18 August 2020

Labour’s civil wars happen often enough – but this one is different


The knives are out for Keir Starmer already, if social media rumblings are to be taken seriously. At least one leftist Twitter account – one that boasts it is followed by both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – has pledged a challenge to his leadership by next year, while #StarmerOut was trending at the weekend.

The unwary might assume that discontent with Starmer among Corbyn’s acolytes is based on frustration that, despite the Government’s many obvious weaknesses and mistakes – the A-level debacle being just one of them – Labour is still finding that taking a national poll lead is a daunting, and so far unmet, challenge.

But this latest shot across Starmer’s bows is about more than opinion polls. It’s about ideology and, almost as important, it is about history.

A question frequently asked by Labour members and commentators is whether Starmer will turn out to be a Neil Kinnock or a Tony Blair. Will he follow in Blair’s footsteps by modernising the party and its policies and leading it from opposition to government? Or will he replicate Kinnock’s example – fight the good fight against the hard left but be forced to resign after two, or possibly just one, general election defeats?

More than any other party, Labour is keenly aware of, and cares deeply about, its own history, so these questions and comparisons matter, to itself if no one else. Is it even possible, barely four months into Starmer’s leadership, to draw any realistic conclusions?

There are certainly a few straws in the wind, but as usual the historical contexts in which his predecessors operated have to be contrasted with today’s unusual circumstances. There are currently more parallels with Kinnock’s early leadership than there are with Blair’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Starmer will follow that same road.

In 1994, Blair inherited from John Smith a healthy opinion poll lead over a government that still couldn’t believe it had won a fourth consecutive term of office and was still trying to work out what to do with it. On top of that, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) debacle had put paid to any Conservative claims of economic competence for the next two decades.

Kinnock, on the other hand, more than ten years earlier had inherited the party at its lowest ebb: its parliamentary party reduced to just 209, it was still reeling from four years of fractious infighting between right and left, with the outgoing leader, Michael Foot, caught in the middle.

What Kinnock didn’t have to contend with – at least, not until five years into his term of office – was a challenge to his leadership. When it came, in the inevitable shape of left wing bogeyman Tony Benn, Kinnock triumphed by a margin of nine to one.

Spoiler alert: there will be no leadership election this side of a general election. The rules of nomination in the event of a vacancy at the top of the party have been changed, but those in place for when the incumbent has no intention of going anywhere have not. Any challenger – and it would have to be a named MP – would need to secure the support of 20% of all Labour MPs, so about 40. It’s just not going to happen.

As for Starmer’s apparent lack of progress in the polls, judging his performance against the backdrop of the covid crisis is perhaps premature. He has a better grasp of strategy than Corbyn did (doesn’t everyone?) and he will be content to recognise the race for Number 10 as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Still, it’s worth trying to dig a little deeper into the left’s psyche and to try to work out what their mind set is. In the 1979-83 period, the hard left never quite managed to gain control of the party because Foot managed (just) to retain enough support from both wings of the party, including the soft left. Between 2015 and 2019, by contrast, the hard left, which had become used to being marginalised in the party over decades, found itself in charge of the entire party apparatus.

It was during this period that the Great Betrayal took place. The left thrives on betrayal narratives; they are a fundamental part of their core belief that the only barrier to the creation of the perfect socialist state is the action of traitors. Jeremy Corbyn himself, therefore, could not be blamed for his failure to defeat Theresa May in 2017, because the very fact of his being seen as a “true socialist” exonerates him from the charge. So who was actually to blame?

By resigning en masse from Corbyn’s front bench, by holding a vote of no confidence in his leadership and then actually mounting a formal challenge to him, Labour MPs stand accused of handing victory to the Conservatives. And among the hundreds of names on the charge sheet is one Keir Starmer.

Labour’s civil wars are common enough, but the context of this one really is unique. The left are angry, or, more accurately, angrier than usual. Unlike 1979-83, they had unexpectedly taken control of Britain’s main opposition party, they were (they believed) on the brink of real actual power, and then they had it all brutally snatched away from them. And now they suspect (probably correctly) that Starmer is about to start slowly unravelling his pre-election commitments to maintaining his predecessor’s policy platform and to commit the same crime that every successful Labour leader has: compromise with the electorate.

But while certain high profile Corbyn supporters in the parliamentary party are announcing loudly that they are not announcing anything, they face a very typical Labour quandary. The core accusation against the 80% of Labour MPs who voted against Corbyn in that vote of confidence four years ago is that if they had only held the party line, presented a united front, then Labour would be in government by now and some of them would even be ministers.

So why would a leadership challenge this year or next year be justified when it was deemed to be treason in 2016? If the Conservatives benefited from that division four years ago, how would they not benefit from the same level of division now?

But that is to rely too heavily on logic, and logic plays very little part in all of this. The fight for the Labour Party’s soul is about ideological purity and about a political acrimony every bit as strong, if not stronger, as that which exists between the two main parties. One part of Labour despises everything about the right wing and the centrists, among whose number they include everyone who didn’t support Corbyn. Those feelings are reciprocated, however often Starmer supporters insist publicly that they have great respect for all opinions in the party.

Kinnock didn’t want to take the fight to his own left wing, but their behaviour, in the miners’ strike and in supporting Trotskyite councillors in Liverpool and elsewhere, forced his hand. And the party paid a price for that disunity and indiscipline. Blair never had to have those fights because Kinnock had already won most of them; instead he chose to pick his own fight over Clause IV of the party constitution, and won that easily.

Many voters already seem to like what they see in the new Labour leader. They are willing him to succeed. If he wants to escape the Kinnock parallel and emulate the Blair one, it might be time to pick a fight of his own choosing. Before Keir Starmer can go into battle with his opponents across the floor of the Commons, he should pick a fight with the real enemy in his own party. And before he embarks on that course, he must ensure in advance that he will win.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.