Labour has a serious problem. Until recently, it had popular policies presented by a historically unpopular leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Now it has no discernible policies and Keir Starmer: a leader as unpopular as Corbyn. The grassroots members are relatively happy with Starmer’s performance and afraid to return to the Corbyn brand, meaning that radical change is unlikely. Further, the party is in the grip of donors who would rather have the Tories in power forever than pursue a socialist agenda.
But the UK electorate has moved on. The Tories have successfully absorbed more than half of Labour’s traditional working class constituents by following a Little England strategy that mimics the Tories’ far-right rivals. Scotland is pushing towards independence and significant numbers of Scots who wish to remain part of the UK have drifted to the Tories, leaving Labour lagging in the country that was once safe. Tensions in Northern Ireland are rising between the socialist Sinn Féin party, which seeks reunification with the Republic of Ireland, and hard-right British nationalists like the Democratic Unionist Party.
Labour is doing well only in Wales and the big cities; the latter feeds Tory propaganda, that Labour is the party of the “metropolitan elite.”
After the financial crisis and great recession (2007-09), the political centre was shattered. Reactionaries blamed immigrants and social security claimants. Yet, many culturally right-wing voters wanted economically left policies. The UK Independence Party pretended to fill this role. Almost as many UKIP voters wanted the renationalisation of key industries as Labour voters: often by 10 percentage points more than LibDem voters, depending on the industry.
Led by Tories like city trader Nigel Farage, UKIP was never going to renationalise industry. It merely hijacked the racism of large numbers of economically-left voters and mobilised the cultural right as a pressure group to nudge the Tories into further Euroscepticism.
With 9.3m votes and just over 30 per cent of the share, Labour lost spectacularly under leader Ed Miliband who, in 2015, campaigned with centre-right economic policies like “austerity-lite” and the very privatisation that had become old hat. Labour missed a golden opportunity. Had the grassroots members put Jeremy Corbyn forward for the 2015 general election, Labour might have won: or at least had enough seats to form a coalition or government propped up by confidence-and-supply. At the time, Brexit wasn’t an issue. Corbyn’s history of Euroscepticism might have won back many ex-Labour voters who had defected to UKIP. We saw during the 2017 snap election how Corbyn’s pro-peace, anti-austerity, pro-green agenda ignited a groundswell, winning Labour 12.8m votes (40 per cent of the share).
What the public wants
But Starmer has none of the above qualities. As leader of the opposition, Starmer gives the impression that the Tories can get away with policies that literally kill people (particularly the late lockdowns) and plunder the public purse (chumocracy).
Consider these headlines: “Public don’t want Matt Hancock to resign, says Keir Starmer” (Huffington Post); “…Starmer backs cautious lifting of lockdown…” (Telegraph); “Labour to back Whitehall taking over running of Liverpool city council” (Times); “…Starmer backs delay in raising corporation tax” (Guardian); etc.
Thankfully, Starmer is not mimicking the racism of the Tories, yet he has abandoned his apparent Europhilia. This has both put right-wing voters off and alienated the cultural left. The one-time “Mr Remain,” Starmer has said nothing about post-Brexit regulatory alignment with Europe, betraying the Remainers who voted for him to lead the party. Although Labour says it is committed to a green industrial strategy, there is no pledge to put those jobs and infrastructure into the public sector. Renationalisation is clearly off the agenda.
The third of voters who a) care about politics and b) are not Tories want a return to the policies of Corbynism but under a brand that does not carry the heavy baggage. The three recent by-elections and local May elections show that Starmer’s approach has caused progressive voters in England to defect to the Greens and LibDems. As Labour’s approval rating declined by six points, the Liberals gained a point and the Greens three, particularly among younger voters.
In addition to not putting Corbyn forward for the 2015 election, the Labour left also erred in not removing the right-wing elements of the party while it had the chance. Corbyn could have made efforts to replace the Blairites who were in charge of the party machinery with Momentum activists and fellow democratic socialists within the elected ranks of the party. But he didn’t. Corbyn signalled weakness as fellow MPs publicly attacked the leader without repercussion: even reward in the case of Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, whom Corbyn nominated for a knighthood.
When Corbyn succeeded Miliband in 2015, Tony Blair said: “I wouldn’t want to win from a traditional leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.” The right-wing of the party—including MPs, councillors, lawyers, PR people, secretaries, and staffers—responded to Blair’s signal and seized on Corbyn’s unwillingness to remove them from the party. Informally known as Operation Cupcake, the project was designed to sow internal discord, waste members’ funds, and torpedo Corbynism.
The Independent summarises what happened: “Anti-Corbyn Labour officials worked to lose [the] general election to oust leader.”
Grassroots Labour members were hoping that Starmer would be an alchemist able to transmute the popularity of Corbyn’s manifesto with the electable presentation style of Tony Blair. To the public, i.e., the people who matter because they vote, Starmer is neither. To 50 per cent of Labour members, however, i.e., the ones who have the power to oust leaders, Starmer has changed the party for the better, even though the evidence shows the opposite.
Labour members are out of step with the general public. Fearing a return to Corbynism, the members have little enthusiasm to replace Starmer, though their position may change if Batley and Spen is lost in the coming by-election, as is likely.
What to do?
As long as the party is funded by wealthy donors who are happy to let the Tories keep winning because they share broadly the same economic agenda, Labour will lose ground to the Greens and the Liberals.
If Starmer’s leadership is challenged, the grassroots must elect a strong leader from a working class background, yet one who doesn’t carry the baggage of Corbynism. Without a major move forward politically, Britain will continue its moral, national, and cultural decline under a regime that replicates the far-right as a winning strategy.