12 July 2021

There’s no point in Keir Starmer facing off with the Corbynites

By James Harris

‘A Labour Council!’

Neil Kinnock’s iconic flaying of the Militant-led Liverpool council has become part of the party’s all-time highlights reel, a crucial moment when the party broke confidently with its far left. Kinnock’s speech brought Tony Benn to tears; delegates left the hall; Dennis Skinner sat in stony silence.

Fast-forward 36 years and some in the party would like Keir Starmer, emboldened by the narrowest of victories in Batley and Spen, to perform a similar act of symbolic division with the left and demonstrate, like Blair’s dropping of Clause IV a generation earlier, that the party has changed ideological tack.

This is nostalgia. It is no less nostalgia than the left’s own syrupy mythologising of the ‘Spirit of ’45’ Attlee government or demonstrative attending of the Durham Miner’s Gala; it’s just the nostalgia of the centre-left for a change. And, ignoring straight off the bat that there are few more symbolic breaks with the Corbyn era than suspending the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, as Starmer has already done, it misunderstands the disparate nature of the left-wing challenge to him today. There is no organised Militant to expel; there are only disparate groups of people being silly on the internet.

Look at some of the social media output from Labour MPs of late. Diane Abbott is positioning Labour as supporting a united Ireland, in the thick of Northern Ireland’s marching season, Jon Trickett is still moaning about being sacked, and suspended Socialist Campaign Group MP Claudia Webbe is sliding into someone’s DMs to call them an ‘idiot’. It’s all a bit crass, and certainly undignified, but it is very difficult to say what Starmer can actually do about it, save from starting his own conference speech by taking out his bag and confiscating his MPs’ phones while saying, ‘You can have these back when we’re in government.’

And it’s not like there’s any real challenge to his position in the offing. The Labour left has at present neither the support nor the candidates to replace him. While anything that contributes to the gaiety of the nation is to be welcomed, Richard Burgon is not a credible leader, and Andy Burnham represents a compelling answer only to the question ‘What if Keir Starmer, but less good?’

A more serious left-wing critique of Starmer comes from what we might call Corbyn legacy media, the small but influential clique of outriders around Owen Jones, Novara Media and, further afield, The Canary and The Skawkbox. These people have sizeable social media followings and are influential in setting the trends within a certain kind of politics-obsessed milieu; their ‘lines’ become the lines of the kind of people, also small in number but influential, who want to posture as leftier than thou without any real intellectual effort.

Their behaviour reached a new low around the recent by-election with Owen Jones’s soft-soap interview with George Galloway, where he failed to challenge the former Respect MP’s denial of the Uighur genocide and Assad’s chemical weapon attacks, while joking that Galloway’s hat would be a better leader than Starmer.

Clearly, these media outriders have no interest in Labour in its current guise being successful; Starmer wants to become Prime Minister, and they want to keep their media careers afloat, for which they require, if not a leadership challenge, then at least an ongoing leadership crisis. As the last few years have shown, the hard left’s support is not enough for Labour to win, but with their utmost efforts, they can just about make sure the party loses.

The problem for Starmer is that has no means of stopping them writing in bad faith and teaching people to think badly; he can only hope that, as the Corbyn era fades into memory, the relevance of Jones, Aaron Bastani and Ash Sarkar fades with him.

The last question is how badly Starmer needs the 10% or so of the electorate who would, in a democracy with a proportional voting system, be represented by a radical left party. If we look to the States, Biden does seem to have owe his presidency in part to a coalition between the left and centre-left.

What makes this idea of left and centre-left collaboration less likely in the UK is their radically differing interpretations of the Corbyn era; if Bernie Sanders had run as President, lost massively and then been found guilty of overseeing a culture of institutional racism, it is fair to assume that forming a coalition with his former supporters would have been a harder task for moderates.

At present, the Labour left’s mythologising of the Corbyn years is moving ever close to the Trump supporters ‘Stop the Steal’ myth, namely that their wonderful socialist project was scuppered by a mixture of enemies in the party, right-wing media and, most dangerously, Jews; the central lie of election fraud is here substituted for the central lie that the anti-Semitism scandal was the ‘smears’ of ideological opponents. Cultivating this conspiracy is much easier than facing up to the truth that Corbynism lost because it was bad; badly run, and with a stink of bullying and racism that even more apolitical voters detected.

Starmer taking a stand against this left – not big enough to win, big enough to cause him problems – would only give it more publicity and an opponent to focus on. For now is important only that he realises he can never win with them; their idea of ‘giving him a chance’ was less than a year during a pandemic.

All Starmer can do is hope to make his own tent broader, his own allies more numerous, and his own coalition less dependent on people who have been waiting to cry betrayal from the moment he took office. The radical left has seen the argument it made for decades, that Labour would win if it only offered an explicitly socialist platform, destroyed.

What do they want now? Only that things had gone differently – and Starmer can’t give them that. Ultimately, the only way he can work with that left is if it first engages in an honest account of the Corbyn years and takes responsibility for them. He shouldn’t hold his breath.

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James Harris is a writer and comedian.

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