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A Year of Starmer: Complacency, Unity and the “Mountain to Climb”

24 Mar 2021

Megan Cole

A Year of Starmer: Complacency, Unity and the “Mountain to Climb”

April 4th, 2020 marked the start of a new era for the Labour Party, as it was announced that Sir Keir Starmer would be the new leader of the party after winning the election with an astounding 56% of the vote. Stating from day one he would not indulge in “opposition for opposition’s sake” along with making his desire for a unified Labour Party evident. It was clear an impossible task was set from day one. While it is true that Labour needs a leader capable of holding together the broad coalition of politics represented, it seems it is not satisfiable without the emergence of hegemony.

It was never going to be easy for Starmer, with him claiming that the party has “a mountain to climb” if it wishes to win back voters who abandoned the party in the 2019 election. With this mountain to climb, the task of ascending it seems difficult when a year into opposition Starmer is yet to provide a coherent policy platform of ideas to implement when we reach the summit. The significance of the external issues labour face is tainted by the inability to deal with the internal. As such, the mountain metaphor proves poignant with policies and strategy requiring grounding that Labour does not yet have to make the hike.

The Myth of a Unified Labour Party

Observing, the party’s unifying strategy over the past year seems to consist of a series of ad hoc approaches rather than a comprehensive strategy. So, while Starmer might have been seeking to eliminate conflict, it has ultimately found him. As sincere as his approach to unity may have initially seemed it hasn’t proved fruitful and Labour appears more fragmented than ever.

With scepticism prompted from the moment the shadow cabinet was presented and cemented further after Long-Bailey was sacked in the first three months. With little open revolt from the left of the party, Starmer’s “unifying” approach has gone unchecked. After the attempted expulsion of Corbyn, it became clear Starmer’s unity narrative was an empty electoral promise, and in reality, he seeks to add further fuel to the factional fire.

However, when examining what a peace agreement means for factionalism in Labour, it must be considered while both sides praise the importance of unity, what is generally meant is the supremacy of their specific faction. Thus, calls for unity from any side are meaningless, as disagreements between faction’s flow from distinct and irreconcilable differences. It is disingenuous of any leader to argue that a consensus can be formed between them. Yet Starmer claims to prioritise this goal, to minimise inner party disputes. Realistically, this can only be achieved through two methods. One is a truce; the other is hegemony.

While a truce would allow for a situation in which opposite wings of the party refrain from undermining each other, forging a policy agenda that maintains harmony and focuses on common beliefs such as winning an election is virtually impossible. Repeatedly, we see factions try to overcome their differences for a common goal and repeatedly we see them fail.

As ideal as a truce sounds, all Labour party members know how impossible this would be to sustain. Both Miliband in 2011 and Corbyn in 2015 tried to reflect the diversity of the party within their shadow cabinets. In both cases, this failed. With Right-wing MPs under Miliband resisting all turns to social democracy. Labour remained pro austerity and anti-immigration. While under Corbyn, the right was defeated by the membership and experience a profound ideological conversion. Each time, a truce gives way to hegemony, whether that be for the right or left.

It is therefore likely Starmer will continue his approach to ceasefire over a full-blown coup. This can link to his current strategy of not committing to a concrete policy platform in the hopes of appeasing all factions. The longer the party has no ideological grounding rooted in policy proposals, the longer Starmer can fly under the radar by all factions. This emphasis on “forensic opposition” highlights his lack of ideological conviction, with the idea of presenting any means for combatting the Tories inadequacies inevitably promoting a split further and alienate the right or left.

Wider links to Starmer’s unity plan, undeniably stem from a misjudged perception of Red Wall voters. Under the Starmer leadership the solution is not to engage with these communities and understand where things went wrong. It is instead ideal for us to second guess what these left behind communities think about left wing ideology and assume social conservative stances. This desire to please all and win back the parties roots has led to a lax approach to critiquing the Tories on their wider policy platform, highlighted recently with the policing, crime, sentencing and courts bill.

With the task laid out by Starmer doomed from day one, with a promise to not oppose Johnson’s government, restricting Labour into a position of complacency and failing at providing any accountability for the Tories failures at all. The factionalism problem continues to be tricky for Labour to navigate. It is clear that if the past year under Starmer is anything to go by, Labour will continue to be out of touch with its roots and focus on internal disputes. Fickle face value approaches to “unify the party” will continue to be unrealistic and ultimately the only options for factionalism are truce or hegemony.

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