After a decade of austerity, with inflation still running at 10% and a country going through the biggest fall in living standards in the last 60 years, it is an understatement to say that the current conservative UK government is profoundly unpopular. Yet, even as former government ministers are announcing their plans to leave politics—presumably for more profitable employment elsewhere—and with current MPs under investigation for violating ethical standards for public officials, the mood of voters regarding a possible Labour government seems gloomy at best.
On the surface, this lackluster attitude may seem slightly strange: the regional elections on May 4 saw the Conservative party lose over 900 local councilors and national polling shows that the Labour party has enjoyed a 15-point lead since January. Despite these rosy predictions, Keir Starmer’s position as the next prime minister does not yet seem like a done deal. Polling may be healthy for the larger Labour party, but Starmer’s personal polling is hardly inspiring. Pollsters warn that the Conservatives are closing the gap, and a hung parliament (a general election in which no party has a majority) is becoming more likely. Late last year, the Labour party reported a £5 million financial deficit and an exodus of nearly 100,000 members. On top of all of that, in April 2022, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the party passed a motion that would block the former leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn, from standing as a Labour candidate in the next general election. To get a better understanding of this current disarray, it’s best to start with Labour’s current leader: Keir Starmer.
Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Right
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the 2019 General Election was a disaster for the British left. All the gains made in the euphoric and entirely unexpected hung parliament of 2017, in which the Corbyn-led Labour party managed to stymie the Conservatives with an unapologetically populist economic and political agenda and an increased voter turnout, were undone. The Labour party lost 60 seats, reduced to its lowest number of MPs since the 1930s, leaving the Conservatives with a healthy majority. Tory politicians took up residence in post-industrial and working class seats in the north of England—seats that had been solidly under Labour control for decades.
After that rout, Corbyn resigned his post as party leader and started a leadership contest. Sir Keir Starmer, who had made his reputation as the former director of public prosecutions (DPP) before becoming a Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras in London, emerged as a frontrunner. As lead prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service, Starmer presided over a number of high profile cases and scandals, including the infamous ‘nightcourts’ prosecutions of activists in the wake of the 2011 England Riots, and the aftermath of the 2013 Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal.
Despite running for leadership on a platform that aligned itself with Corbyn’s anti-austerity politics and commitment to nationalizing key industries, very little of that remains in his current speeches and Labour policy announcements. One of Starmer’s first moves was to close the Community Organizing Unit started by Jeremy Corbyn—an initiative which was the training ground for the young popular MP Zarah Sultana. Nationalizing public utilities seems to have been quietly dropped and the renationalization of railways has been deemed not possible given the fiscal rules on spending that a Labour government would introduce for itself. Notably, research from public advocacy groups shows that almost 70% of Conservative voters would support nationalization of utilities—especially as energy companies are hoarding billions of pounds of customers’ money.
Starmer’s Shadow Health Minister Wes Streeting has given speeches saying that allocating more resources for the National Health Service (NHS) is not possible without greater efficiencies and reform—a buzzword that many, both within and outside of the health service, believe to be a euphemism for privatization. Starmer himself has been downplaying the current wave of strikes in the health sector, criticizing doctors for endangering patients and arguing that restoring junior doctor pay to what it was in 2008 is simply not affordable. When strikes began across key sectors of the economy—healthcare, education, and transportation—the leader of the Labour Party ordered his senior MPs not to appear on picket lines.
It isn’t just in terms of healthcare or labor organization that the Starmer turn should raise concern. Shortly after taking over the party, Starmer ordered Labour MPs to abstain on a bill that would allow informants working with MI5 and other police departments to commit crimes. Despite its apparent safeguards, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill was criticized by human rights groups and led to multiple left-leaning Labour MPs leaving the front bench. After the widely criticized arrests of anti-monarchy protestors on May 6—detained under the controversial Public Order Act—two of Starmer’s shadow ministers have refused to answer whether a Labour government would scrap the act, with both the Green Party and Liberal Democrat Party describing the bill as a profound attack on free speech and civil liberties.
