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‘Keir Starmer is Using Right-Wing Methods in Service of a Few Tamer Left-wing Hopes’

Labour needs to make bold moves if it is to achieve a victory worth having, argues AC Grayling

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer visits the Tapa NATO forward operating base in Estonia close to the Russian border where he met soldiers deployed with the British Armed Forces. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

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Military commands include such phrases as ‘by the left, quick march!’ – and, as it happens, ‘by the right’ and ‘by the centre’ – but the left-footed starting point for progress onward is the better metaphor.

There was also the curious tradition in Ancient Egypt that one should only ever step into a haunted house with the left foot first which, in my view, is another apt metaphor for our day. When the politicians currently squatting in the desolate corridors of Whitehall have been evicted at the next election, those who inherit the mess will need to take care where they step. ‘Tread carefully, for you tread on my misdeeds’ will be a suitable adaptation of Yeats.

So how might, how should, an incoming government tread?

I have no clear conception of what Labour Party policy is on most major issues. This is, of course, a function of the immense care Keir Starmer has taken to offer not a single hostage to fortune before an election campaign.

The big lead over the Conservatives that Labour has for long now enjoyed owes itself to Labour not being the Conservatives, rather than to a quiver-full of brilliant and enticing policies that thrill the hearts of the EU-loving, Proportional-Representation-loving majority of Labour Party members and supporters – to whose wishes in these respects Starmer has firmly turned a Nelsonian blind eye.

The fact that neither of these urgently-desired and urgently-needed remedies is on offer from Starmer is a bad sign. It suggests that such spring cleaning as will occur in Whitehall and Downing Street will not include the principal rooms of the mansions of state, where the trash will be left undisturbed, projecting its bad smells and its resident rodents over the rest as usual.

Why? Because of a simple, but devastatingly, important fact about the wings of politics, which has come to hijack and pollute the dream of democracy and good government.

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Right-wing politics is an ideology, very well organised and single-minded, which puts the acquisition of power above all else in service to a single burning ideal: that apart from external defence and internal policing, government should be about protecting the interests of those with the talent, desire and opportunity to make money.

It is not about educating, providing healthcare, picking up those who fall at the wayside, encouraging the weak, or constraining the depredations of the strong. Rather the contrary. It is every man for himself.

Low tax and small government, the latter because of the former, is the recipe, and low tax is a sacred tenet because money belongs to he who makes it. When a right-wing government inherits a dispensation in which major public assets have been accumulated – utilities, a health service – it licks its lips: here is fruit ripe for the picking; even selling it cheap to friends brings in enough to cut taxes and ensure re-election. 

Left-wing politics, by contrast, is a disorganisation of many ideologies.

It is a loose coalition of bien-pensants, of concerned, justice-motivated individuals and groups, internally fissiparous, distracted by the opposing pulls of righteous causes. It absorbs and dissipates itself in debates and disputes, in gestures and demonstrations, in a Babel of nostrums in which the various calls to be made on the public purse so far outrun what that purse can contain as themselves to be a source of friction.

Right-wingers form governments more often than left-wingers, especially in two-party First Past The Post (FPTP) settings, because they are better organised, more focused, clearer and simpler in their aims, and unburdened by too many principles. And they form governments more often even though they are in a perpetual minority.

If one were to make a stab at Starmer’s right-left positioning it might be this: from the point of view of one who is determined on getting into Downing Street and aims to operate the existing machinery of state mainly unchanged, his is a ruthlessly intelligent use of right-wing methods in service of a few of the tamer left-wing hopes – those that do not frighten too many in the electorate. 

I would prefer any of Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, True And Fair or Rejoin EU to form a government in Westminster rather than the Conservatives. But I would prefer even more to have Labour – the likely next government – understand that if what it is offering constitutionally is a matter of business as usual, but with our rosette on it, leaving open the door in four years’ time for another Conservative government – because the Tories do this ruthless-intelligent thing better.

If Labour is a party that cares about the people, the country, and the future of the young, it will do something bold with its honeymoon period – it will reform the electoral system, and it will, at the very least, rejoin the European Single Market.

These two moves would have the effect of liberating the UK from an eternal recurrence to minority one-party right-wing rule, which is what FPTP delivers, along with all the potential for the horrors seen in the current iteration of it. And it would deliver us from the accelerating economic decline that leaving the EU has precipitated.


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It is seriously weird to watch a country so wantonly harm itself and its people, condemning millions to poverty, undermining its businesses, shutting off the social and economic oxygen which had been the its life-support as a member of the EU, and making itself an international joke, as the UK has done with Brexit.

The need to reform and rejoin are two clear simple truths, which honest politicians genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people and our country would act upon.

Critics will immediately cry that they will be hard to do but both are just a matter of political will.

Both PR and the EU are well-known quantities – the UK has plenty of experience of both, because we use PR for almost every election except for Westminster, and we had half a century of EEC/EU membership which saved us from economic collapse in the 1970s and sustained us, broadened us, made us part of a great imaginative project – not without its problems, not a few of which we ourselves caused with the petty thumb-sucking attitudes of the Eurosceptics – until we threw away the pearl of great price that was our share in the endeavour of peace, progress and prosperity that the EU sets itself to be.

Allegedly, when the order ‘by the left, quick march’ was given to troops in times past, it signalled to the enemy that no quarter was to be given in the fighting to come. If the political groupings on the British left and centre-left, together constituting the majority in the country, were to unite at least temporarily and gird themselves for these reforms, giving no quarter to the bad old ways which have sunk our country to its present low –because they subject us too easily and often to that formidable steely-eyed minority right-wing – we would be on the way to a victory worth having.

A victory of national salvation.

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