The ‘forensic’ Sir Keir Starmer is being wrenched in multiple directions. Workers and Labour members are prodding him to resist the Tories’ reckless policies. The establishment, meanwhile, wants him to pull his punches and drag the party back to the right.
So far, Starmer has tended to fall in with the latter. But more than ever, working people need a Labour leadership that will stand up for their interests, rather than bending over backwards to accommodate itself to big business and the status quo.
For months, Starmer’s ‘constructive opposition’ has left the Tories practically unscathed. He is lurching rightwards across the board: “embracing patriotism”; ditching Corbyn’s economic policies; watering down Labour’s position on rent relief; intensifying attacks on the left; and pandering to Modi’s reactionary government in India.
The Labour leader has quickly jettisoned all talk of ‘unity’, as he seeks to flush out the remnants of the Corbyn movement. The aim is clear: to make the Labour Party safe for capitalism during this period of profound crisis.
It is notable, for example, that there have been no consequences for the saboteurs named in the Labour leaked report. And it looks very much like the NEC inquiry will be a stitch up.
.@HackneyAbbott & @BellRibeiroAddy were supposedly “reprimanded” for a Zoom meeting.— James Foster (@JamesEFoster) May 3, 2020
Yet, as far as we’re aware, there have been no suspensions of the staffers named in the Labour report. Why not?
What I read was far worse than being in a Zoom meet.#LabourReportWhitewash
But Starmer cannot ride roughshod over workers altogether. Feeling the heat from the unions - in turn pushed by their rank and file - he reluctantly criticised the Tories’ outrageous recommendations to employers concerning post-lockdown health and safety measures. These scandalous ‘guidelines’ would leave workers’ health at the bosses’ mercy.
However, Starmer then released a conciliatory statement calling for a “national consensus” on dealing with coronavirus. He explained:
“When I was elected Labour leader, I promised to work in the national interest. And that’s why in the coming days and weeks I will work constructively with the government to ensure we get the best possible response to this crisis.”
Starmer is still trying to cut across class lines by offering his services to the bourgeoisie and its party during a ‘national crisis’. But there is no ‘national interest’ beyond class interests.
A man cannot serve two masters. Either Starmer stands with the bosses and the Tories, who want to get production underway again as quickly and cheaply as possible, regardless of the dangers; or he supports the working class.
Rather than peddling the reactionary fiction of national unity, and talking about ending the lockdown, Labour should be prioritising workers’ lives; eviscerating the Tories for their catastrophic handling of this emergency; and proposing socialist measures to cope with the aftermath.
When the time comes to end lockdown – not one second earlier than is safe – Labour should be fighting for a workers’ programme for resuming production. This means putting the trade unions, workplace committees, and shop stewards in charge of deciding upon and implementing the necessary health and safety measures, which must be paid for by the bosses and their profits.
Absence of opposition
While workers have died in droves over the course of this crisis, Starmer’s relations with the government have been positively cordial.
In a PMQ exchange with Dominic Raab last week, Starmer “unreservedly” lauded the government’s “progress” on fighting the virus as “an amazing piece of work, particularly the ramping up of [critical care] capacity, and I send my thanks to all who’ve been involved with it.”
Raab must’ve been thinking: with enemies like these, who needs friends?
Starmer’s comments came days after a BBC Panorama documentary demonstrated the desperate situation in care homes as a result of Tory policy, which have become centres of contagion.
At his first PMQs against Boris Johnson today, Starmer did the bare minimum by pointing out that Britain had the highest number of deaths by coronavirus in Europe. But he failed to mention the explosive Sunday Times exposé, which revealed how the Tories’ early pursuit of herd immunity contributed to thousands of needless deaths.
Starmer’s comments were a slap in the face to millions of ordinary people. But he has doggedly defended his approach. Speaking to Andrew Marr, he said: “I’m not going to score party political points. And I’m not going to demand the impossible.”
Instead, he intends to put pressure on the Tories “where appropriate” to “get things done”. Talking with Robert Peston, he explained:
“We’ll have the courage to support the government when it’s the right thing to do. And we’ll have the courage to challenge them when they’re doing wrong...Has testing gone up since we’ve been challenging? I think the answer to that is yes. Has protective equipment been raised as a very serious challenge? I think the answer to that is yes.”
In fact, the Tories aren’t even accomplishing the ‘possible’. Health workers are still having to fight COVID-19 in overcrowded hospitals without adequate PPE, resulting in a skyrocketing rate of infections and deaths amongst their ranks.
