I’m no leader (1)

About two weeks ago I was mulling over a post about the prospects for Labour under Keir Starmer, and why there might still be room for some cautious optimism. Then the report on the handling of antisemitism in the party appeared, and watching the fallout from that kept me busy for, well, most of the next two weeks, as well as giving me some more food for thought about the party and where it’s heading.

But it’s a shame to let a good blog post go to waste, so here’s more or less what I was going to write.

We don’t know which way the party is going under Keir Starmer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that which way the party is going is still undecided. What will decide it will be the resolution of three tensions within the leadership; three opposed pairings which are currently more or less in balance, but won’t stay that way forever.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

I read Starmer’s campaign statement when I went to my CLP’s nomination meeting; I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely reassured. (Not reassured enough to vote for him – either then or in the vote that mattered – but enough to feel that a Starmer leadership wouldn’t actually be a disaster.) He committed himself to maintaining Corbyn’s transformation of Labour politics, both in general terms and with specifics. There were more specifics in his campaign pledges; I combed them for weaselly phrasing, and I did find a few examples (“support common ownership” of the utilities?), but overall it looked as if this was our guy. We knew he wasn’t our guy, of course – we knew the kind of people who were backing him – but still; all in all, as I say, it looked like a Starmer-led party would be solidly on the Left.

At the same time, we did know who was backing him – and we knew that quite a few of them were only on the Left in a “how dare you suggest that Labour has a right wing” sense. Indeed, one of the more startling parts of the antisemitism report was the revelation of quite how strong, in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is; apart from anything else, from what I’ve read it would appear that, until quite recently, the General Secretary’s office was run by people who thought that everyone left of Liz Kendall was a Trot.

The question then is, which is going to dominate? Viewed from one perspective, the answer’s simple: pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet. The trouble is, viewed from the opposite perspective the answer’s just as simple: pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other: there is no way to split the difference between “reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax” and “public services should be in public hands”, on one hand, and people who believe that policies like these belong to “Trots”, on the other. And the possibility of a real regression – a rewind to 2015 or even 2010 – does exist; but it’s not the only possibility, and recognising it as a possibility doesn’t make it likely, let alone inevitable. There’s still room to be cautiously… well, there’s still room to be cautious.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

When Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet was announced, a lot of us breathed a cautious sigh of relief: a “ministry without portfolio” for Reeves (who would have been a truly disastrous choice for Chancellor of the Exchequer, or for DWP for that matter), and no sign of Streeting, Phillips, Kendall, Kyle, Powell… Admittedly the ministries weren’t in the hands of the Left, either – with the exception of Long-Bailey at Education – but the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were – a few leftists, a few “soft Left” types and an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example. On paper this is true, but in practice the leadership has a lot of latitude in who gets appointed to a shadow ministerial post – the 2016 resignations (and their replacements) demonstrated that, if nothing else. A lot can change in a couple of years; Rebecca Long-Bailey was a very junior shadow minister until February 2017. There may not be many mute inglorious Keir Starmers on the back benches, but I dare say the PLP could rustle up another Nick Thomas-Symonds; and, you never know, Starmer may yet come under pressure to appoint from the Left. (And if he doesn’t, the Left needs to keep pushing until he does.)

Again, things could go very badly, but that doesn’t have to be the case; things could still go… less badly.

Lastly, the “junior Shadow Minister” question overlaps with the third unresolved tension:

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

One thing the leaked report appears to show is that the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). (And if the short-term result is a Tory government, well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or so they tell the eggs.) Tactically speaking, this sense of entitlement is a real strength for the Labour Right: it enables them to act and speak freely and with total self-confidence, however vacuous their policy recommendations and however destructive their actions.

However, when the leadership is held by a genuine centrist – and nobody has made a convincing case that Starmer is personally on the Right – this strength is also a weakness. When more than one tendency is represented within the leadership, “unity” can’t simply mean “we do what we like and the Left puts up with it”; it has to have some content that isn’t entirely factional, even if it’s only “the leadership does what it likes and everyone puts up with it”.

The question then is, how are the various Right-wing leakers, ego-trippers and coalition cosplayers going to take to being required to show a bit of restraint? My sense is, not very well. Some, to be fair, will be only too happy to repeat whatever line they hear from Starmer – and if it’s not particularly Left-wing or confrontational, so much the better – but some have a record of bigging themselves up whenever there’s a vowel in the month, and/or briefing against anyone to the Left of Bill Clinton. (Never underestimate just how right-wing parts of the Labour Right are.)

