Starmer's failing leadership
by Scott McDonald
The Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership is in trouble. It has done badly in the recent parliamentary by-elections and in much of the local elections in England; it is squeezed between the SNP and the Tories over the constitutional question in Scotland; and it is alienating much of its base internally and its wider external support. Under Starmer’s leadership Labour has been weak in criticising the Tory government’s manifest failures over the pandemic; it has been largely absent from the concerns and struggles of working people; and has spent much of its energy in a factional drive to turn the Labour Party in a rightward direction acceptable to capitalism and the mainstream media, or as they might put it, to become electable.
In the recent Batley and Spen parliamentary by-election Kim Leadbetter won with a razor-thin majority of 323 votes. That election saw another section of the party’s core vote break away, with thousands of Muslims alienated by the party’s failure to speak out on Palestine, giving their vote to George Galloway. Other disillusioned working-class people also voted for Galloway resulting in him winning 22% of the overall vote. The Leadbetter campaign focused almost exclusively on local issues such as fly-tipping and safer roads. Her literature throughout the campaign was pink instead of the party’s traditional red and her final leaflet didn’t include Labour’s name, but did feature the word ‘local’ six times. Asked on BBC Breakfast whether Sir Keir had been an asset or a problem, she said, “The focus of the campaign was very much listening to local people.”
In the earlier May local elections in England Labour losses in the north of England reflected the alienation of many working-class voters over Labour’s position on Brexit. As George Eustace, the Tory MP explained, Labour was punished in Leave-voting areas by its “wrangling” over Brexit in recent years. To impose a Remainer candidate for Labour in the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election reflected the Starmer leadership’s unwillingness to accept the result of the EU referendum. Hartlepool was won by Labour both in 2017 and 2019 when Corbyn was leader but has now been lost under Starmer. Labour’s Brexit blunders, not least due to the influence of Starmer and his campaign for a second EU referendum, have led to a situation in which many working class and former Labour voters have voted Tory or do not see any reason to vote at all.
In the hours after the loss of Hartlepool Lord Mandelson, the former MP for the constituency, was explaining that the defeat was due to the long shadow Jeremy Corbyn cast over the party.
However, it is interesting to note that Mandelson has also been critical of Starmer. In a New Statesman article, headlined I’m afraid Keir Starmer has come badly unstuck, Mandelson argued that Starmer “depended too much on the belief that changing the face at the top would be sufficient.” (1) Mandelson went on to argue that it is not enough to simply have got rid of Corbyn but that the policies and manifesto on which he stood also need to be ditched. In the article he says that, “The challenge for Keir is that he has got to be both Kinnock and Blair rolled into one.” Also in the New Statesman, Tony Blair stated categorically that Labour “needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.” Starmer seems to be following Blair’s advice. Blair’s stance is “really an argument for the break-up of Labour as a social democratic party connected to the labour movement” according to Simon Fletcher, former adviser to Starmer, Corbyn and Miliband. (2)
DISCONTENT AMONG MPS
Starmer’s inept sacking of Angela Rayner before all the local election results were announced and his botched cabinet re-shuffle annoyed many in the Parliamentary Labour Party. This, and the election results, have worried many Labour MPs about their own future career prospects.
Labour figures led by Stephen Kinnock have launched a new organisation ‘Renaissance’ that aims to help the party re-connect with voters it has lost rather than “retreat to its comfort zone and drift to irrelevance”. Their aim is to make the case that Labour should rebuild support in constituencies lost to the Conservatives in 2019, as “opposed to pursuing a ‘Blue Wall’ strategy that would target Remain-leaning Tory seats in the South of England”. (3) This new organisation reflects a certain discontent among some right-wing Labour MPs with the Starmer leadership approach and their own personally vulnerable positions. Yvette Cooper MP is a member of Renaissance’s Advisory Board and she had a slender majority (1,276) in her Yorkshire constituency at the 2019 General Election. Another Advisory Board member is ex-MP and former chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, Ruth Smeeth, who lost her seat, Stoke-on-Trent North, which had voted 72.1% for Brexit.
