The radicalisation of Keir Starmer

A few thoughts on Labour’s abstention on the Overseas Operations Bill. (And a thought on initial caps, which is that I’m in favour – I’d read the Graun story twice looking for the title of the bill before I realised that the “overseas operations bill” they referred to was in fact the Overseas etc. I’m not a fan of this wrinkle in the Guardian style guide. Apart from anything else, there could in theory be any number of “overseas operations bill”s; there have certainly been any number of “terrorism bill”s, mostly not entitled Terrorism Bill. But anyway.)

1. Good principles make good tactics

I owe this point partly to noted ex-blogger Dan Davies, on the Twitters. Two things are true about the distinction between issues that fall under the heading of day-to-day political tactics and matters of firm political principle. One is that the gap between the two is obvious to all; it’s not a gap so much as a gulf – an unbridgeable, fathomless chasm. The other is that no two people agree on where it is. Everyone agrees that some things are up for grabs while others are beyond any possible debate – and most people agree most of the time on which side of the line most of those things are – but in any given discussion it’s possible that the person you’re talking to will think your unshakeable commitment ought to be treated as political small change, or vice versa. In practice, a lot of political argument is about making sure an issue is parked on the Principles shelf, out of reach of any possible argument, and stays there.

It seems pretty clear that Labour was whipped to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill primarily so as to draw a line between Starmer’s “new management” and the Corbyn-era party, and incidentally between Starmer loyalists and the left-wing holdouts who broke the whip; certainly Starmer hasn’t been slow to use the split to this effect. (Given that this was a one-line whip – “Considered advisory, providing a guide to party policy on an issue” – the sacking of Nadia Whittome, for example, has to be seen as a deliberate choice.) In the light of the previous paragraph, though, the question isn’t whether shielding British soldiers from prosecution for war crimes is an issue of principle which should never be instrumentalised in this way. Clearly this can be argued either way, clearly it has been, and some guy with a blog isn’t going to settle the debate for the ages. The question is where you get to if you argue one side or the other, and which way you end up pointing.

To put it a bit less cryptically, you can make a coherent argument that war crimes are among the things the Labour Party quite definitely opposes, and voting against a bill which would make them harder to prosecute is therefore the right thing to do. You can also make a coherent argument that, for the Labour Party in 2020, expressing opposition to war crimes is less important than expressing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn – or if that’s too blunt, that it’s less important than telling former Labour voters that one of their reasons for not voting for the party no longer applies, precisely because the party under Corbyn would have voted against this bill.

Now, these are very different positions, and they express very different commitments – which is to say, they commit the party to different directions of travel. And, while we can take a guess at which one is more ‘principled’ and which more ‘opportunistic’, that doesn’t in itself tell us which one will work – in any sense of the word. There’s certainly no guarantee in politics that you’ll come out ahead by doing the principled thing, but there’s also no guarantee that you won’t. Raw tactical opportunism may pay off in the short term, but it’s liable to bring its own policy commitments with it – if only because people like to make sense of what they’re doing and fit it into a bigger framework – and you may end up committed to a course that you (or your supporters) can’t bring yourself to take. If you avoid that trap (“no, honest, I’m a pure opportunist!“), opportunism may land you with an incoherent bricolage of incompatible commitments. Some combination of these two outcomes accounts for what happened to Yvette Cooper’s career, and to a lesser extent Andy Burnham’s, after they did the smart, tactical thing and abstained on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015. (And we know what happened to the one candidate for leader who broke the whip and opposed.)

The decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operation Bill may have been wrong in principle (I think it was); the decision, as well as the disciplinary actions taken since, was certainly petty and vindictive; and it may have been a tactical mistake.

Also, it may have been doomed to failure.

2. Not weak enough

So far I’ve been talking about ‘tactical’ actions in general terms, but clearly not all tactical moves are alike. If there were a big vote coming up, in a hard-to-fix electorate like the party membership, it might make tactical sense to discredit the Left of the PLP (or engineer a situation where it discredits itself), and the leadership might judge that it was worth burning the odd principled commitment to achieve that.

But that’s not what’s going on here; the NEC election isn’t till November, apart from anything else. With the exception of losing Leftists from three very junior payroll positions – an equivocal gain for the leadership, as the loss frees those MPs to speak out – nothing obvious was either gained or lost through the leadership’s tactical move. This was a particular kind of tactic; one defined in terms of image and credibility.

