A Dishonourable Start
It does not augur well for the future of the Labour Party that its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, in his first address, as leader, to a Party conference has begun with a false account of the previous 5 years of the Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer says it’s time to get serious about winning. The implication is that Corbyn was not serious about winning and that’s why Labour lost the general elections in 2017 and 2019. However in 2017 the swing to Labour was 9.6% and it increased its vote by some 37% from 9,347,273 in the 2015 general election under Ed Miliband to 12,878,460 in 2017 under Corbyn. Its parliamentary seats increased from 232 to 262. It achieved that vote on the basis of a radical socialist manifesto and a commitment to implementing the Brexit referendum result and leaving the EU. In 2019 it went to the country with a similar radical socialist manifesto but had dropped its commitment to implement the referendum result and leave the EU. The Tory manifesto in the 2019 was ‘Get Brexit Done’. The Labour policy on Brexit was effectively ‘Let’s Stop Brexit’ via a second referendum And so Labour lost 56 seats in constituencies that had voted Leave in the Brexit referendum but had, previously, invariably voted Labour in general elections – the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats.
And who was the architect of this ‘Let’s Stop Brexit’ policy? None other than Sir Keir Starmer. He had hijacked the 2019 Labour Party conference to insist that there should be a 2nd referendum on leaving the EU which he hoped would overturn the result of the 1st referendum. The electorate comprehensively rejected Sir Keir’s ‘Let’s Stop Brexit’ policy and the Tories ended up with an 80 seat majority in Parliament. Starmer was the main architect of Labour’s defeat in 2019. Yet on this we heard nothing in his speech to conference. A loud mea culpa would have been very appropriate. It would have been doubly appropriate since Corbyn’s instinct was always to accept the Brexit referendum result. Starmer had to subvert Corbyn’s leadership to have his ‘Let’s Stop Brexit’ policy adopted. Starmer was not alone here. Several of Corbyn’s key supporters like John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Dianne Abbot were also keen supporters of a second vote. Corbyn found himself isolated and failed to show the required leadership. He should have made clear that he would only remain leader of the party if conference reiterated its commitment to implementing the referendum result.
Starmer’s gratuitous refusal to accept his role in damaging Labour’s election chances was the central defining aspect of his speech. It was something he simply didn’t have to do. After all he was in a position where he could have done what he’s been claiming he wants to do since he became leader – unite the party – by accepting the fact that the second referendum issue damaged the party below the water line.
Having failed to give a fair account of why Labour lost the 2019 General Election Starmer feels constrained to give some sort of explanation for that loss. In doing so his inability to face reality plumbs new depths when he says:“It’s time to get serious about winning. That means we have to change, and that’s what we’re doing. This is a party under new leadership. As I promised on my first day as leader we will root out the antisemitism that has infected our party. We’re making progress – and we will root it out, once and for all. We’re becoming a competent, credible Opposition”
The clear implication of this sequence of half-truths is that the Labour Party was under the leadership of an anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn and that anti-Semitism was what stopped Labour becoming a credible Opposition. Such a smear of one of the most anti-racist leaders of the Labour Party is truly reprehensible. Starmer’s choice of Ruth Smeeth to introduce him to the party conference was a very calculated insult to Corbyn. In 2019 Smeeth was parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement which passed a motion at its annual general meeting in April unanimously adopting a policy that declared Corbyn to be “unfit to be prime minister”. The anti-Semitic card was played against Corbyn because if he had won there would have been a significant change in Britain’s attitude to the war of conquest and colonization being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people. If Starmer does not grasp this elementary fact then his lack of understanding of power politics would be truly alarming. But we suspect he knows only too well that the anti-Semitic charge is and was false.
He has branded Corbyn as an anti-Semite by conceding the legal action on political grounds. He has disposed of the Corbyn era, in which he was fully implicated, by giving up the defence of the legal action which the Party under Corbyn had embarked upon on legal advice, and by refusing to give a straight answer as to whether he did so on the basis of legal advice. Corbyn has said that the action was settled on political, not legal, grounds and Starmer has failed to contradict this by saying that he settled on legal grounds.
Starmer has also sat on the Report on alleged Labour anti-Semitism, presumably on the grounds that it does not support the allegation of significant anti-Semitism in the Party. However, the same false charge will be employed at any time in the future if it is felt to be useful in preventing a Labour government that might be sympathetic to the Palestinian people.
One of Starmer’s first acts when he won the leadership of the Labour Party was to appoint Claire Ainsley as his director of policy. Ainsley has written a book ‘The New Working Class. How to win hearts, minds and votes.” In her book Ainsley argues that politicians have to win the votes of this new working class if they are ever to achieve a parliamentary majority. She argues that understanding people’s values, social identities, moral foundations and attitudes is just as important as policy formulation. The values of the new working class are identified as ‘family’, ‘fairness’, ‘hard work’ and ‘decency’, followed by ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’. Starmer has clearly taken Ainsley’s message to heart when he says: “And my vision for Britain is simple: I want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in. A country in which we put family first. A country that embodies the values I hold dear. Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security. Security for our nation, our families and for all of our communities.”
Ainsley and Starmer appear to think that if Labour identifies what working class people want through focus groups then that is what they should get. The idea of taking a lead and persuading people that a policy is in their interest seems beyond them. This is the kind of politics that Labour adopted under Blair and Brown.
Starmer’s lack of ability to understand the challenge in winning back ‘Red Wall’ seats is also made clear in his lack of interest in issues to do with providing good jobs in those seats. This is going to involve investment, not only in plant and machinery but in skills and research. This implies investing in colleges and apprenticeships and being serious about vocational education as a meaningful alternative to university education that all too often leads to huge levels of debt and jobs that do not require a university education to be done competently. Here again he reflects a metropolitan attitude to education and a lack of interest in what many working people think is important, despite his supposed identification with working class values. As this journal has pointed out, the Tories are much more aware of the importance of this issue than Labour and Labour will pay the price.
Starmer’s entire speech is light on policy and heavy on rhetoric about values. For someone who proclaims his values are decency and fairness he is quite wrong to think that party members and the electorate generally will not see through his indecent and unfair portrayal of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. An accurate and fair portrayal of Labour’s last 5 years and Starmer’s disastrous contribution to it would have served him much better.