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Keir Starmer’s Attacks on Labour’s Left Are a Sign of Weakness, Not Strength

Since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer has worked tirelessly to marginalize the Left through bureaucratic stitch-ups. But Starmer’s dirty tricks betray the hollowness of his project — and the game’s not up for the Labour left yet.

Labour leader Keir Starmer at University College London Hospital on July 1, 2020 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Keir Starmer has been leader of the Labour Party for almost eighteen months. Despite some recent narrowing in the polls, he still consistently trails behind the Conservatives, and few people seriously believe he is capable of winning the next general election.

The central purpose of Starmer’s leadership, however, has not been preparing for electoral success, but rather consolidating the control of Labour’s hard-right factions over the party apparatus. On that front, his record has been one of roaring success.

Sealing the Tomb

From day one, Starmer’s victory meant that Blairite functionaries were in the party’s driving seat.

Morgan McSweeney, the architect of Starmer’s leadership campaign and until recently his chief of staff, is close to New Labour strategist Peter Mandelson. “I don’t know who and how and when he was invented, but whoever was responsible . . . they will find their place in heaven,” Mandelson said of McSweeney in an interview last year.

Labour’s General Secretary David Evans was a deputy party official in the early Blair years, while Starmer’s head of political organizing, Matt Pound, moved across to party HQ after a three-year stint as top organizer for the right-wing faction Labour First. Pound’s closest collaborator is Luke Akehurst, who is such a committed Atlanticist that he retrospectively cheerleads the US invasion of Vietnam, as well as being the director of a prominent pro-Israel lobby group and now a member of Labour’s ruling national executive committee.

By handing the party to these anti-socialist zealots, Starmer has ensured that Labour is once more a safe vehicle for capital and the British state. As a neutered opposition, at pains to please the security services and antagonize the socialist left while dwindling electorally, the party now resembles not so much “capital’s B team” as its permanent reserves. A central objective of those around Starmer is to render any future socialist leadership of the party impossible — to properly seal the “tomb” from which Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell escaped in 2015.

Between 2015 to 2019, Peter Mandelson has said, he sought a way to undermine Corbyn’s leadership every day. Now, as a socialist member of Labour’s NEC suggested to Jacobin, operators in the offices of Starmer and Evans aim to cook up at least one maneuver each morning to demoralize the party’s left. If enough socialist members leave in despair, the Right’s control of the party will be solidified without any need for direct “purges.”

In such a scenario of mass exodus, the leadership could push through the rule changes and procedural fixes needed to lock the Left out for good more smoothly and with less political fanfare. If there is a master plan, it is this.

What, then, are the Labour left’s prospects in the face of this attritional onslaught?

Mass Desertion?

Since September 2020, party membership has dropped by roughly 120,000, with a further 35,000 members currently in arrears. A recent rule change means that members who cancel their direct debits now immediately enter arrears, rather than after six months, thus becoming ineligible to vote in internal elections or participate in meetings. Every little push helps.

In the latest figures presented to the national executive, Labour’s current membership tally stands just north of 466,000. Some counsel against despair at these seemingly depressing figures, pointing out that the proportion of members who joined the party between 2015 and 2019, who are more likely to have been Corbyn supporters, remains relatively high. Fifty-seven percent of current Labour members joined in that period, down only 2 percent from April 2020.

However, if we take the membership’s orientation to Corbyn as a barometer of its shifting ideological composition, the picture is undeniably bleak. In January 2020 — in other words, with the selectorate that voted overwhelmingly for Starmer as leader — Corbyn polled as the membership’s most popular Labour leader of the past century, with a favorability rating of +42. Tony Blair came in tenth, with a net favorability rating of -25.

By April 2021, in a poll conducted by the same company, perceptions of Corbyn and Blair had virtually converged. As Corbyn’s favorability plummeted to +12, Blair’s rocketed to +9. Having said that, the close correspondence between the proportion of the membership favorably disposed to Corbyn (55 percent) and those who joined during his leadership (57 percent), alongside left victories in recent elections, suggests that a socialist majority in the party remains a fragile possibility.

Stitch-Ups

To abort that potential, the right has carried out a highly effective takeover of all levels of the party through stitch-ups and bureaucratic coups. The earliest and most important move yet made by Starmer and Evans was to change the voting system for constituency party representatives on Labour’s national executive in June 2020 from FPTP (first past the post) to STV (single transferrable vote).

