Events this week have underlined the direction that Keir Starmer intends to take the Labour Party. Corbynism and class politics are out. Reheated Blairism and nationalistic flag-waving are in.
Starmer’s ‘patriotic’ pitch was the primary plank of his annual conference speech on Tuesday. Under the slogan of “a new leadership”, he and his shadow cabinet of right-wingers used the online event to stress that Labour would be breaking with the left-wing policies of the Corbyn era. Instead, the party’s focus would now be on “standing up for Britain”.
“We stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people,” stated shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, for example. “We stand up for British interests and we will always put that first.”
Lisa Nandy on R4 Today on what's changed for Labour: "We stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests and we will always put that first." Got it. From now on it will be Britain first.— rachel shabi (@rachshabi) September 22, 2020
The Labour leader, meanwhile, used his keynote speech to emphasise his “love for this country”.
All of this was to the delight of the establishment, of course. “He buried the hard left legacy of Corbynism with gusto,” applauded the Financial Times, the mouthpiece of big business. “In so doing, he consigned the Corbyn era to its rightful place as a shameful footnote in Labour history.”
The party’s new position was immediately put to the test yesterday, when MPs were required to vote on the Tories’ Overseas Operations Bill in Parliament.
The bill seeks to exempt British troops from prosecution in relation to any actions undertaken abroad. By Labour’s own admission, this “creates the risk that the very gravest crimes including torture and other war crimes go unpunished”.
And yet, under this ‘new leadership’, Labour MPs were ordered to abstain in the vote. Three left-wing junior shadow ministers, meanwhile, were pushed out for correctly voting against the bill. So much for Starmer’s promise of party ‘unity’.
I prefer the carer who spoke out against PPE shortages to the human rights lawyer who refused to vote against war crimes. Give me Nadia Whittome over Sir Keir Starmer any day.— RD Hale (@RDHale_) September 24, 2020
Instead of opposing this jingoistic Tory bill, shadow defence secretary John Healey sought to stress that Labour would “protect British troops and British values”.
Alongside Starmer and Nandy’s earlier comments, the message is clear: Labour is now the party of ‘Britain First’.
Aping the right
This marks a clear turn to socially conservative ‘Blue Labour’ values; an attempt to pander to reactionary ‘patriotism’. The left-wing internationalism and class-based approach seen under Corbyn’s tenure is to be discarded. Instead, Labour is now the party of ‘national security’, defending the interests of British imperialism.
This attempt to outflank the Tories is doomed to fail. Rather than lulling ‘Red Wall’ voters back to Labour, it plays straight into the hands of Johnson and the Conservatives, who will have no qualms about pulling politics even further to the right.
‘Keir starmer news: Labour Party's likeability plummets lower than when Corbyn was leader’ Astonishing that support 4 war crimes, torture, neoliberalism, the Tories COVID fiasco & the Board of Deputies reactionary diktats isn’t popular https://t.co/I1gOxufTqv— Andrew Feinstein (@andrewfeinstein) September 23, 2020
The result will not be to gain the Labour Party votes, but to embolden nationalists and xenophobes, leading to a ramping up of attacks on migrants, of racism, and of imperialist military adventures.
This is the logical conclusion of abandoning class politics and tail-ending the Tories. Influential figures such as Paul Mason who provide a ‘left’ cover for this scandalous strategy should take note.
Back to Blairism
Starmer’s leadership speech on Tuesday was part of the Labour annual conference, which this year was an entirely online event.
The virtual conference, entitled ‘Connected’, featured live-streamed speeches, training workshops for campaigners and officers, policy discussions and meetings. But what it didn’t feature was democracy. There were no delegates; no votes on motions or rule changes; no ‘referencing back’ on policy documents.
‘Connected’ could have been an opportunity for grassroots Labour members to discuss the party’s programme; to educate activists about the socialist alternative. But with a right-wing leadership at the helm, discussions were intentionally unfocused and nebulous.
And along with these vacuous policy ‘debates’ and officer training, there were exhibitions and panel events hosted by infamous right-wing organisations, such as Policy Exchange, the opaquely-funded think tank.
All of this was all too reminiscent of the Blair years, when conference was just a rally for the right-wing leadership, devoid of any democractic decision making or rank-and-file political debate; a networking event between big business and New Labour MPs.
In recent weeks, CLPs have once again had the power to vote on motions, using online platforms and tools. But emulating this digital democracy at a national scale is clearly not in the interest of the right-wing Labour leadership.
Instead, Starmer and co. are more than happy to remain unaccountable, retaining the ability to unilaterally decide party policy.
With the country facing at least another six months of lockdown conditions, it is vital that activists continue to organise online and agitate for an expansion of digital democractic structures. Conference – whether virtual or physical – must be restored to being the sovereign democractic body of the party.
The leadership, the NEC, the shadow cabinet, and the rest of the PLP must be held to account. And this can only be done by grassroots members getting organised, mobilising activists around bold socialist policies in order to take the fight to the right.
‘Serious about winning’
The headline event of the online conference was the leader’s speech. Keir Starmer was at pains to use this to draw a line under the Corbyn period with his new slogan: “A new leadership”.
Starmer stated that the party had “deserved to lose” the last election, and that it was “time to get serious about winning”.
What he failed to mention, however, was the sabotage of Labour’s electoral campaigns by party bureaucrats; the attempted coups and constant backbiting against Corbyn by right-wingers in the PLP (including himself); and the endless tirade of smears and slanders, led by the Blairites.
Starmer also looked to reassure the ruling class by emphasising (again) that Labour, under his leadership, will be a ‘credible’ opposition – that is to say, no opposition at all.
Since assuming the role of Labour leader in April, Starmer has failed to land a single blow against this catastrophic Tory government – for the simple reason that he has purposefully not attempted to do so.
This is a government that went begging to private companies for the manufacture of life-saving medical equipment and procurement of PPE; that outsourced the country’s test-and-trace system to parasites such as Serco and Capita; that starved our NHS for a decade; that tried to save the bosses’ profits with contradictory schemes such as ‘Eat Out to Help Out’; and that has tried to get workers back in offices and recklessly reopen schools, all in order to put private wealth above health.
Labour should be advocating for a socialist solution to this crisis: putting the economy under democratic workers’ control; expropriating the wealth of the capitalists in order to provide decent jobs and wages; and rationally planning production, in order to provide the equipment and infrastructure needed to fight the pandemic.
Instead, Starmer has simply spewed out a series of meaningless soundbites and ambiguous statements, refusing to take a firm position on any key issue.
His strategy is clear: by simply criticising the Conservatives on ‘competence’, rather than attacking them for putting profits before lives, Starmer is attempting to show the establishment that he is a ‘respectable’ and ‘responsible’ statesman – a leader who can reliably serve ‘his country’ if called upon to do so by the ruling class.
Prepare for war
In order to appeal to the left-wing mass membership during the leadership election earlier this year, Starmer committed himself to much of Corbyn’s manifesto: common ownership of rail, mail, energy, and water; reversing corporation tax cuts; and an end to imperialist wars.
But all of these policies are anathema to the Labour right. And this week’s events have shown that Starmer has no qualms about ditching these pledges and attacking the left, in order to appease big business and the establishment.
In short: hollow promises of ‘unity’ have been shattered. Starmer and the right wing have thrown down the gauntlet to the left. Grassroots activists must organise and prepare for war.