Keir Starmer’s victory in the Labour leadership election comes at ‘at a moment like none other in our lifetime’. Socialists inside and outside the Labour Party should be organising now to ensure there is no return to ‘business as usual’ when the pandemic subsides, writes Bev Keenan.
On the morning of Saturday 4 April, the Labour Party announced the result of the leadership election. As expected, Keir Starmer won outright as Leader, defeating the other candidates in the first round, with 56.2% of the vote. Angela Rayner also easily secured the position of Deputy Leader. The whole event ended in an anti-climax due mainly to the impact of coronavirus, but also to the fact that the result was a foregone conclusion. The debate and discussion in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the result was radically reduced due to the coronavirus crisis. The seismic shift in daily lives and the impact on the economy due to the pandemic has eclipsed news of the internal politics of the Labour Party and almost all other events. In addition, even before the pandemic, the protracted wait for the result of the leadership contest had become boring. It began on the 7 January, 13 weeks ago, and the likely outcome was almost certain by the 15 February, when nominations closed. This left a six week wait for confirmation from the membership vote.
The leadership election was triggered when Corbyn’s Labour Party lost 60 seats in the 2019 General Election on the 12 December. Corbyn announced his resignation the following day. The long-standing battle between left and right within the Labour party, which had become muted during the election, picked up with a vengeance when the Tories won for the fourth time in a row. The result of the leadership election indicates a massive shift to the right by the Labour Party.
Shocked Labour Party members took two lessons from the General Election. One was that they needed a strong leader who could unify the party. The other was that Corbyn’s socialism had been too radical, and a move to the right was essential to win the next election. The Tories won the election on the simple slogan of Get Brexit Done and Boris Johnson managed to impose unity on a previously factionalised party. This approach chimed well with public impatience with the whole Brexit process. The Tories also successfully used racist and nationalist dog-whistling, connecting with a rightward shift seen elsewhere across Europe and the globe. By contrast, Labour appeared divided and its message confused. Corbyn continued to be vilified by the media, and prominent members of his own party.
Keir Starmer is seen as the candidate who most closely fulfils the requirements to bring unity to the Labour Party. In a radio interview on 30 March 2020, he stated a belief in building consensus and claimed to be pragmatic in his approach. His record suggests what his ‘pragmatic’ approach will mean in practice. He was appointed by Labour as Director of Public Prosecutions and continued in that role under the Tories. He failed to prosecute the police in relation to the death of Ian Tomlinson, a paper seller who died at the G-20 protests in 2009. Starmer also worked with the Tory attorney general, Dominic Grieve and Theresa May to embed legislation focussing on benefit fraud and he also worked with them on Brexit. In 2016 he resigned from the shadow front bench as part of the infamous ‘chicken coup’, in protest at Corbyn’s leadership, following the Brexit referendum. This belies his claim to have been a loyal supporter of Corbyn’s socialism while he was shadow Brexit secretary.
A comparison of the changing pattern of nominations for leadership in terms of support by different sections of the party for left and right wing candidates between 2015 when Corbyn first stood for leader and 2020, provides insight into how Labour has now moved to the right. The 2020 nomination results showed that Starmer has a large majority in every section. In the Parliamentary Labour Party, Starmer secured 44% of the vote, Long Bailey secured 16% and Nandy 15%, the rest 25%. This result was completely expected, given the sustained opposition to Corbyn throughout his time as leader, from a core group of backbenchers.
Less expected was the shift to the right of Constituency (CLP) nominations, previously considered a Corbyn stronghold. The life injected into the Labour Party by Corbyn is often linked to the massive increase in membership since he became leader. It can also be linked to an upturn in the activity and engagement of CLPs in the party, evidenced in the fact that the number of CLPs nominating leaders increased by 50% between 2015 and 2020, 200 more CLPs nominated than in 2020. But this new CLP vote was split 50:50 between Starmer and Rebecca Long Bailey, whereby in total Starmer claimed 58% of nominations, while Long Bailey took 25% and Nandy 11%. In 2020, there is also now a greater congruence between CLP nominations and the way in which their respective constituency MP voted. Generally speaking, for example in 2016 MPs supported Smith, while CLPs supported Corbyn. In 2020, a much larger proportion of MPs and their CLPs voted the same way.
