30 March 2021

Sobel’s ‘business is the enemy’ comment shows the scale of Starmer’s challenge

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More news today that the completely daft wing of the Labour Party is still very much alive and kicking.

In the sort of remarks one might expect on the outer fringes of Corbynism, Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel told the Climactic podcast recently:

“When I first became an MP I was like, I’m not taking a meeting with any of these people. These people are the enemy, you know. I’m a socialist, my job is to effectively transform society so that we have a much more mixed economy and we don’t have huge global corporations which have all this power.”

There’s not a huge amount to analyse here in terms of content. Suffice to say that if you think the world would be better off without transnational corporations and all the jobs, services, innovation and tax revenue they contribute, you might want to be careful what you wish for. 

The ‘powerful corporations’ trope seems particularly out of place after a year which has been characterised by governments pretty much the world over imposing their will on the private sector. Entire industries have been brought to their knees by political edicts, and there was precious little they could do about it. If anyone’s power needs checking after the pandemic, it’s not big corporates, but big government.

That a Labour MP thinks business is the enemy is no huge surprise – Jeremy Corbyn peddled this kind of trite nonsense for years to howls of approval from the party faithful.  The Corbyn revivalist faction of the party is still doing so. Former frontbencher Richard Burgon, Sobel’s constituency neighbour, has developed a fine line in tweets and statements almost too moronic to believe.

This on vaccines was a classic of the Burgon canon.

(Incidentally there is a quite plausible view that Burgon is not at all dim, but simply knows his audience down to an absolute tee – whether that’s true or not, the result is the same either way.)

But the interesting political aspect of the Sobel story, which was written up in today’s Sun, is what it says about Keir Starmer’s ongoing struggle to get his party back on the political pitch.

One thing that successful political projects tend to have in common is message discipline. In Starmer’s case, the rebrand has centred on a few core elements designed to detoxify Labour after the Corbyn era. Dispensing with the stench of anti-Semitism was one his early top priorities, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge his efforts on this score.

Altogether more difficult has been his attempt to recast Labour, a party that enthusiastically surrendered its leadership to a bunch of schoolyard Marxists, as a patriotic, pro-business party. 

First we had the big row over a report that suggested Labour should cloak itself in the Union Jack, which Labour MP Clive Lewis branded “Fatherland-ism” more suited to the “nativist right”.

Now we have Sobel, who is a member of Starmer’s frontbench team – albeit in the relatively lowly position of Shadow Tourism Minister – making comments that are not just off-message, but entirely at odds with the leader’s own carefully rehearsed stance. 

Message discipline is one thing, but it’s much easier to maintain when the people involved actually believe in the message. Starmer’s problem is that his version of Labour just doesn’t resonate with a big chunk of both his parliamentary party and the membership. Every time a Labour MP, let alone a frontbencher, comes out with this kind of thing, it’s more ammunition for the Tory charge that though the leader has changed, this is still the party of Jeremy Corbyn.

All of which suggests that before Starmer can make a convincing pitch to the country, he must first run the hard yards of getting his party all pulling in the same direction, even if that means his colleagues occasionally having to bite their tongue.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.