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‘A Keir Starmer Government Will Trigger a Revival of the Labour Left’

The Labour party leader’s long marginalisation of the Left cannot survive the realities of Government, argues his former advisor Simon Fletcher

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy

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Owen Jones’ resignation from the Labour party and his proposal for a form of tactical voting to support Greens has brought the subject of the left’s relationship to the Labour Party to a very wide audience. A debate that is usually reserved for the pages of left journals, or among the left on social media, has received much wider attention. 

Questions of whether the left should be in or out of Labour have been building for some time. From Jeremy Corbyn‘s suspension from the party, right through to Labour’s appalling position on Gaza, anger and disaffection has deepened. In some quarters there are arguments against any kind of Labour vote at all, although this is not what Jones himself has said. 

Yet while the debate is real, the other side of the discussion is the unarguable fact that Labour is ahead in the polls and will likely form the next Government. 

There is no groundswell of warmth and support for the Labour leader. Rejection of the Conservatives, rather than untrammelled enthusiasm for Labour, is driving Labour’s huge poll leads. Straightforward class instinct leads millions of people to reject the Conservatives, who are now widely and deeply disliked. For many, Labour is the only available mechanism to remove the Conservative party from government.

Even if there proves to be a degree of fragmentation in sections of the Labour vote, leading to some independents and Greens winning seats, the overall line of march is towards a Starmer Government. But until that happens, politics in Britain is in a long intermission in which everyone knows the Conservatives are going to lose and the only question is when and by how much. 

This impasse in British society is also reflected in the politics of the labour movement.

One principal exception to the impasse is the dynamic pro-Palestine mobilisation against Israel’s killing in Gaza, which has reshaped the politics of protest on a sustained basis. 

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For now though, with the election in abeyance, we are at peak Starmer. The Labour leadership dominates the party’s central apparatus, which it has used to clamp down on debate, block candidates for selection and withdraw the whip from left-wing MPs. Policy formation has excluded major spending commitments, and thereby debate about the economy outside Rachel Reeves’ ‘Securonomics’ framework. Even on that narrow basis Labour voluntarily reined itself in further, gutting its own Green Prosperity Plan. But as long as Labour is in opposition there is a tendency to give the party the benefit of the doubt. Some of the more breathless responses to Reeves’ Mais lecture are an example of that. 

Labour’s proposed supply-side reforms as a precursor to growth are not a sufficient platform to cope with either the immediate spending pressures built up over years of austerity, nor with the major challenge of the climate crisis. Labour’s plans are reliant on increased private investment whereas public investment is woefully low. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, the average OECD country invests nearly 50% more than the UK. Stagnant wages and the attack on disposable household income amount to a massive bottle neck of pressure for higher living standards and improved pay. Many local councils are in crisis. Once in power a Labour Government will face a tension between tight spending, self-imposed rejection of a variety of higher tax options, and the pent-up problems of immediate living standards. What Labour proposes is not equal to the scale of the task it will inherit.

But while there is a mismatch between the needs of the population and the solutions on offer, the real argument about that is not going to move beyond its current terms in any fundamental manner until the blockage of the general election is out of the way. Thus however contradictory it may seem, the formation of a Labour government under the politics of the Starmer leadership is now an essential step in breaking down the dominance of those politics within the labour movement and wider population. 

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Since Starmer is a leader pursuing a right-wing Labour course it is necessary for that course to first be exposed to the reality of its limitations in office, so his programme and its weaknesses can seen by the largest number of people for what they are.

Until Labour is in office Starmer will continue to be the beneficiary of anti-Conservative sentiment and will receive benefit of the doubt, including within Labour’s own base. Testing the Labour right’s agenda against the realities of power will move the political discourse on from the impasse and the question of getting a Labour government, and onto concrete questions of what the Government should do over living standards, public services and inequality.

Of course this being a Labour Government in waiting, there will still be differences with the Conservatives even under self-imposed constraints. Measures such as the New Deal for Working People, the extension of public ownership for the railways, and some of the remaining green agenda are bound to be opposed within and without the next Government. Figures such as Peter Mandelson, who have sought to water down elements of Labour’s programme, will continue to do so.

But it would be wrong for the left to draw the conclusion that these policies in themselves are sufficient justification for Labour’s otherwise limited package. In its totality the Labour leadership’s trajectory is wholly inadequate to the scale of the problems faced by a majority of the population, and will place the Labour Government in deep contradiction with the needs of working class people. At the same time, a renewed Labour Atlanticism, on display most obviously over Gaza, is bound to draw continued opposition. 

We do not have to wait to see what opposition to Labour’s foreign policy means. Mass mobilisation over Gaza and the pro-Palestine movement has completely shaken up a sense that the Labour leadership is impervious to any opposition. The new politics under a Labour Government will not only be fought through the institutions of the labour movement, but also on the streets. A new left politics under a Labour Government will also raise questions about the degree to which the left and the unions are able to work more closely with each other. An inability to do so would give the Labour right more room to manoeuvre than it would otherwise enjoy. 


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The right of the party knows full well that once in office it will face pressure to go further, or alter course altogether, which is one of the principal reasons for its efforts to immunise the parliamentary party from the left. As the limits of the Labour Government’s programme are tested so there is every likelihood of a radicalisation among at least some sections of society on both domestic and international agendas.

For all the efforts of the leadership of the Labour party to protect itself from this, some elements of that political radicalisation will work their way through Labour and the unions, including those affiliated with the Labour Party. Other movements will be entirely distinct or new.

As the formation of a Labour Government under Starmer brings the present impasse to an end, the tensions at the heart of its project will be laid bare. When that happens, the conditions for the left to rise again will be formed.

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