A similar pattern can be seen across other parts of the Labour Party. The majority of affiliated societies, including trade unions, also supported Starmer. The biggest trade unions Unite 1.2 million members and Unison 1.3 million members supported Long Bailey and Starmer respectively. Starmer has broader support now, than any of the previous leadership candidates and also than Long Bailey. Long Bailey was much less favoured overall, her appeal is narrower and skewed to the left. This justifies the claim that he is the unity candidate.
During the leadership contest, the battle between the left and the right within Labour rumbled on. The very protracted nature of it, 13 weeks, led to accusations that the delay in ballots was a deliberate tactic by Labour head office to rig the contest in favour of Long Bailey. Backbench MPs complained that the contest should have ended earlier. There was disquiet that the Labour Party had no voice on the Privy Council and therefore no influence on government policy during the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, the left in Labour are fearful that Starmer will clear out the Corbynites. At hustings and in interviews, Starmer’s stance has been vague and largely based on platitudes, with no clear commitment in any particular direction. In contrast to this, he has made more concrete promises to reform the NEC. Two of his eight pledges are a thinly veiled attack on Corbyn’s leadership and an attempt to stamp his authority on the party and restore trust in party structures. He is able as leader to appoint three shadow cabinet ministers to the NEC and has pledged to prevent the NEC from imposing MPs on CLPs. He will also introduce an independent complaints body, mainly in response to the EHRC report on anti-semitism, which could be used to purge Corbyn supporters from the party.
It may not be as easy for Starmer to turn back the clock as some may hope. The thousands of Labour left activists who campaigned for Corbyn on the doorstep are mostly young and politically well informed, many describe themselves as socialists. In many ways, the political climate under Corbyn was fruitful and positive, many left CLPs held socialist educationals and motions ranging from climate change, to trans rights to support for strike action were discussed and passed in branch meetings. The World Transformed held annually since 2016 has welcomed thousands of people to the events held in Brighton and Liverpool. A new layer of left-wing MPs has risen to prominence under Corbyn, such as Richard Burgon, the one leadership candidate did not sign the Jewish Board of Deputy pledges: although he came in third in the final round of voting for Deputy Leader. He is the closest to Long Bailey and probably further to the left – more representative, in fact, of Corbyn’s own politics. His pledges included, democratic open member led election of MPs, a new clause IV, public ownership to avert a climate catastrophe and a peace pledge. Some of this Labour left activist layer are involved in campaigns independent of the Labour Party, such as tenants rights and housing, transport, climate and anti-racist campaigns. These are not front organisations and other activists in them come from the full range of the left organisations outside Labour as well as trade unions. The development of these grassroots is not as advanced as it should be perhaps, but it does exist.
The political ground has changed radically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The catchphrase circulating everywhere is, ‘it can never be the same’. For the right, that probably means making the working class pay for the damage to the system and the reinstitution of austerity. They will want to roll back the emergency inputs that they have been forced to make into so many areas of social reproduction and the economy. For the Left, it will mean holding onto the concessions we have gained and fighting for the possibilities that we have glimpsed for real change.
It will be more important than ever to unite in activity. In the workplaces where employers have forced production to continue, we have observed a rise in struggle. Anyone who opposes the direction that the government and employers want to take, needs to work together with anyone else that agrees with us. We do not need to be in the same organisation but we need to act together. While we are isolated at home, we need to use technology to communicate across the UK and globally, we can learn from each other. We can also campaign and organise to support each other online and through concrete online work. This will save lives now, and put us in a better place for when the lockdown is over and any attempt to try to turn the clock back is launched.