gramsci’s terminology—as opposed to Labour’s “vested interests”. Thus, the Tories are able to position themselves as the champions of individual liberty versus Labour and the oppressive ‘socialist’ state.

Part of the problem here is that Labour has generally tried to outdo the Tories on this same political terrain, without making any coherent attempt to redefine it; it has itself tended to view working-class demands as self-interested in a way that those of capital are never regarded. Hence, as Leo Panitch has argued, Labour’s conception of the ‘national interest’ has not been “in the Gramscian sense of formulating and leading a hegemonic class project, but in the conventional idealist sense of defining a ‘national interest’ above classes”.3

Any political education Labour has provided to its base has been an almost entirely conservative one, fostering deference where it ought to have been challenged and lowering sights where they ought to have been raised. Even in the neoliberal era, public opinion has often remained stubbornly social-democratic regardless, but as Ralph Miliband put it: “Hegemony depends not so much on consent as resignation.”4 It is this resignation which Labour has not just failed to combat but, particularly as New Labour, actively reinforced.

Any political education Labour has provided to its base has been an almost entirely conservative one, fostering deference where it ought to have been challenged and lowering sights where they ought to have been raised.

The social-democratic paradox

Hattersley’s article, with its impassioned call for a moral crusade against inequality, highlights the key difference between the revisionist, Croslandite old Labour right and its Blairite New Labour counterparts. New Labour figures frequently cited Crosland as an inspiration,5 but—ever relaxed about people getting filthy rich—they never shared his conviction that Britain could and should be a good deal more egalitarian. They felt no great revulsion at the grotesque explosion in inequality of the Thatcher years.

By the time New Labour arrived in government, the notion of equality of opportunity provided a political alibi for leaving Thatcherism’s regressive redistribution of wealth and power essentially unaltered. Provided everyone started on an equal footing, the logic went, there could be little justification for interfering with the disparities of wealth that resulted, based on merit as these were assumed to be. Of course, equality of opportunity in such a vastly unequal society was always a delusion, but it supplied New Labour with the smokescreen it needed. Crosland would, in all likelihood, have viewed such semantic games with contempt.

However, Crosland himself massively overestimated the achievements of post-war social democracy. In his magnum opus, The Future of Socialism, Crosland asserted that there had been a fundamental and permanent shift towards a benign post-capitalist society.6 When the crisis of the 1970s made clear just how wrong-headed this assessment was, the Croslandites were left all at sea. Jim Callaghan went to the International Monetary Fund in 1976, and Crosland himself—after much agonising—voted for the ensuing bailout. Keynesianism was over: “That option no longer exists,” as Callaghan himself said.

As a former disciple of Crosland, Hattersley is sincere in his egalitarianism, even if that egalitarianism is constrained by the limitations of top-down social reform. But as we saw from his opposition to Corbyn, he doesn’t seem to recognise the confrontation with capital which—in such drastically changed conditions—the pursuit of even fairly mild social-democratic reforms now entails. This is how it fell to Labour’s so-called hard left, the surviving holdouts of Bennism, to defend what remained of social democracy (including the welfarist gains of New Labour) while self-proclaimed social democrats took fright.

The failure to combat the myth of New Labour overspending has proved disastrous. The presentation discussed at the outset of this essay warned that Labour was still perceived as “the party of ‘spend, spend, spend’” and that “lack of economic credibility” still tarnished the Labour “brand”. This has little grounding in reality—Labour was culpable in 2008 because it had credulously gobbled up neoliberal dogma, not because it was too generous with the public purse—but it is a self-inflicted wound, and one that has left a lasting impression.

Labour spent five years under Ed Miliband visibly cringing and cowering at every accusation of profligacy (that it had ‘failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining’ in the infantile metaphor of the time). Not only did Tory-Lib Dem coalition ministers eagerly remind voters of ‘the mess [they] inherited’ at every turn, reliably signal-boosted by the media, but Blairite Labour MPs themselves essentially accepted the charge. By the time of the Welfare Bill debacle in 2015, only the diehards of the Socialist Campaign Group were prepared to defend the Blair and Brown governments against it.