They intended this fix, which many “soft left” MPs and activists cheered on as a victory for plurality and democracy, to block any future left majority on the national executive. Under the previous voting system — which remains in place for all other representative blocs on the committee — the socialist slate could easily win all, or all but one, of the nine seats up for grabs.

Left activists mounted a legal challenge to the move, charging that a party conference was the only body that could make such changes, and that the established rules expressly limited the NEC’s sovereignty over internal elections to the procedures and guidelines for their conduct, not the method of voting. Thanks in part to the sluggishness of the left-led union bureaucracies, the challenge proved abortive. The STV shift went through, and right-wing candidates then took four of nine seats in last year’s elections to the constituency section, handing Starmer a more comfortable majority on the body overall.

Insulated from left control and the majority will of the membership for the foreseeable future, the NEC has moved to further centralize power in the hands of unelected Blair-era apparatchiks. In January, it granted the general secretary discretion to unilaterally bar people from standing as Labour candidates in national or local elections if he deems them to have “embarrassed” the party. Previously, the NEC held such powers, for parliamentary selections alone, and to be exercised according to much tighter criteria.

With an iron grip on the party’s regional offices, Evans and Pound have empowered hard-right factions all the way down to branch level. There have been a series of crackdowns on constituency parties that were previously left-wing strongholds.

After the London Labour regional director appointed by Corbyn stood down in June 2020, Blairite cadre Amy Fode took their place and soon took a hammer to party democracy, exploiting the restrictions on political activity imposed by the pandemic. As an appointed bureaucrat, Fode was answerable to Jim Kelly, then the elected chair of London Labour’s regional board.

However, when Kelly — a taxi driver, trade unionist, and stalwart of the party’s socialist left — said something to which Fode’s staff objected in the course of a meeting he was chairing, they muted him on Zoom and stripped him of hosting rights.

Labour’s London Region staffers then overruled the elected regional board to successfully rig the regional conference. Towards the end of last year, the board voted to hold the conference in November 2021, but Fode informed them that it would take place in July instead. This meant that the conference would have to be held online, and that it would happen before the selection of candidates for council elections. When the conference took place on Zoom last month, dissenting delegates who dared to criticize Starmer or his deputy Angela Rayner were muted or ejected.

Trade unionist Michael Calderbank reports that the conference was cut off altogether as a left member was mid-sentence, urging: “We can’t just despair, members mustn’t give up . . .” Candidates from the party’s right, along with their allies on the “soft left,” took a majority of seats on the regional board.

Similar crackdowns have taken place in London constituency parties such as Streatham, where Labour London Region staff took over the AGM to oversee a highly suspect online voting exercise, or Tottenham, where party officials suspended the left candidate for CLP chair straight before the AGM — only to reinstate them three days after the regional bureaucracy declared their right-wing opponent to be the automatic winner.

All of Labour’s regional, constituency, and branch-level internal elections are now conducted through Anonyvoter, an opaque online voting system brought in under David Evans and owned by two Labour councillors in Croydon, his home turf.

In many places, mass suspensions or “witch-hunts” simply haven’t been necessary. The demobilization, dejection, and departure of left members, combined with the digital tyranny of unelected bureaucrats, has created opportunities for the right to seize control.

Proscriptions

There is a risk of ascribing too much political acumen and foresight to those in and around the Starmer leadership. As Oliver Eagleton has detailed, Starmer’s decision to withhold the whip from Corbyn after the lifting of his suspension from party membership appears to have been the product of panic rather than any grand strategy. Making an example of socialist figureheads and leading activists does, however, seem to be a well-developed tactic of the leadership in their drive to demoralize the Left.

On July 20, the leadership proposed to the NEC that membership of — or, more nebulously, association with — four groups should be incompatible with the “aims and values” of the Labour Party and lead to auto-expulsion. The organizations were Socialist Appeal, Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW), Labour in Exile Network, and Resist.

Members of Socialist Appeal, the British branch of the Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency, had been in the party long before Corbyn’s leadership, having stuck to their “entryist” line throughout the Blair years. The other three groups, on the other hand, consist almost entirely of people who had already been expelled from the party, often having been accused of antisemitism.

Targeting Socialist Appeal seems to have been a cheap McCarthyite sop to the media, stoking up memories of Neil Kinnock’s attack on the Militant Tendency in the 1980s. This reinforces the sense that Starmer and his team are wheeling out bad cover versions of the Kinnock and Blair years in a very different political context.