The usual suspects are keeping fairly quiet at the moment – something something Mantle of Ministerial Responsibility no doubt – but one wonders how long it can last. (Indeed, one bright spark appears already to be on manoeuvres. It’d be awful if the things he was advocating turned out not to be party policy, eh readers?)

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions (not two this time), namely:

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.
  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.
  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

1. would be very bad, but it would undermine Starmer’s claim to be above the factions, create an immediate opening for the Left and generally stir up the silt with a long stick; that being the case, I don’t think we can be sure that it’s more likely than 2. I’m not even sure that 3. can be ruled out altogether – or, if not, how bad it would be.

In short, it’s principles vs people all the way down, and it’s surprisingly hard to call. On one hand, incremental change is a real danger. Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy; see the (bizarre) shift from pandemic-related rent suspension to rent deferral, which only makes sense if you think that Labour should be standing up for landlords. On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

One possibility I haven’t considered, finally, is that all this stuff about the old Right and the undefined centre may turn out to be irrelevant: the territory Starmer stakes out may be an ideological terrain all of his own, an -ism to rival Corbyn and Blair. But there’s a reason why I don’t consider that.

ya know?
i’m no leader
i just can’t see myself following you…
and that’s not in a “heavy” way you

not you personally but…
you personally…
– doseone

3 Comments

  1. Blissex
    Posted 29 April 2020 at 22:21 | Permalink | Reply

    «in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is»

    Labour has a left-to-right range of politics, and then it has not an “extreme right”, it has whig thatcherite entrysts (the Mandelson Tendency) who want to use the core votes of Labour to be elected to govern with whig thatcherite policies (another bunch of whig thatcherites have done entrysm into the Conservatives for the same reasons). There is a big difference between left-to-right labourism and whig thatcherism.

    My usual quotes, first from Lance Price 1999-10-19:

    Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.

    Here obviously G Brown comes across as right-wing labourist, no problem with that, but “quasi-Conservative” should have no place in Labour.
    T Benn remarked in 1993-05-19, as to his last NEC meeting:

    I think, candidly, what is happening is that the party is being dismantled. The trade union link is to be broken; the economic policy statement we are considering today makes no reference to the trade unions. Clause 4 is being attacked; PR is being advocated with a view to a pact with the Liberals of a kind that Peter Mandelson worked for in Newbury, where he in fact encouraged the Liberal vote. The policy work has been subcontracted. These so called modernisers are really Victorian Liberals, who believe in market forces, don’t like the trade unions and are anti-socialist.

    Finally consider a “centrist” Labour figure like R Hattersley, who wrote in 2001-06-24 of “meritocracy” as advocated by whig thatcherites in New Labour:
    «in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is»

    Labour has a left-to-right range of politics, and then it has not an “extreme right”, it has whig thatcherite entrysts (the Mandelson Tendency) who want to use the core votes of Labour to be elected to govern with whig thatcherite policies (another bunch of whig thatcherites have done entrysm into the Conservatives for the same reasons). There is a big difference between left-to-right labourism and whig thatcherism.

    My usual quotes, first from Lance Price 1999-10-19:

    Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.

    Here obviously G Brown comes across as right-wing labourist, no problem with that, but “quasi-Conservative” should have no place in Labour.
    T Benn remarked in 1993-05-19, as to his last NEC meeting:

    I think, candidly, what is happening is that the party is being dismantled. The trade union link is to be broken; the economic policy statement we are considering today makes no reference to the trade unions. Clause 4 is being attacked; PR is being advocated with a view to a pact with the Liberals of a kind that Peter Mandelson worked for in Newbury, where he in fact encouraged the Liberal vote. The policy work has been subcontracted. These so called modernisers are really Victorian Liberals, who believe in market forces, don’t like the trade unions and are anti-socialist.

    Finally consider a “centrist” Labour figure like R Hattersley, who wrote in 2001-06-24 of “meritocracy” as advocated by whig thatcherites in New Labour:

    Now that the Labour Party – at least according to its leader – bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of like-minded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. […] The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape.
    Now that the Labour Party – at least according to its leader – bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of like-minded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. […] The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape.

  2. Blissex
    Posted 29 April 2020 at 22:28 | Permalink | Reply

    Apologies for the previous posting, it was by mistake.

