Most people could have been forgiven for forgetting that, over the last several months, Labour members have been in the process of deciding their next leader. Clearly, the Labour leadership contest has been overtaken by events, but even before the coronavirus crisis hit many saw the coronation of Sir Keir Starmer as a foregone conclusion.
The campaign was not the ideological battle many expected. Instead, it deteriorated into a contest over a very narrow conception of “electability,” in which the candidate that looks and sounds most like previous prime ministers had a clear advantage – an advantage Starmer managed to maintain because the other candidates largely refrained from challenging him.
But we must recognize that another reason this contest was quite so boring is that none of the candidates could deviate too far from the policy agenda decided at last year’s conference. In 2019, Labour conference passed motions in support of the Green New Deal, a four-day week, maintaining and extending free movement, closing migrant detention centers, and integrating private schools into the state sector – all thanks to brilliantly coordinated campaigns from Labour’s members and trade unionists. Those policies remain overwhelmingly popular among Labour members.
It is true that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was about much more than policy. It promised to democratize the party’s arcane and bureaucratic structures to give members and trade unionists a greater voice in decision-making. It also adopted a particular stance towards Britain’s most vaunted elite institutions – from the media, to the private education system, to the corporate establishment.
Few other leaders have talked in the same way as Corbyn about “taking on the billionaires.”
We will have to say goodbye to party democratization and combative, left-populist discourse under new leader Keir Starmer. But the policy agenda developed over the last few years will live on for as long as we are prepared to fight for it.
In many ways, this agenda has always pre-dated and transcended Corbynism: elements of it can be traced back to the oldest socialist tendencies within the party. And while Corbyn and McDonnell deserve a huge amount of credit for popularizing this platform, it was Labour members and trade unionists who campaigned for, and delivered, the conference votes. As Corbyn himself told the country on December 13, 2019, “there is no such thing as Corbynism. There is socialism.”
As should be clear by the ease with which many members joined with the right of the party in electing Starmer, Corbyn always held together a diverse coalition, including both liberals and socialists. The tensions between these two camps will remain – particularly when it comes to the party’s attitudes towards the state and elite institutions, and the choice between building working-class power and moralistic reformism.
But, as last year’s conference demonstrated, most Labour members – whether liberal or socialist – are united in their support for a radical policy agenda. The challenge for socialists is to ensure that this determination is translated into action.
We have come some way on this front. Organizations like Common Wealth, We Own It, and all the “Labour for” campaigning groups that have sprung up over the last few years – as well as new left media like Tribune and Novara – can continue to argue the case for socialist policies, and hold Starmer to account if he abandons them. The World Transformed and its local offshoots can continue to provide much-needed political education.
Socialists in the party should commit to supporting these efforts. But we also need to focus on organizing within Momentum and the left-wing unions to ensure that the wider infrastructure that has been so critical in developing and winning the campaigns of the last few years is not allowed to collapse. If we do so successfully, members’ commitment to the policy agenda will remain solid – and can be the basis for ensuring the party does not slide back to the middle ground.
At the present moment, given the near-unprecedented unity in support of policies like the Green New Deal, public ownership and free education, it is simply not feasible for Starmer to abandon them in the way that many of the party’s anti-socialists would like to see. Any backtracking on policy in the name of “electability” or “feasibility” will be rigorously resisted by Labour members with experience of the popularity of such policies in 2017.
In fact, the debate about the feasibility of Labour’s policy agenda has, like the contest itself, been overtaken by events. Given the fairly moderate social-democratic nature of the 2019 manifesto and the extraordinary measures currently being taken by the government to deal with the most significant economic crisis in a lifetime, if Starmer were to depart significantly from it, he would find himself to the right of Boris Johnson.
In part, this goes to show quite how far the party had to go in transforming the instinctive mass opposition to public sector cuts into a wider critique of private ownership and the capitalist state. But it also speaks to the profound role played by crises in changing people’s conception of the possible.
If capitalist realism was wounded in the financial crisis, its foundations will be decimated during the coronavirus crisis. The slogan Keir Starmer lifted from (ironically enough) the anti-globalization movement, “another world is possible,” may prove to be true in spite of his victory.