And despite Matt Hancock bragging about conducting over 100,000 tests in 24 hours (which former Blairite Svengali Tom Watson praised as “great leadership”), a third of these were counted before they’d actually been carried out. The government also fell below its 100,000-tests-per-day target days later.
In the Peston interview, Starmer also said that an inquiry into the government’s response was “inevitable” but “now was not the time” to press for one. But surely, with over 50,000 likely dead already due to the pandemic, now is precisely the time to call for a workers’ inquiry into the Tories’ lethal failures!
National government in all but name
Starmer’s new Shadow Cabinet has embraced Starmer’s ‘pragmatism’. The frontbench team has “been in contact with their Conservative opposite numbers, and the shadow cabinet are receiving briefings from relevant civil servants”.
An informal national government is already taking shape, with Labour propping up the Tories right when they should be taking them to task.
In the Guardian, for example, Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds said she would “call on the chancellor to work together, with me, with trade unions, with businesses and with local authorities across the country, to develop a plan to protect jobs and get our economy moving again.”
Elsewhere, Matt Hancock actually praised Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth for his “constructive approach” during the greatest crisis ever faced by the NHS.
And even Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said “it’s our job as an opposition to be constructively critical”. With the Tories preparing to reopen schools next month, despite the danger of a second wave of infections, a bit of destructive criticism wouldn’t go amiss.
Similarly, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds has said that his role is: “to engage on the practical things the government could do that would make people’s lives easier… rather than saying, ‘Let’s have a universal basic income [UBI]’, or ‘Let’s have a minimum income guarantee.’”
But a third of Britons are facing unemployment. A million small businesses are about to go under. And the Tories are promising further austerity to pay for the measures they’ve taken to keep the lights on.
In addition, Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also threatening to cut the furloughed workers’ wages scheme. Now is therefore exactly the moment for Labour to be demanding bold socialist measures - calling for ‘work or full pay’ - to protect workers.
Aside from playing a stabilising role for the establishment, the opportunistic Labour right also sees a possible road to power by presenting the party as ‘constructive’ during this crisis. They are keen, they say, not to be seen as ‘exploiting’ COVID-19 for ‘political gain’.
A party source said: “The approach we’re getting from the public is, ‘All of us need to be together, getting through this.’”
But this strategy is failing. Latest polls show the Tories actually extending their lead. Part of the problem is that Starmer has been so underwhelming that 57 percent express a neutral opinion of him, or none at all. According to YouGov, he is the 30th most-famous Labour politician. Corbyn remains number one.
"with Starmer in charge, Labour would be 20 points ahead in the polls"..... Oh, hang on.... https://t.co/qg8mibG8gv— #nowwashyourhands #UBI now (@PaulButters1) May 1, 2020
An Ipsos-Mori poll found that 24 and 18 percent of respondents thought that Starmer and Labour, respectively, were doing a “good job” of holding the government to account. By contrast, 43 percent thought the press was doing a good job.
Talk show pundit and tabloid editor Piers Morgan has emerged for many as the ‘real head of the opposition’. In recent weeks, the ITV presenter has consistently grilled the Tories for voting against NHS pay rises; slammed the government for its lack of testing; and described Downing Street’s strategy as “a fiasco from start to finish”.
Morgan is undoubtedly a reactionary. But he is tapping into a building mood of resentment against a callous, incompetent, and arrogant political elite.
With bold leadership and a clear socialist programme, Labour could - and should - be easily hammering the Tories on these same points, but from the left, on behalf of workers.
The media in general have started to turn on the government for fumbling the crisis. The ruling class would like to reign in Johnson’s clique, and build up Starmer. A national unity government – official or informal – would allow the ruling class to lean on the Labour leaders in order to hold workers back and maintain class peace.
Rather than preserving the rotten status quo, Labour must fight for a socialist solution to this emergency and the crises to come. Normality will never return. As a new chapter opens in world history, we need working-class opposition.
Labour is the biggest political party in Europe, with a left-wing membership and organic links to the trade unions. If a serious fightback is mounted against attempts to restart production under unsafe conditions, the leaders of the labour movement - including Starmer - will be under huge pressure to act.
Grassroots Labour and trade union members must fight against the reactionary fiction of ‘national unity’, which is the road to ruin.
Instead, we must push for Labour to support workers in struggle, and to present a socialist opposition to the Tories, who have subjected thousands to poverty and death.
And we must derive confidence from battles in the industrial field, as we continue to resist all attempts to drag Labour back to the Blairite swamp.