However, the wider refusal to contest that narrative in the crucial period immediately following the global financial crisis, when the situation was still in flux, meant that it was able to stick. Jeremy Corbyn had some success as leader in belatedly challenging austerity logic; if it’s an overstatement to say he “won the argument”, he certainly shifted it and changed its terms. Instead of building on this foundation, Keir Starmer appears to have bet the house on earning a more favourable hearing from media outlets largely deeply hostile to Labour.

Starmer’s decision to disband the Community Organising Unit bodes ill for Labour’s ability to offset the deleterious influence of the media. No doubt it had its shortcomings, but it was given less than three years to patch up the damage done by four decades of labour movement decline. Its closure is a retrograde step, made at the behest of Labour’s most backward and managerialist elements: right-wing Labour councillors especially resented it, heckling Rebecca Long-Bailey when she mentioned it during the last leadership election.

Labour’s pre-Corbyn experiments with community organising were met with similar hostility.7 Having been introduced by Maurice Glasman, Ed Miliband appointed Alinskyite community organiser Arnie Graf as an advisor in 2011, tasking him with developing new organising methods. Graf, though no great political radical, received a cold reception from some members of Miliband’s shadow cabinet, who considered his campaign themes—among them payday loans and the living wage—“too anti-business”. Malicious briefings about Graf’s immigration status were even leaked to The Sun.

After a prolonged period of bureaucratic foot-dragging, the Community Organising Unit was launched by Corbyn in 2018. At its best, it hinted at a genuinely new kind of politics, and new ways of organising. This is why the Labour Party bureaucracy and so many of elected representatives were so keen to see it destroyed: there was always the danger it might give people funny ideas. It didn’t fit with Labour’s age-old “hydraulic conception of politics”, where “the masses hijack the experts into power, and then the experts do something for the masses: later… much later.” As a result, it had to be dismantled.

With so little media support, Labour’s capacity to initiate the kind of national debate on inequality called for by Roy Hattersley—even if the political will existed—is limited. Community organising, rebuilding Labour’s withered organisation at the base, might have offered one alternative outlet and a way of changing the political conversation from the bottom up. But that would have required the party machine and the politicians to relinquish some of their own power and privileges, and this they were not prepared to do.

The defeat of Corbynism was a triumph for Labour’s forces of sclerosis and elitism. Their rapid reversion to contrived nationalist posturing, amid the second potentially epoch-defining crisis in just over a decade, lays bare the paucity of their ideas. Labour frets that it gives the impression of hating its country; it certainly gives the impression of hating itself. The Labour MPs and ‘grandees’ who spent years portraying their party as being in the grip of sinister subversives and deranged extremists can hardly complain if this rebounds on them.

  1. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys. Searching for Socialism: The Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn. London. Verso 2020. p. 147-8. 

  2. Gerassimos Moschonas (in In the Name of Social Democracy: The Great Transformation, 1945 to the Present. London: Verso 2002. p. 194-5) has observed that New Labour’s defining characteristic was “change in neoliberal continuity”, retaining “the major lines of Conservative [economic] policy” while at the same time ameliorating their most regressive effects via “a highly targeted welfare state whose main role is to stimulate re-entry into the labour market”. 

  3. Leo Panitch. Working-Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State. London: Verso, 1986. p. 14-15. 

  4. Ralph Miliband. Socialism for a Sceptical Age. Cambridge: Polity 1994. p. 11. 

  5. See, for instance, Dick Leonard (ed.). Crosland and New Labour. London: Macmillan 1999. Roy Hattersley, along with Gordon Brown, are among the book’s contributors. 

  6. See Chapter 2, ‘Is This Still Capitalism?’, in Anthony Crosland. The Future of Socialism. London: Constable. 2006. p. 27-50. 

  7. See Chapter 5, ‘Labour and equality II: Power to the people’, in Eunice Goes. The Labour Party Under Ed Miliband: Trying but Failing to Renew Social Democracy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. 

  8. Stuart Hall. The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. London: Verso 1988. p. 171. 


Tom Blackburn (@malaiseforever)

Beyond Westminster co-editor