Credibility can mean two things. To begin with, let’s take the more obvious meaning – let’s assume that being “credible”, for a political party, means being recognised as a legitimate political actor by other political actors. Making tactical moves, potentially at the expense of principled commitments, in the hope of restoring credibility (in this sense) has two closely-related problems. Both were amply visible in the Conservative Party’s response to the vote:

Hashtag Same Old Labour; no change, no credibility gained. But that’s the thing about credibility: like respect, it isn’t granted automatically, it has to be earned. And the thing about earning respect from the Conservative Party is, what kind of idiot are you? To put it another way, if your problem is the school bully calling you names, you’ve actually got a bigger problem than that, which is that he’s the school bully and you can’t stop him calling you whatever he likes.

So: the trouble with taking policy commitments off the Principle shelf, and treating them as expendable for tactical purposes, is that by doing so you are actually making a policy commitment, and one which may not sit well with other commitments – or voters – you want to retain. And the trouble with doing this for the sake of credibility (in this sense) is that your credibility is largely in the gift of your enemy.

Which brings me to those two closely-related problems. The first problem with trading principles for credibility is that there’s no limit to what you may be asked to do, how far you may be asked to go, what existing principles and commitments you may be asked to burn – and this is (a) true in the abstract, (b) doubly true of the Conservative Party, which has never been renowned for playing fair and (c) have you seen the Conservative Party lately? I was reminded of this forcibly by some of the responses to the abstention the other night, to the effect of well, obviously this is something that the Left would want to oppose, that’s just why it’s an obvious trapthis, of a bill which is counter to Britain’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture and has been criticised by the EHRC and Amnesty International.

If the Tories want to make minimal adherence to international human rights law the bar that Labour has to limbo under, they will; that doesn’t mean that it’s smart politics to oblige them. Particularly not given the second problem I mentioned, which is, of course,

that they have absolutely no obligation to grant us any credibility if and when we do pass their test, and every reason not to.

3. Down your street again quite soon

There is another way of looking at credibility, however. This has to do with cost: in the criminal underworld, or in situations where credibility can’t be externally verified more generally (the theory runs), a credible signal is one that carries a cost for the person sending it. If I spend money on a joint venture that I may not get back, or if I grass up an ally of mine so as to make your life easier, you’re more likely to believe that I genuinely want to work with you and that I’m not just looking to rip you off.

Now, Nadia Whittome’s a rising star and someone we’re going to hear a lot more from, but I doubt that finding a new PPS will cost Jon Ashworth all that much, let alone Keir Starmer. What might make the signal Keir Starmer has just sent costly, though, is – ironically – what initially appeared as the whole reason for sending it: the fact that it will at best strengthen the Left both numerically and politically (where the Left is defined as “everyone who liked the look of Starmer’s ten pledges but is not intending to give him the benefit of the doubt forever”), and at worst alienate the Left from the party altogether. Bluntly, this will cost Starmer support within the party, and could end up costing Labour members and votes. (It’s not the first time I’ve reminded myself that, as a member, I’ve got a reason to hang on until the NEC election in November – but it is the first time that I’ve asked myself how many more times I’m going to have to tell myself that.)

If we follow through the logic of the second section of this post, this just makes Starmer’s tactic look even more ridiculous: he’s deliberately risked throwing away a non-negligible chunk of votes and members, for the sake of gaining credibility by courting the approval of the Tory Party – an approach which has never worked and never will. But this second model of credibility creates a different possibility. Suppose that the potential loss of support – for Starmer personally and even for Labour – is the stake, the price Starmer is willing to pay to drive the message home; suppose that the message is not “look, we’re credible now (even the Tories say so)”, but a simple and straightforward “look, we’re not that any more”. This would also imply that the chosen terrain of international law and human rights (in the red corner, with the British Army in the blue) was just that, chosen; it wasn’t simply the test that the Tories happened to have set for Labour this week.

But if we’re “not that any more”, what is ‘that’? And what are we instead?

This?

4. The Sound of Ideologies Clashing; Also, The Sound of Ideologies Harmonising, Interlocking, Overlapping, Merging, Splitting And Just Plain Co-Existing

Here’s a thought: people have lots of different views about different things, which fit together in constellations of ideas and commitments; I’m talking about ideologies. Another thought: the natural habitat of ideologies is the social group; individuals see the world through ideologies, but we derive those ideologies from the groups of which we’re members, which (in most cases) existed before we joined them and will exist after we’ve moved on. Ideologies – existing in social groups rather than in people’s heads, remember – have their time; they develop, thrive and decline over time, and in particular settings. Two similar societies, separated by geography or history, may be characterised by similar ideologies, different ones or some of each. Also, it’s possible for one person to see the world – and to interpret the news, and to vote – according to multiple different ideologies, depending which seems the best fit to the situation and/or which is uppermost in their mind at a given time. Hence the sexist trade unionist; hence, for that matter, the picket-line-crossing Guardian-reading liberal.

