Starmerama: Labour must avoid 80s nostalgia after breaking ties with Corbynism

You have to go far back into the Labour Party’s history to find a position similar to the one it is in now. In 1983, another majestic white-haired grandfatherly socialist named Michael Foot led the Party to a crushing defeat against Margaret Thatcher, paving the way for a historic fourteen years of Tory rule. Both the ’83 and 2019 elections revealed the growing weaknesses of Labour and the movement it represented: intellectual exhaustion; petty factionalism; a lack of leadership; and an absence of a strategy to reconcile the wants of the country with the core values of the Labour Party. Both of these defeats asked the left: what are you going to change?

What was that answer given in 1983? ‘Modernising’ says New Labour architect Peter Mandelson in his book The Third Man. Modernising entailed an intense period of insurgency from the Party’s right into positions of power, seeing Foot replaced with leaders such as Neil Kinnock and John Smith who were ideologically closer to the centre. Mandelson accounts, in detail, this change in dynamic of the Labour Party alongside his own: from selling Communist newspaper The Morning Star outside London’s Kilburn station to holidaying with future Tory austerity minister George Osbourne in Europe. Mandelson himself then presents an apt metaphor for what New Labour symbolised for the left.

What this meant for UK politics was that instead of challenging the systematic and cultural change the country endured during the 70s and 80s, New Labour cemented it. The dominance of left-wing thought began to wean in the 60s. Keynesianism failed to solve the growing problem of stagflation and the political elite, spearheaded by Conservatives such as Keith Joseph and then Margaret Thatcher, introduced free-market ideology as the new common sense in political thinking. Under New Labour, policies such as the continued financialization of the economic system and outsourcing of industry, coupled with privatisation and ASBOs, completed the UK’s path towards a free-market dystopia. Instead of answering the question of change that this period posed to the left, New Labour spun it around, dressed it in a red tie and a smile, and asked it back to the Tories.

The long-term effects were dire for the country and the left. The destruction of the historical links between the working-class and the Labour Party, as communities centred around industry and manufacturing fell apart, continued. And coupled with the spin and unsavoury politicking that went with trying to maintain the façade of modernising, voters began to see Labour and Conservative as two sides of the same coin, politicians as untrustworthy and vague, and politics itself as a dirty business rather than a force for positive change. And perhaps worst of all, this has meant Labour is now facing the same crisis it was in the 80s. It has not progressed. And unless Keir Starmer wants the Party to be in the same place it is now in twenty years, he should avoid looking to New Labour for inspiration despite all of its electoral success.

At the same time, this doesn’t warrant Starmer’s leadership to be a homage to Corbynism. Because as much as New Labour had an obsession with winning and a disregard for Labour’s values, Corbynism was hampered by its separation from political reality and constantly shrinking echo chamber. It almost seemed as if those who were the biggest proponents of the Corbyn project were ambivalent towards the idea of gaining power and making a change from there. Out of touch, over idealistic, incompetent and unorganised were all labels associated with a regime that continued to preach a revolution to a country of people who only want things to work. Gary Younge aptly remarked about Labour’s collapse in 2019: ‘you cannot prepare something that ambitious and not prepare people politically for it’.And prepare people politically Keir Starmer must.

For a long time, the left has failed to provide an authentic argument for why it deserves power. What it needs now more than ever is gradualism: a long-term strategy which aims to bring into existence the society that it wants. New Labour didn’t want to realise that vision; Corbynism didn’t have the political intelligence to lay the foundations to achieve it. Starmer must find the middle-ground of those approaches and tread carefully. This will mean short-term compromises to promote the idea of a Labour government in the public’s mind, and steadily build upon this with increasingly radical social-democratic proposals which will, inevitably, open opportunities for advancing a more socialistic agenda.

But Starmer’s pallid commentary on the BLM movement (not moment) and lack of flair in the debate over economic policy has given the left reason to question his potential. And rightly so. But with 100 days of the leadership just passed and a lack of clarity over the leadership’s ideological leaning, the left is having to rely on the use of inference rather than critical analysis when it comes to understanding Labour’s direction. Dan Carden’s recent commentary on the wealth tax debacle and Ed Miliband’s pledge to continue his support for the Party’s environmental policyshow that there are reasons to be optimistic. But the overall tone of Starmer’s approach has leaned towards neutrality, so the left will have to wait to have its concerns over Labour’s future atoned.

George Shealy

13 Jul 2020

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Starmerama: Labour must avoid 80s nostalgia after breaking ties with Corbynism