Perhaps nothing quite exemplifies Starmer and the wider ideological changes he has sought to introduce into the Labour party than the decision to introduce the singing of the National anthem to the Labour party conference. He also displays a weird obsession with Union Jack flags, and an internal strategy document called for Starmer’s Labour party to focus on flags, patriotism, and dressing smartly. Given these ideological shifts, it’s not a surprise that commenters have been asking: if Labour moves to the right, what on earth is the point of them as a party? For those sympathetic to Starmer’s ideas and ways of working, the answer to that question is simple: the point is power. The argument goes that any criticism of Starmer’s strategy is simply doing PR for the Conservative party and undermines the important project of ensuring a Labour government at the next general election.
Perhaps most concerning, the extent to which Starmer and his political allies from the conservative wing of the party have systematically excluded and marginalized the party progressives all but ensures that future candidates for election maintain a strict ideological conformity. With a general election not far away, candidate selection is starting across the country, and Labour needs upwards of 200 new MPs to meet their projected majority. Despite the longstanding idea that local Labour party constituencies should choose their own candidates for election, selections have always been subject to a good deal of internal party politicking. However, Starmer and his team have elevated this to new heights and are taking great pains to ensure that certain figures from the left of the party are excluded or blocked from standing. Jeremy Corbyn is easily the most high profile example of this, but as even right-wing journalists have noted, “Labour’s selection processes appear to be deeply unjust, open to abuse, and verge on the corrupt… the plan seems to be to wipe out the Left completely, to find the flimsiest excuse to block anyone who doesn’t toe the party line.”
Deselection is a threat hanging over any MP who might cause trouble: at least one case of actual electoral fraud has already been reported, triggering the possibility of deselecting the left MP Sam Tarry. Over the course of this period of candidate selection, trade unionists or anyone with a link to grassroots leftist organizations have been blocked outright. The Labour left group which organizes candidates like this for selection has faced colossal defeats—out of 60 selections across the country, only one has produced a candidate who is even mildly pro-Corbyn: the economic inequality expert Faiza Shaheen. Local Labour groups across the country have reported similar issues in selecting their preferred candidates. One local trade unionist, Leigh Drennan, was even endorsed by the deputy leader of the party, but failed to make it as a candidate because of a mysterious “due diligence” issue. One Labour MP described the situation as “one of the most blatantly factional examples of abuse of the process I’ve seen in the 15 years or so I’ve been a party member.”
The future of the Labour party seems to be that it is headed toward forming the next government—but as Starmer has proven, he’s interested in reshaping the party into something far more ideologically narrow and with little scope for the left to operate, never mind do something as bold as influence policy.
Perhaps then, the solution for the left is to return to the grassroots—to build working class power and agency at a local level, in communities who may not feel the benefit of any of the neo-Blairite policies of a Starmer government. The question remains: can that even happen within the confines of the Labour party? Increasingly the answer seems to be no. As Tom Blackburn at the New Socialist points out, Labour has always been two parties in one: the first a stunted socialist party and the other a mildly reformist, deeply pro-capitalist party. The division between these two factions has never been more stark. As anger at the exploitation of working people and the injustices of contemporary British capitalism persist, it must be concluded that the Labour party exists to contain and nullify that anger, not give it direction or channel it into building working class power.
While it is easy to see that a potential Labour government would be a colossal improvement over the current Conservative government, it is also clear that there would be little power for the left in that government. The situation for the left in the UK seems somewhat analogous to the US left and the Democratic Party—little institutional power and little legislative scope for maneuvering. The job then is to hold those with power to account—and to make sure the Labour party doesn’t take the votes and interests of the working class for granted. After all, if you count yourself as a part of the British left, why would you stay loyal to a leader who has already said they don’t want you in the party?