Political parties generate support and mobilise supporters by appealing to ideological commitments, encouraging people to see the world through one set of ideological lenses rather than another – and in so doing they strengthen those ideologies, making them seem more natural and normal. While “Corbynism” was never an ideology in its own right, when he became Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was strongly associated with a couple of ideologies which he’d upheld for thirty years as a backbencher: an ideology of human equality, of every person (anywhere in the world) mattering as much as any other; and an ideology of constructive empowerment, of mobilising people to make the world a better place. As Labour leader he found, probably to his surprise (certainly to mine), that appeals voiced in terms of these ideologies were actually quite popular, despite the mainstream media positioning them – and him – somewhere between Fidel Castro and Jim Jones. It didn’t hurt that, in 2017 at least, his outsider status let him appeal – consciously or not – to another ideology that’s flourished in Britain in the last decade: this combines short-term pessimism with an openness to big, dramatic changes, on the basis that, whatever we’ve got when the dust settles, it can’t be much worse than this.

What happened in 2019 and why it happened is outside the scope of this (already fairly long) post. Suffice to say that Labour has a different leader now, and early hopes of ideological continuity have already been dashed – hopes that were initially encouraged, to be fair, by promises of ideological continuity, made in broad terms but made publicly and repeatedly for all that. But we ken the noo; we know now that the ideologies Starmer is articulating are definitely not those Corbyn championed (call them “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work”). Nor, for that matter has Starmer got any sympathy for the “Big Bang? Bring It On!” ideology which Corbyn tapped into (perhaps the only thing he shares with Boris Johnson, and certainly the only shred of justification for calling him a Brexiter).

What does Starmer believe in? I’ve no idea, and I don’t really care. The important question is, what sets of beliefs is the Labour Party under Starmer giving voice to – what ideologies is it articulating, and thereby strengthening and normalising? It’s early days, but the image above contains a number of clues: the reference, not to the people of Britain, but to Britain as a country, elevated over all other countries; the specific reference to “growing old” as a concern that the audience might have; and, of course, the Butcher’s Apron for backdrop, a choice which ostensibly evokes the UK as a whole but actually suggests that the nation being championed is rather narrower than present-day Britain, or else some way in the past. Put that lot together and you have, I think, something close to the diametric opposite of the ideologies Labour upheld under Corbyn; it combines a sense that some people very definitely do matter more than others with a sense that something should be done for those people, as well as an appeal to how the world used to be. (Never mind when, exactly; the point is to look back. A national flag is only a forward-looking symbol when it’s being raised on Independence Day.)

Is this a coherent ideology? We’ll see, but I think it just could be; I think a lot of the grudges being sedulously borne in our society can be brought together under a heading of “When’s Our Turn?” – yes to patriotism, tradition, the armed forces and support for pensioners (they’ve done their bit); no to internationalism, cultural innovation, human rights lawyers and hand-outs for scroungers (let them do some work for a change). And, if I’m right, that’s the direction Labour is heading.

4. The Radicalisation of Keir Starmer

Let’s talk about radicalisation – by which I mean, let’s talk about grooming. If you want someone to do something that they find repugnant, the first thing you do is work on the repugnance, then bring them round from tolerance to approval and hence participation. A good way to do this is to surround the victim with people who will affirm that the repugnant act isn’t all that bad after all, and encourage them to think of it as normal. It’s differential association, really – the more people the victim associates with who affirm the normality of the act and the fewer who deny it, the sooner they too will affirm that it’s normal.

But the key point about that model is not that somebody is manipulating the victim, nudging them over the jumps; the key point is that there are no jumps – no firebreaks, no step-changes. There’s just a continuum of behaviours, each of which has a lot in common with its neighbours. For a less emotive example, imagine a woman who’s had a particularly sheltered upbringing and has always objected to bad language, and who by a quirk of fate falls hopelessly in love with… a docker, let’s say. A sailor. A trooper. Somebody who swears a lot, anyway. Now, what happens as we go from stage one in this person’s habituation to bad language (“remain seated with hands clenched and eyes screwed shut, resisting the urge to flee the room”) to stages two (“remain seated, concealing shock and breathing normally as far as possible”) and three (“express disapproval and continue conversation”)? The key thing that happens, I would argue, is the passage of time. With time, the shock diminishes; the woman’s original, spontaneous responses cease to be triggered; and her own responses progressively frame the repugnant behaviour as a little less repugnant, a little more normal. Nobody is grooming this unfortunate woman, nobody is pushing her through barriers; there are no barriers. Once a direction of travel is set, one stage leads naturally to the next.

