Chasing electoral credibility for Labour shouldn't mean compromising on its values

Upon winning the Labour leadership election, Sir Keir Starmer promised not to provide ‘opposition for oppositions sake’. He signalled his desire to make Labour a party acceptable to the media establishment and those who deserted the party at the 2019 election by making it more ‘moderate’. Starmer’s desire for a clean break from the Corbyn years has been most clearly reflected by his swift dismissal of Rebecca Long-Bailey; a shrewd political manoeuvre to avoid the accusations of anti-Semitism that beleaguered the leadership of his predecessor whilst cementing the grip of the party’s right on power. Whilst the no nonsense stance on anti-Semitism is to be welcomed, Starmer has shown himself to be less than willing to stand up for other values central to the Labour cause in his pursuit for power. Whilst it is necessary that Labour rebuilds credibility in the aftermath of a crushing defeat, doing so by reversing its commitments to social, economic and environmental justice could have the opposite effect.

Keir Starmer’s desire to live up to the misguided right-wing trope of a return to ‘sensible’ opposition has seen Labour largely fail to provide adequate scrutiny of a floundering government in the midst of the biggest national health challenge in generations. Labour has supported the government on the reopening of schools against the advice of the trade unions and welcomed the dropping of the 2m rule against expert advice and has been in favour of re-opening much of the economy on July 4th while many are still dying each day. Labour has chosen the wrong moment to try and pander to the government and by so doing risks being implicated in its failures.

The notion that any Labour government is better than a Conservative one fails to be true if Labour doesn’t defend its values. Among the new leadership there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in the principles of social, economic and environmental justice that underpin the party — they are coming to be seen as expendable for the sake of a few percentage points in the latest poll. At best Labour has been shown to be equivocal on environmental and economic justice; failing to champion any particularly radical ideas and being frequently outflanked from the left by Chancellor Rishi Sunak . On issues of social justice and in particular anti-Black racism, Labour has been shown to be indifferent. Openly dismissing the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement as nonsense and reducing the campaign to a ‘moment’ has epitomised the tone-deaf response from Keir Starmer that ignores centuries of institutional racism in the USA and the United Kingdom and seeks to view the killing of George Floyd as an isolated event devoid of any historical context.

The idea that Labour has a binary choice between representing the concerns of minorities and young people, and reclaiming ‘Red Wall’ seats is frankly absurd. To even win a majority of 1 seat in 2024 Starmer must oversee an electoral landslide that eclipses the scale of Tony Blair’s 1997 victory. In order to achieve this he cannot take for granted elements that have formed Labour’s voting coalition in past elections. There is no doubt that Labour must rebuild trust with its traditional working-class constituencies but the belief that this should be done at the expense of pursuing social, economic and environmental justice is misguided. Starmer has wrongly associated these principles with the mythical ‘Twitter classes’ (read young people) that overwhelmingly supported Corbyn and seeks to row back on them so as to recapture the traditional working-class vote. By so doing the Labour leader has bought into the ‘culture war’ narrative that the interests of diverse young ‘woke’ voters are opposed to that of the white working classes; failing to see the potential of an intersectional movement unifying concerns about class, sexuality and race-based injustice.

Keir Starmer clearly believes that the young and BAME voters that formed the core of Labour’s electoral base in 2017 can be ignored. This is an age-old coercion technique of the Labour right that insists that those on the left have nowhere else to go and therefore must be subjected to marginalisation within their own party so as to avoid being blamed for a Conservative government. This is the same idea being perpetuated by neoliberal Democrats in the USA with their #VoteBlueNoMatterWho campaign to force Bernie supporters to back Biden with the threat of being blamed for Trump’s second term if they don’t. In essence, both believe that the demands of progressives need not be addressed due to the constraints of a first past the post system that demands ideological compromise so as to allow the lesser of the two evils to prevail. This approach is quite often the enemy of real progress as ‘progressive’ parties become co-opted by corporate establishment forces helping to shift the centre-ground rightwards. The bankrolling of Starmer’s leadership campaign by Bet365 boss Peter Coates, whilst largely ignored by the press, reflects a clear intention to closer align the party with corporate interests — a move that will be equally to the detriment of both traditional and newer Labour voters.

Starmer risks alienating an entire generation of voters who in recent months have seen the power of direct action and may become disillusioned with electoral politics altogether, especially due to its failure to adequately address issues such as climate change and racial injustice. Furthermore, in the UK the idea that left-wing voters have nowhere to go and therefore must support an increasingly centrist and reactionary Labour party is not only dangerous but could potentially prove untrue. As the Liberal Democrat leadership race shapes up, Layla Moran looks to be the frontrunner and is planning to challenge Labour from the left through an endorsement of UBI and plans for a new Department for Sustainability. This means that there may at least be pressure on the Labour Party as the Lib Dems seek to potentially occupy a space to the left of it.

The 2019 election made it clear that Labour desperately needs to expand its electoral appeal, but this cannot be at the expense of its guiding principles and existing voting coalition. A Labour government that will not protect the environment, alleviate the suffering of the country’s poor and stand up for minorities is frankly not worth having. The path to victory for a Labour leader is difficult and beset with factional conflict, media hostility and the cultural conservatism of the British public amongst other challenges to overcome. In spite of this, one thing is clear — the electoral coalition that Labour was able to build in 2017 with its credible alternative to austerity and avoidance of the Brexit culture war offers a better guide for victory than the Labour’s Murdoch-sanctioned 1997 win if Labour truly desires to be a party of radical and progressive change.

Jed Asemota

2 Jul 2020

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Chasing electoral credibility for Labour shouldn't mean compromising on its values