    «in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is»

    Labour has a left-to-right range of politics, and then it has not an “extreme right”, it has whig thatcherite entrysts (the Mandelson Tendency) who want to use the core votes of Labour to be elected to govern with whig thatcherite policies (another bunch of whig thatcherites have done entrysm into the Conservatives for the same reasons). There is a big difference between left-to-right labourism and whig thatcherism.

    My usual quotes, first from Lance. simply have not place in Labour, Price 1999-10-19:

    Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.

    Here obviously G Brown comes across as right-wing labourist, no problem with that, but “quasi-Conservative” should have no place in Labour.
    T Benn remarked in 1993-05-19, as to his last NEC meeting:

    I think, candidly, what is happening is that the party is being dismantled. The trade union link is to be broken; the economic policy statement we are considering today makes no reference to the trade unions. Clause 4 is being attacked; PR is being advocated with a view to a pact with the Liberals of a kind that Peter Mandelson worked for in Newbury, where he in fact encouraged the Liberal vote. The policy work has been subcontracted. These so called modernisers are really Victorian Liberals, who believe in market forces, don’t like the trade unions and are anti-socialist.

    Finally consider a “centrist” Labour figure like R Hattersley, who wrote in 2001-06-24 of “meritocracy” as advocated by whig thatcherites in New Labour:

    Now that the Labour Party – at least according to its leader – bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of like-minded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. […] The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape.

    People who disagree with the latter statement are not the extreme right wing of Labour, anymore than the LibDems or the Conservatives are, they need to be in another party.

  3. Blissex
    Posted 29 April 2020 at 22:46 | Permalink | Reply

    «Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other: there is no way to split the difference between “reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax” and “public services should be in public hands”, on one hand, and people who believe that policies like these belong to “Trots”, on the other.»

    But he has jumped: “personnel is policy” and his new shadow cabinet is made almost entirely of hardcore anti-corbynists. Contrast with the “unity” shadow cabinet that J Corbyn chose in 2015 as he was elected, there was a large and important distribution of posts to all parts of Labour, even the Mandelson Tendency entrysts.

    Then the “right-wingers” he had given those posts took advantage of that to do the mass cabinet resignat«Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other: there is no way to split the difference between “reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax” and “public services should be in public hands”, on one hand, and people who believe that policies like these belong to “Trots”, on the other.»

    But he has jumped already: “personnel is policy” and his new shadow cabinet is made almost entirely of hardcore anti-corbynists. Contrast with the “unity” shadow cabinet that J Corbyn chose in 2015 as he was elected, there was a large and important distribution of posts to all parts of Labour, even the Mandelson Tendency entrysts.

    Then the “right-wingers” to whom he had given those posts for the sake of “party unity” took advantage of that to do the mass cabinet resignations, one every hour, each one of them attacking him in the loudest possible way. Keir Starmer also resigned as part of that shameful plot.

    PS I greatly respect J Ashworth and A Burnham, b oth hardcore brownites, for remaining in the shadow cabinet out of loyalty to the party and members; A Burnham in particular wrote

    2015-08-13: «but he also praised Corbyn for having brought the contest to life. “The attacks we’ve seen on Jeremy misread the mood of the party because what people are crying out for is something different. They are fed up with the way Labour has been conducting policies in recent times,” he said.»

    2016-06-16: «It is for our members to decide who leads our Party & 10 months ago they gave Jeremy Corbyn a resounding mandate. I respect that & them»

    After all the Mandelson Tendency whig thatcherites also attacked G Brown himself and brownista Ed Miliband ferociously for being too far left.ions, one every hour, each one of them attacking him in the loudest possible way. Keir Starmer also resigned as part of that shameful plot.

    PS I greatly respect J Ashworth and A Burnham, b oth hardcore brownites, for remaining in the shadow cabinet out of loyalty to the party and members, A Burnham in particular wrote

    2015-08-13: «but he also praised Corbyn for having brought the contest to life. “The attacks we’ve seen on Jeremy misread the mood of the party because what people are crying out for is something different. They are fed up with the way Labour has been conducting policies in recent times,” he said.»

    2016-06-16: «It is for our members to decide who leads our Party & 10 months ago they gave Jeremy Corbyn a resounding mandate. I respect that & them»

    After all the Mandelson Tendency whig thatcherites also attacked G Brown himself and brownista Ed Miliband ferociously for being too far left.

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