Militant was a real political force in its time, with a strong foothold in Liverpool’s local government that brought it into confrontation with Margaret Thatcher, and a handful of Westminster MPs like Coventry’s Dave Nellist. Socialist Appeal, in contrast, is entirely marginal: none of its members enjoys a national profile that one could compare to Nellist or the Liverpool council leader Derek Hatton.

However, the proscriptions as a whole served two purposes in the war against the Left. First, they offered Starmer the opportunity to expel some high-profile socialists from the party. Last week, party officials kicked out Ken Loach, a sponsor of Labour Against the Witchhunt. Party briefings to the media have suggested that another LAW supporter, Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) president Ian Hodson, may also be at risk of expulsion. In response, the BFAWU — a Labour affiliate since 1902 — issued a statement threatening disaffiliation from the party in the event of Hodson’s expulsion.

Chasing Loach out of the party was the latest manifestation of what the Unite trade union has called “the perverse strategy to establish Labour as a hostile place for those hundreds of thousands of members who have joined since 2015.” Threatening to expel Hodson serves the same purpose, as well as affirming Starmer’s hostility to organized labour.

There was also a second aspect of the proscriptions. The four groups were isolated and widely perceived (including by many on the Labour left) as “crankish,” impolitic, and difficult to defend. But the means by which they were banned has set a precedent that can — and no doubt will — be used to target others, in the first place through a spiral of guilt-by-association.

The papers approved by the NEC cast the net widely, with anyone who has written for Socialist Appeal counted as a supporter of the group. In the past few weeks, members have even been auto-expelled for having retweeted or liked the group’s content.

Even more absurdly, Pamela Fitzpatrick, who ran as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election, received a letter threatening her with expulsion because the Socialist Appeal website had interviewed her, twelve months before the organization itself was proscribed.

The paper outlining the reasons for Labour Against the Witchhunt’s proscription to the NEC gave as prime evidence of the group’s alleged antisemitism its rejection of the controversial IHRA “working definition” of antisemitism, its lobbying against that definition, and its description of the text as “fake” and “discredited.” Whatever we might say about LAW itself, this move is a sharp slide down a slippery slope.

Labour was already using the IHRA examples, which focus heavily on what can be said about Israel and intentionally silence discussion of the Palestinian people’s violent dispossession, to adjudicate complaints, and to bar people from standing as council candidates merely for having observed that Israel is a racist, colonial state. Now objecting to the examples is supposed to constitute a form of racism in itself.

Worse still, the NEC simultaneously approved the establishment of an opaque panel — which Unite has dubbed a “Star Chamber” — to be convened in the future “on an ad hoc basis as required to determine whether membership of a particular political organization is compatible with membership of the Labour Party.” All these moves were opposed unanimously by the representatives of left-led unions, and near-unanimously by other representatives of the party’s left.

Closing Time?

In spite of all this, resignation to defeat seems premature.

While a left-wing NEC member concedes that the situation is “really, really dire,” one leading Labour left organizer suggests that Starmer’s attacks come from a position of weakness rather than one of strength. Flailing electorally, lacking any meaningful social constituency for his project, and devoid of any political vision or strategy beyond zealous anti-socialism, Starmer is “falling back on a Blairite rump,” with his office now staffed by third-rank bureaucrats from the New Labour years.

In every national internal election since Starmer’s leadership began, the Labour left have taken the highest share of the vote: outperforming expectations under the new NEC voting system last year, dominating the youth wing’s national committee, and more recently retaining control of the committee in charge of procedural arrangements at the party’s annual conference.

This year’s conference is being held in Brighton next month. It will be the first under Starmer’s leadership because of the pandemic. There have been suggestions that a further stitch-up is in the works. The ultimate prize for the Labour right is a change to the rules for leadership elections, eliminating the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise 2015 victory could repeat itself.

That could mean increasing the nominations threshold, so that a socialist candidate will not be able to win the necessary support from Labour MPs to get on the ballot, or even scrapping the one-member, one-vote system established by Ed Miliband and restoring the electoral college, which gave Labour MPs one-third of the vote.