In these recent elections in England, Labour’s leadership under Starmer had no political message for voters except “Labour is under new management” which is hardly appealing to people struggling with life’s woes under a pandemic who are worried about their health and livelihood. Contrary to Labour, the Tories did have a clear message. Like their slogan, “Get Brexit Done”, “Levelling-up” is a clear message. Even if it is fake and that it is more likely to be levelling down, it is still a clear message. And it is projected to give hope – something badly missing from the current Labour leadership. The Tories were helped by the vaccine roll-out and the bounce it gave them and this despite the scandals over PPE and cronyism. Incidentally, the Tory government’s procurement of vaccines well ahead of the EU would not be lost on those who voted Leave in the EU referendum.
SCOTLAND: SNP DILEMMAS
In Scotland the SNP with the Greens won a pro-independence voting majority in the Scottish Parliament replicating the position prior to the election. Boris Johnson and the Tory government are a gift to the SNP. The SNP pose Scotland against Boris Johnson’s Tories and the Tories set themselves up as the main defenders of the union. This suits both the SNP and the Tories and squeezes the Labour Party. The SNP’s 14 years in government, with their less than impressive record, would have put it on the backfoot if that alone had been the ground on which the election was fought, but the SNP preferred to make the election about Boris Johnson. Not only did it seek to attack the Tories but it sought to put Labour on the defensive by conflating support for the union with support for the Westminster Tory government.
The constitutional question has now dominated politics in Scotland for many years to the exclusion of all matters affecting the lives of working-people and will continue to do so if the SNP and the Tories have their way. Although the Scottish Parliament has a pro-independence majority of MSPs, as it had before the election, the country is actually evenly divided (50:50) and very sharply polarised on the question of Scottish independence. The leadership of the SNP are very conscious of the fact that that there is no clear majority for independence at the moment and Sturgeon has said that Indyref2 will not be called until Covid is over. She is proposing to call a second referendum in the first half of the Scottish Parliament, that is by 2023. Of course, the Westminster government may resist another referendum but that could play further into the nationalists’ grievance narrative.
Starmer has established a Commission to look at the constitutional arrangements for Britain with Gordon Brown as adviser-in-chief. You may recall that Gordon Brown in his unnecessary 11th hour intervention in the previous independence referendum called for more powers, that is more devolution, to be given to Scotland. It is therefore likely to recommend further devolution in England and yet another version of devo-max for Scotland. Labour’s answer to Scottish nationalism was to introduce devolution. However, instead of dampening down support for independence it has encouraged it. Many on the Left of the Labour Party in Scotland are obsessed with the constitutional question: they believe that there ought to be another referendum, and are firmly wedded to a campaign for a third option (namely more devolution) to be on the ballot paper for the next independence referendum.
However, the SNP face big issues which it will have to grapple with in the next two years. These include the questions of what currency to use, the prospect of a hard border with England, Scotland’s large debt and the difficulties of re-joining the EU by an independent Scotland.
The SNP will also have the problem of keeping its troops in line. Having seen off some of the more impatient independence supporters into Alex Salmond’s new party, ALBA, during the Scottish election, they will be conscious that more members could go that way if they don’t keep Indyref2 front and centre of the agenda.
WALES: LABOUR DOES WELL
The Labour Party in Wales is in a different situation from the Labour Party in Scotland with Welsh Labour equalling their best result since devolution winning half the Senedd’s 60 seats. In the 2019 General Election Labour lost 6 seats to the Tories in Wales. All of these seats had Leave-voting majorities in the EU referendum. In the 2021 elections Labour won back 4 of these (equivalent) seats for the Senedd.
The Welsh government, led by Mark Drakeford, an early supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and his policies, did well in dealing with the pandemic and Welsh Labour had a clear message going into the election for the Senedd, “Build Back Fairer”. When Keir Starmer took up the leadership of the Labour Party, Mark Drakeford advised him to “retain the best ideas from the last two manifestos”. Starmer could do with learning from Welsh Labour and listening to Drakeford. Instead Starmer has only listened to his office place-people and David Evans at Labour Party HQ. This advice, based on focus groups and group-think, pointed to centrism as the only possible electable position to have and for Starmer to drop his leadership election pledges.
This approach also led to Starmer being draped in the Union Jack as it is believed that Labour, if it is to win back the Leave-voting areas, has to be seen to be patriotic. This view is based on reading the Leave vote as straightforwardly right-wing. This is a serious misconception. It also further alienates people in Scotland including many Labour supporters.
