Labour: Keir Starmer and the Path to Success
Political parties have gone through various evolutions. Initially closed-off, exclusive and elitist, parties were increasingly forced to appeal to larger groups of voters as the franchise was extended throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain, this occurred over the boundaries of class; Labour arose for the workers, and the Conservatives remained as the uncontested party of capital. Elsewhere, parties mobilised support over alternative ‘cleavages’ — secularism vs. Christian democracy, town vs. rural and so on. But as time went on, class boundaries became murky, and the capital-owning workers that make up the middle class grew. The Conservatives were forced to appeal to the youth, ethnic minorities and the urban vote, while Labour was forced to appeal to entrepreneurs, homeowners and big business. This fact was epitomised in the ideology of the ‘Third Way’ — Tony Blair’s acceptance of the Thatcher consensus, and his move away from socialism and towards the moniker of ‘social-ism’. But this trend was seen throughout the entire developed world; parties did not necessarily lose their old identities, but now their promises couldn’t only benefit one section (or coalition) of society — they were expected to appeal to everybody. And thus, the ‘catch-all party’ was born.
Demonstrably, these developments have complicated our democracy. Voters often complain that they cannot clearly tell parties apart — “neither represent me” they may say. Relatively static coalitions of support for parties have shifted, as Labour loses votes in the working-class pit towns of the North, yet gains voters in the affluent university-educated cities of the South. What then is a party to do when it cannot simply rely on the time-tested support of particular demographics? It must of course present a ‘grand narrative’ — a story of sorts which can rally, excite and inspire.
The last several elections teach us this truth — Blair won through his promise to drag Britain into the 21st century, clean up its constitution, and modernise Labour’s image by integrating big and small business. Cameron won by presenting a cleaner, sharper image of the Conservatives; a new party that was young, socially moderate and fiscally responsible. And Johnson won by presenting himself as the get-it-done Prime Minister, who would deliver Brexit and protect Britain from the rabid socialism of Labour. The truth of these narratives is irrelevant for my point here (the Conservatives have never been socially moderate, and Johnson in fact delivered unto us nothing but gross ineptitude) — what is important is that they are clear and memorable. And for the most part, we can contrast them with the failure to create grand narratives by the loser. John Major was more of the same tired stale conservatism, and Brown was more of the poor economic policy which caused the 2008 recession. Labour of course demonstrably did not cause the 2008 recession, and yet the label stuck.
A grand narrative may not be all that is needed — Corbyn’s Labour certainly had a clear narrative and set of promises in my mind, yet lost — but it does in my mind seem to be a necessary condition for winning an election (consider Trump’s MAGA movement in 2016, and Biden’s promise for a kinder politics in 2020 for further evidence). Well, if so, what is Labour’s grand narrative now?
If, like me, you’re unable to give a clear answer, that should cause some degree of worry. Up until now, Starmer has chosen to focus on “holding the Tories to account”. A fair enough focus, I thought, but it has yet to pay off. Despite the expected honeymoon period of a new leader, Labour fails to top the polls, and is in fact slipping as the Tories enjoy a vaccine-related boost. Even worse, since November Starmer’s personal popularity has fallen, both among the general public and among Labour voters. Thus, in the last several months we have seen a shift from pure critique, towards vocalising our own vision of the future. Yet the vagueness of Starmer’s recent speech on the economy, and the embarrassment of the Guardian’s revelation that an internal strategy report was calling for greater use of the union flag risks sinking this ship before it has left port. It is not simply that no grand narrative has yet taken root — rather, the seeds for that tree appear rotten from the beginning.
To create an effective grand narrative, our message must be rooted in substance. If going forward it merely consists of flag-waving and vague posturing towards a “fairer” economy, we shall, I suspect, fail to impress many people. And the firmest advocates of Keir Starmer must recognise the risks of being seen to “pivot” and “shift”; if it appears that we’re simply following the voters, they will naturally conclude that we stand for nothing. And if we stand for nothing, why bless us with their support? The issue, in my mind, is not reconceptualising Labour as a patriotic party, or promoting a fairer economy that will be fundamentally unlike the inequality-laden status quo, sucked dry by the succubus that is austerity. Rather, it’s that this rhetoric means little if it’s not backed up with consistency and clarity.