Starmer will hope that the constituency party delegates will tilt right this year, as fixers loyal to his project have done their best to ensure. Reports abound of rigged delegate selection meetings, and of CLPs that previously sent large numbers of left delegates only picking a handful of right-wingers to represent them in Brighton. However, in order to pull off any major transformations, Starmer would need significant trade union support, since Labour-affiliated unions have 50 percent of the votes on conference floor.

Intriguingly, support for Starmer from big unions that typically deliver for the party’s right appears rather precarious. Unison, the UK’s biggest trade union, still has a general secretary from the union’s right, but its national executive recently fell under control of the Left. We have yet to see whether this left majority will carry over into the committee that oversees Unison’s relationship with Labour. Nevertheless, such a shift in the internal balance of forces is likely to undermine Starmer’s ability to enlist the union in support of his factional maneuvers.

Meanwhile, the GMB, Britain’s third-biggest union, has a new general secretary, Gary Smith, whose approach may turn the union into a political wildcard. One senior official in a left-led trade union is optimistic that the Labour left can at least “tread water” for now in light of these developments.

There was a lot riding on the outcome of the Unite general secretary election, which concluded this week. Under Len McCluskey’s tenure, the union has been a bulwark for the Labour left and a key supporter of progressive causes in Britain more widely. Without it, Corbynism would have been impossible.

Starmer’s man in the race was Gerard Coyne, an unpleasant McCarthyite figure who would have eagerly supported purges of the Left, had he not finished third. Coyne had the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch’s fanatically anti-union Sun newspaper and issued the following war cry in its pages a few weeks ago: “Sun readers unite . . . and boot the hard-left out of our union.”

Coyne trailed behind Steve Turner and the victor Sharon Graham. Graham has pledged “all power to the workplace” and will focus on building Unite’s industrial strength. This apparent turn away from Westminster may involve less active support for the Labour left as a consequence of general disengagement from the party. However, Graham will be no friend of Starmer. His path towards sealing the Left’s tomb now looks increasingly narrow.

Dividing Lines

Across the Labour left, from grassroots activists to national organizers, union officials and socialist MPs, you hear the same complaints: of organizational incoherence, strategic confusion, and a lack of leadership.

Attempts to convene key players and coordinate serious discussions have thus far been unsuccessful. Everyone is sick of statements and letters of protest — those who pen them included. Slogans intended to encourage socialists to stay in the party (“Stay and Fight,” “Don’t Leave, Organize”) invite ridicule from those they are supposed to mobilize.

Two immediate and intertwined challenges face the Labour left: to reverse the hemorrhaging of its support base, and to keep the door open for a socialist leadership candidate to get on the ballot at the next available opportunity. To achieve either goal it will have to do more than simply tread water, important as that may be. Persuading activists to stay in — or rejoin — the party just so they can hold on by the skin of their teeth is a hopeless task.

Dropping the chimera of party unity and the futile attempts to influence Starmer’s leadership and trying instead to build a coherent, independent socialist pole of attraction would be a fruitful starting point. The Labour left crafted a program that came closer than any fielded by a major party in a Western liberal democracy to matching the realities we are facing and the radicalism they demand. It should take hold of this program and develop it further, putting forward a sharpened set of demands for which it can build support in social movements and the wider society.

Momentum and other institutional spaces have the potential to pursue such tactics in conjunction with — and while building up — the next generation of socialist leaders in parliament and the trade unions. Showing activists what they are staying to fight for surely has a better chance of success than simply telling them they must stay. Keir Starmer will not be Britain’s Prime Minister. This renders his platform immaterial. Even if he were to make nominal concessions on policy to the Left, this would no doubt mean co-optation of our themes without the substance. Indeed, this is already the way things are headed with the Green New Deal. That would constitute a strategic defeat — not, however great the temptation to misidentify it as such, a victory.

Starmer’s troubles are not simply the product of his personal deficiencies as leader, however numerous those are. His project is a feeble attempt to reincarnate politics as it was during the so-called “end of history,” a period that has itself long since terminated. Now that we stand at the end of the “end of history,” Starmer is pitifully lost.

The Blairite cabal around Starmer are committed to neoliberal orthodoxy at home and the pursuit of neoconservative fantasies abroad. They are yesterday’s people. So long as recapture of the party from them is still possible, the project of the Labour left will remain crucial.

After all, no alternative vehicles for majoritarian politics are apparent, and cascading ecological collapse has stolen the time required to build them. That alone should be reason enough to “stay and fight.”