And so it is with ideology. I said in the previous section that I don’t care what Keir Starmer believes in; more to the point, I don’t think he believes in anything, other than that a Labour government would be a good thing and that he knows just the boy to head it. But he is happy to work with ideologies; specifically, he’s happy to pitch to the people who the message quoted above resonates with, and happy to cut loose everyone who identifies more with the ideologies voiced by Corbyn.

Which is where radicalisation comes in. Clearly, Starmer has already gone well beyond clenching his hands and screwing his eyes shut if anyone brings out the Union Flag. More schematically, we can distinguish between tolerating a discourse – allowing it to be used in one’s presence, or indeed in one’s political party’s communications; mimicking the discourse, borrowing its terms to jazz up one’s own arguments; using it, articulating one’s own arguments in those terms (modifying those arguments where necessary); and promoting it, centring it in one’s political practice.

The journey from toleration, through mimicry, to usage and finally promotion is a journey of radicalisation. Passage from one stage to another is not automatic, but neither are there any barriers in its way; given habituation, the passage of time and the continuation of the stimuli that initially led to toleration, it will tend to happen. Moreover, given that ideologies are social productions and do not exist in any individual’s head, the radicalisation of discourse users also strengthens the ideology, making it seem more relevant and hence more powerful – more capable of describing the world and expressing users’ beliefs and desires.

As far as the discourses of “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work” were concerned, Jeremy Corbyn was never in any danger of radicalisation, for the simple reason that he was already radical; he centred those discourses in his practice, and worked to affirm and strengthen them in society, quite openly and unapologetically. With regard to the discourse of “When’s Our Turn?”, however, I sense that Starmer – like Gordon Brown before him – has no particular commitment to it and is planning to use it instrumentally: mostly mimicry, perhaps a little use, definitely no promotion.

We’ll see how successful he is in avoiding radicalisation. Early signs, it has to be said, aren’t good. Ideologies are not the kind of thing one can dabble in; if, as Labour leader, you say that you believe in making Britain the best country in the world, people will tend to believe you – and the people who believe in this kind of thing will tend to be confirmed in that belief, and identify Labour with it.

Radicalisation doesn’t stand still, in other words; the process that has been begun under Starmer’s leadership could end up giving us a patriotic, nostalgic, troops-supporting, pensioner-friendly Labour Party. This would be a disaster for Britain – in itself, because of the alternative possibilities being squandered and because of the cultural and political movements which it would embolden. (And it almost certainly wouldn’t win a General Election. It might win back half the people who told me they weren’t voting Labour last winter, admittedly, but it would repel the other half – and we’d never find out, because it would also repel most of the people who do the canvassing.)

Let’s hope that Starmer reverses course before the damage is done.

3 Comments

  1. Blissex
    Posted 26 September 2020 at 14:13 | Permalink | Reply

    New, New Labour also abstained on the bill to prevent the prosecution of crimes committed by security service agents and informants, and Keir Starmer as director of prosecutions refrained from bringing cases about rendition and torture.

    These are not tactical, opportunistic moves, they reflect the same commitment New Labour had to “liberal” authoritarianism. When New Labour introduced a bill to allow for long periods of detention without charges, even David Davis protested against it by resigning his seat and then re-winning it, in a deeply Conservative constituency.

  2. Blissex
    Posted 26 September 2020 at 14:16 | Permalink | Reply

    As another indication of New, New Labour’s commitment to be an alternative to the Conservatives for tory voters who want the same tory policies run by more competent tories, the current official New, New Labour slogan for an important issue is literally “get Brexit done”.

  3. Blissex
    Posted 26 September 2020 at 14:24 | Permalink | Reply

    «With regard to the discourse of “When’s Our Turn?”, however, I sense that Starmer – like Gordon Brown before him – has no particular commitment to it and is planning to use it instrumentally»

    Please, I still have respect for Gordon Brown, who had a lifelong commitment to a type of politics very different from the tory-whig politics of New, New Labour and the Mandelson Tendency entrysts. Just two of many potential quotes:

    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.

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/rachelsylvester/3556538/Brown-and-the-conservatory-building-classes.html
    Although Mr Brown talks a lot about aspiration, he means it in the sense that people at the bottom of the pile should be able to get to the middle, rather than that those in the middle should aspire to get a little bit further towards the top. […] He is focusing on what he recently called the “squeezed middle” because he knows that the aspirational voters who supported Tony Blair have turned away from him. But the phrase he has chosen is telling: Gordon is interested in the middle classes only if he thinks they are “squeezed” — and therefore joining the ranks of the poor who have concerned him most for all his life.

    My guess is that Gordon Brown (or brownistas like Andy Burnham) are still part of the Labour party, even if they are on its “right”, while the Mandelson Tendency entrysts like Chuka Umunna etc. just aren’t Labour.

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