Yet this disaster-to-be is one of Starmer’s own making, because Labour does in fact have fertile ground on which to sow this narrative. Here I shall demonstrate two such opportunities. Firstly, we could look to fix the embarrassment that is our continued support for first-past-the-post. The public’s indignation at our electoral system, the House of Lords, and indeed our politics in general is plain to see, and yet we continue to deflect our gaze, ignoring the clear dissonance between our support for the stale and outdated constitutional status quo and our proud progressive, reformist ideals. Blair’s 1997 win occurred on a similar backdrop — anger at the presence of hereditary peers in the Lords, the lack of devolved powers in Scotland and Wales, and the tired status quo formed from decades of Tory rule. And in response, Blair promised a veritable cornucopia of reforms, creating our current devolved system, introducing the Human Rights Act, massively reducing the number of hereditary peers, and implementing a number of other reforms. Why should we not also capitalise on the anger felt by many at the status quo? How much stronger would our hand be if the Conservatives were left the only party desperately holding onto our unrepresentative electoral model? And how much more secure would progressive voices be in Parliament if a Conservative minority could no longer win dramatic majorities? On this, we should take a no holds barred approach, looking also at lowering the voting age, and even implementing mandatory voting, which receives surprising levels of support from older citizens.
Second, if Labour is to reappraise itself as a “patriotic” force, it absolutely must not be surface-level only. For this will be read as nothing but grotesque pandering by those voters it intends to win over, and will likely alienate left-wing voters, who fear that Labour intends simply to emulate the crude patriotism of the Conservative Party, to the detriment of minorities. Sadly, thus far the strategy quite clearly is surface-level; stick a flag behind you on a Zoom interview and the job’s a good’un. Of course, this had the predictable consequence of mockery. But this is not to say that a patriotic narrative could not be successful. It would be best utilised when the presented vision of Britain aligns with Labour’s progressive, democratic socialist values. Our Britain is one of trade unions fighting for decent working conditions and pay; suffragists fighting to grant women an equal say in the affairs of government; it is one of technological ingenuity and invention; it is one of beautiful scenic geography and boundary-pushing international cities; it is one which celebrates the many religions, ethnicities and regions which make up the country. In short, our patriotism must align with our progressive values. It must celebrate all that is good about Britain, without at any point shying away from the great harm we have done in the form of imperialism and racism. Such a patriotism would ring true to many whom we hope to win over, but would hopefully demonstrate that we are not simply utilising appeals to patriotism to bludgeon movements for equality like BLM. Such a patriotism could again weave into a grander narrative, relating for instance to a foreign policy that actively promotes human rights and does not shy away from our international commitments.
And finally, we must not interpret 2019 as a rejection of all things Corbyn. We must not sell out the millions of voters who desperately need a political party in their corner, who suffer, and will continue to suffer, from poverty, homelessness, hunger, and illness as the Conservatives destroy local governmental institutions, and show utter disinterest when it comes to rising rent prices, stagnant wages, truly horrific levels of child poverty, gross ineptitude in governance, and so on. So much of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos was positive, and clearly outlined our vision for the future. Starmer’s task is not to abandon these promises, but is to clarify them, and demonstrate how in fact they would benefit our economy, not hurt it. We mustn’t simply promise a “better” economy that is “unlike” the one of today — we must clarify how it is different, never abandoning those who need a Labour government most.
Thus, the board is set, and our future need not look so dismal. Keir has improved our polling numbers, we no longer suffer from the spectre of Brexit, and we have tangible policies and focuses which, if adopted, would clearly distance ourselves from Boris and his cronies. But if we do not proudly stand by our commitments and our policies, and if instead we simply go with the wind, desperately begging for support like a baying dog, we’ll stay in this rut, and voters will continue to say “Keir? Not sure what he stands for”.
As a democratic socialist, I believe my place is in the Labour Party, for I believe it remains the best vehicle through which to affect positive change. And as democratic socialists, we must work to evidence the fact that our proposals are electable, and in fact could dramatically improve Labour’s standing with the general public. The atmosphere in the party right now is not quite one of despair, but certainly one of gloominess, no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. The answer to these clouds is not piecemeal critique matched with vague rhetoric. It must be bright and loud, unabashed and progressive. Anything less will simply put Labour to shame.