Following the Hartlepool defeat and severe losses in the local elections Starmer proceeded to radically change his leadership team. Out went Jenny Chapman as Political Director and in came Luke Sullivan, whose appointment “will be seen in part as a way to boost relations with rank-and-file MPs who have become jittery about Starmer’s leadership and complain the leadership has been aloof and uncommunicative.” (4) Four of the “gang of five”, the close-knit group of senior advisers around Starmer as they were known by backbench MPs departed. These changes will not alter the rightward direction of Starmer’s leadership as the new appointees are all New Labour veterans. However, the changes do show how much discontent there is, even among right-wing Labour MPs, with Starmer’s leadership and his office. (5)
The concentration of the Labour Party leadership on elections and so-called electability, pretty unsuccessful in these recent elections, and the lack of campaigning on the issues facing working people plays into the hands of the Tories.
The goings-on in Parliament notably in the period leading up to the 2019 General Election and the various antics to reverse the result of the EU referendum reminds one of what
Karl Marx termed “parliamentary cretinism” in his book, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte which was written in 1852 and still remains pertinent today. The consequences of this concentration on parliamentary politics to the exclusion of ‘real world’ issues, or if you like, class struggle, makes it easier for the ruling class to continue to rule and the Tories to win elections.
If the Labour Party leadership were to properly take up and campaign on issues such as fire and re-hire; public sector pay including that of the nurses; the ending of furlough and the increase in unemployment especially among young people; the privatisation of the health service; the plight of many people living in high-rise housing post-Grenfell; zero hours contracts and the other dreadful aspects of the private sector gig economy; Black Lives Matter; the right to organise and demonstrate; and to stand up to injustices internationally…then people would be encouraged to support Labour as an alternative.
The TUC estimates that 1 in 10 workers face the issue of firing and re-hiring on worse conditions as many employers use the pandemic to attack wages and conditions. Many workers are resisting. The bin workers in Thurrock after a six-week strike managed to stop this. Bus workers also took successful action to defend their wages and conditions. Uber drivers after many court cases and industrial action have won the basic right to the national living wage and holiday pay and now recognition of the GMB union to represent them; and there are many other struggles by workers that have gone largely unreported by the mainstream media.
The failure of Labour’s current leadership lies in its inability to speak to the working class as it actually exists, its abandonment of policies that address the real life problems of working people and its refusal to outline a vision for a fundamentally different economy and society.
(1) Peter Mandelson, “I’m afraid Keir Starmer has come badly unstuck” New Statesman, 11 May 2021.
(2) Simon Fletcher, “Keir Starmer’s Labour desperately needs to stand for something”, New Statesman, 28 June 2021.
(3) Sienna Rodgers, “Kinnock chairs new group ‘Renaissance’ to reconnect with former Labour voters”, LabourList, 14 July 2021.
(4) Jessica Elgot, “Keir Starmer appoints new political director in Labour backroom shake-up”, The Guardian, 28 June 2021. Jenny Chapman was moved from Political Director in Starmer’s office to Brexit spokesperson in the Shadow Cabinet. This was possible as she had been made Baroness Chapman and appointed to the House of Lords in December 2020 following her nomination by Keir Starmer. Chapman was widely blamed for the decision to impose Paul Williams as the Hartlepool by-election candidate despite his Remainer credentials in the pro-Brexit constituency.
(5) Sam White, formerly special adviser to Alistair Darling when he was Chancellor, has been appointed Starmer’s Chief of Staff, replacing Morgan McSweeney, who has been moved to Labour Party HQ as Elections Director. Matthew Doyle, veteran of the Blair years, has been appointed as temporary Director of Communications replacing Ben Nunn.
Chris Ward, Starmer’s speech writer and Deputy Chief of Staff, has also left Starmer’s office.
Deborah Mattinson has been appointed as the new Director of Strategy. She was chief pollster to Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor.
Under Starmer’s leadership Labour has been weak in criticising the Tory government’s manifest failures over the pandemic; it has been largely absent from the concerns and struggles of working people; and has spent much of its energy in a factional drive to turn the Labour Party in a rightward direction acceptable to capitalism and the mainstream media, or as they might put it, to become electable.