The British Labour Party faces a struggle to transform itself into a viable government-in-waiting
The British Labour Party – from its rank-and-file members, through its parliamentarians, all the way up to its leaders – was traumatised by its defeat at the 2019 election and the 80-seat majority the Tories won (which now stands at 72).
This failure was the result of a combination of things: the party’s inability to effectively triangulate around the fissures wrought by Brexit; a concerted assault on the party’s leader and left-wing members by both the party bureaucracy and ‘establishment’ powers more broadly, and an electoral system that obfuscates the fact that most people who voted did not, in fact, vote for the Tories.
The complexity of those causes notwithstanding, what we have since witnessed has been a move back toward a particular style of governance, one in which the current leadership is committed, seemingly above all else, to establishing as much distance as possible between itself, on the one hand, and Corbyn and the wider membership on the other
In no particular order these distancing moves include: denying the whip to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn; instructing Labour MPs to stay away from the frontlines of labour disputes; shutting down MPs’ critique of the idea that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s rise to the premiership is a win for ethnic minority representation; high-ranking cabinet members expressing no particular qualms about the existence of the spectacularly rich; and current Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s arguing for stiffer punishments for people protesting climate destruction.
During the election for the party leader in 2020, arguments were made that Corbyn’s brief stint as party leader meant there could be no return to the Blairite era. It is hard now to make that case.
The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the party under his watch were delirious. Corbyn and the membership supporting him were, and are, painted, variously, as vicious, Trotskyist, antisemitic and populist. In reality, Corbyn’s rhetoric never escalated beyond calls for less inequality, a moral condemnation of austerity and a more equitable distribution of wealth to be brought into law via a process of sensible, expert-informed policies and sensibilities.
Corbyn is no more, or less, than a committed democratic socialist who opposes war and is more willing than the average person on the street to call out contemporary forms of imperialism.
Given the establishment reaction to Corbynism – which has not shifted one iota, as evidenced by the absolute media blackout on Al Jazeera’s recent damning investigations into the party bureaucracy – Starmer et al. know what they are up against.
Consequently, they must make political calculations with a view to whether or not their party is well placed to navigate, and win out over, what Engels described as the ‘parallelograms of forces’ currently at work in British political life.
One of the specific binds Starmer faces in this regard is the fact that the vast majority of the Labour membership is not an activist base that can cut through the realities of an institutional morass and media landscape that seeks to shut down any concerted attempts at resistance.
And, although the militancy of ordinary working people is increasing, these are newly fomenting forces moving along fragile trajectories. The Labour Party membership does not provide a militant base of the kind that is enjoyed by, say, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala, which can launch its members at a moment’s notice onto the streets to form a 620km-long human chain that carries the length of the state.
The kind of base, that is, that has often proven more effective in opposition as it has been in power. The majority of current Labour party activists, by contrast, simply do not commit themselves to the Labour Party in the same way, i.e. as the or, I wager, even a central, organizing feature of their lives.
Therefore, it is not irrational for Starmer, and the Labour Party more broadly, to want to avoid a battle where they must pitch an artillery of, for lack of a better term, part-timers against a revanchist elite, a vicious media landscape and the barren political culture it nourishes.
If one believes the membership, and whatever sympathetic voices in the wider public sphere, are incapable of mounting the mass mobilizations that could send a left-wing government into Westminster, then to stake one’s political chips on that strategy is, potentially, political suicide. This is not to say that the only route to state power for Starmer is to thumb through the Blairite playbook, but it is definitely an option, even as it also doubles down on the UK’s crippling democratic deficit.
It is an open question whether Starmer himself recognises the struggle in these terms, whether part of him is torn as he navigates his conscience, his political and moral commitments and these wider strategic problems. I don’t think, for example, as an intelligent man, he honestly believes the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which the party now officially endorses, does the work its supporters claim for it. (Even the author of that definition has been clear it does not.)
I think Starmer must regard his capitulating responses to all manner of issues as unfortunate concessions that need to be made to ensure they do not become so many hills on which another Labour leader dies.
One central problem for party leaders in this day and age is that communications between them and the membership, whether at party conferences or just an email outlining their thoughts, are always conducted with the broader public, rather than the membership, as the primary addressee.
As a result, Starmer is unable to honestly address any of the structural issues facing the party precisely because of how such honesty is inevitably filtered through the shallow analysis provided by journalists looking for a hot take and controversies to put a fire under. If Starmer took a firm and explicit left-wing line on Palestine – as internationally supported as that line is – it would be used to paint a party that remains riven by fractious disputes, which will precipitate lost points in the opinion polls.
We will probably have to wait for Starmer’s memoirs for how he, at this moment, is perceiving the political world that rots around all our ears.
None of this should be read as an endorsement of how Starmer has played his hand nor of how he has, if only implicitly, attempted to confront these structural issues. Even as he is now finding his feet, and the most recent conference did deliver interesting references to the formation of national energy companies and the building of council housing, he has been, all things told, uninspiring.
But, the Tories are in crisis, and it might be the time to present themselves as a government in waiting, rather than an oppositional force. The real test of Starmer’s mettle is what he does, once he is in power, about the array of corrupting economic, social and political forces that have forced his capitulations. Until recently, a large parliamentary majority did wonders for Tory confidence – it’d be nice to see what other purposes such a thing might serve.