Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 5 October 2021

Are there good reasons why Starmer preferred fighting the left to Biden’s unity approach?


The Democratic primaries for the 2020 presidential election turned into a two horse race between the candidate of the left, Sanders, and the candidate of the centre, former Vice President Biden. Their political style and positions were very different, with Sanders being a bit like Jeremy Corbyn and Biden a bit like Kier Starmer. But when Biden won, he united the party under a common platform, and his government in some areas has been surprisingly left wing.

Starmer too won against a candidate from the left, and he did so on a unity ticket. In reality Starmer has followed a very different path. I don’t want to examine whether Starmer always planned to confront the left, or whether he wanted to try unity but was persuaded or pushed to do otherwise, because I doubt anyone really knows. Instead I want to look at whether the unity approach that Biden had followed could have succeeded in the UK?

The reasons for asking that question are fairly obvious. Biden was successful, and although differences remain sharp the Democratic party has so far avoided any major schisms, in part because in some areas Democratic policy has shifted to the left. In contrast the template for Starmer today is the divisions of the 1980s, and it took two election defeats (under Kinnock) before Labour regained power. For these and many other reasons, the unity approach would seem more attractive.

I can think of two broad classes of explanation for why the Biden approach cannot be replicated here. The first relates to the Labour party itself, and the second relates to the media. Please remember that in setting these arguments out I’m trying to test if they hold water rather than advocating them.

In the US having politicians who call themselves socialists is something of a novelty. In contrast the left and centre in Labour go back a long way, to the battles of the 1980s. The general feeling among many party centrists is that Labour were only able to win in 1997 by ‘taking on’ the left in the 1980s.

To this group, the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 was a total disaster, and many did their best to undermine his leadership. The 2017 result, rather than leading this group to revise its view that the left can never win, is put down to a poor Tory campaign. Any unity campaign would have to overcome such views.

On the left, too often principles far outweigh the need to win elections. Too often the last Labour government is derided for its failures and its successes ignored. There is a danger that any leader who tried a unity path would find the left gradually peeling themselves away as red line after red line (for them) was crossed. It is much easier in the US political structure to hold a diversity of views and not feel personally compromised by the compromises of others.

The right wing media is more powerful in the UK than in the US. The reach of the right wing press as a proportion of the population is greater than Fox News, and crucially it also has a strong influence on what the BBC shows in its flagship news programmes. Their default story about Labour is battles between left and centre, so they are likely to highlight any differences as part of a never ending war. They would constantly try to derail a unity ticket.

Perhaps the clearest example of that was after the EHRC report on antisemitism within the Labour party. In Starmer’s response to the report he warned that he would not tolerate anyone seeking to downplay the problem. He added that the Labour Party would not “tolerate the argument that denies or minimises antisemitism on the basis that it’s been exaggerated”. When Corbyn in his response to the report claimed that the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”, he was suspended by Starmer.

As I said at the time, to say that anyone claiming the media exaggerates the extent of antisemitism within Labour is minimising actual antisemitism is not only factually false, but also gives the media license to claim what they like with no possible comeback from the Labour leadership. But in ruling that any claim of media exaggeration was minimising the problem, Starmer was only following the media itself.

So if Starmer had not reacted to Corbyn’s response, I would have no doubt that the media (including much of the Jewish press) would have said he wasn’t taking the problem seriously. The presence of Corbyn in the Labour party is a problem for some Jewish voters. Starmer clearly wanted to stop the antisemitism issue hanging over Labour, and he would have found that much more difficult if he had ignored Corbyn’s response. On the other hand, by taking the stand he did, he started a war with the left which probably contributed to a decline in his poll ratings.

To the right wing press, and therefore BBC journalists as well, Starmer would have been constantly associated with the 2019 failure and the Corbyn left if he had attempted to unite the party. Every statement by left wing MPs that the right wing press could portray in a bad light would be thrown at Starmer to condemn. It is for reasons like this that every new Labour leader likes to draw a line between themselves and an unsuccessful past.

If those arguments seem compelling, you have to acknowledge the problems with the path Starmer has chosen. To much of the public, being tough on the left of the party just looks to them like a reminder of internal divisions. Indeed that is one reason why the right wing media encourages that approach. You also lose a large number of Labour members, and the income that goes with those members, and a good part of your activist army to deploy during elections. You also lose many voters to either not voting, or voting Green, which is a serious problem if (as at present) there are no attempts at cooperation.

Ironically the split between the Labour leadership and the Labour left is not fundamentally about policy, unless you believe (as some on the left do) that any departure from Corbyn’s agenda or Starmer’s 10 pledges is a betrayal. As Andrew Fisher notes, many of the policies that Starmer has already announced are from the 2019 manifesto. The pledge on Green Investment is substantial, and abolishing VAT relief on private school fees is a significant attack on privilege. Labour’s appeal to the electorate has to be radical on economics to attract the socially conservative voters that put Johnson in power. This could have been the basis of a Biden style united left, if only Labour’s centre could tolerate the left, compromise was more acceptable to the left, and Starmer could have ignored constant media attempts to divide the party. That was not the path Starmer chose, and if he fails badly at the next election (and I hope he does not) he may regret not choosing it.

Anyone on the left or centre whose plan involves a loss in the next election, because they are playing a long game, has to ask themselves whether there will still be a game by then. As Jonathan Freedland notes, at the next we will have a rigged electorate and no independent electoral commission (although I argued in 2019 that it was obvious that Johnson would do things like this after he suspended parliament). If he wins another five years in power, Johnson could try and make it completely impossible for Labour, or even a progressive alliance, to ever win again.

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