Can Keir Starmer’s Labour profit from Boris Johnson’s woes?
The booing of Boris Johnson at the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebration by large sections of a crowd – of royalty enthusiasts, who would not normally jeer a Conservative leader –has marked a turning point for the embattled UK premier. Three days later his leadership was put to a vote of confidence by his party’s MPs. Fewer than 60% backed him. Johnson survives – for now.
Several scandals have rocked the Conservatives recently, causing a by-election defeat in a seat held since the 1830s and sending their poll ratings tumbling. The Labour Party has pulled ahead in opinion polls and its leader Keir Starmer is seen as better material than Johnson, who has been personally embroiled in the most damaging of the scandals: a series of illegal parties in Downing Street, held at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, for which he and others have now been fined by the police.
This has caused the Conservatives significant electoral damage. In May 2022, they suffered major losses in nationwide local elections, losing 485 seats. Yet Labour were not the main beneficiaries. Starmer’s Party made a net gain of just 108 seats, less than half the tally achieved by the centrist Liberal Democrats. The Conservative implosion is not translating into a surge of enthusiasm for Labour.
''One reason why the left is under attack is that it is vastly more influential than a generation ago, when Tony Blair could just ignore it. Today it sets the Party’s policy agenda, with radical proposals comfortably passed by its Conferences.''
Why is this? As I explain in my new book, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow (OR Books, 2022), Starmer’s leadership of the party has much to do with it. While Labour could take some credit for exposing the government’s ethical shortcomings, one analyst sums it up: “None of this was foisted on the Tories by Labour making the political weather.”
“Labour under Starmer is failing to counter the Conservative narrative,” explains another. Many voters are unclear what Starmer stands for – if anything. Aditya Chakrabortty, discussing the cost of living crisis in the Guardian in January, suggested: “If Starmer wants to capitalise on this moment, he needs to do far better than make nothingy speeches larded with abstract nouns and bedecked with flags.”
Significantly, 66 of Labour’s gains in May’s local elections – a majority – were in Wales, where under Labour’s first minister Mark Drakeford, the Party has a distinctive, radical brand.
When Starmer stood to be Labour leader in 2020, he declared that the policies of Labour’s popular 2017 manifesto would be the foundation of his approach. Since then, he has ruled out public ownership of energy – and much else – despite the policy’s popularity. That’s odd for a leader whose political instincts seem to be largely shaped by electoral expediency.
Starmer is also at loggerheads with his Party’s activists. The Party’s ruling National Executive has proscribed several groups affiliated with the party’s left and is suspending members over years-old social media posts. Other activists on the left have been removed as party candidates in local elections on spurious grounds.
Many activists feel demoralised by these manoeuvres. Ahead of a crucial by-election in the formerly Labour, but since 2019 Conservative, post-industrial seat of Wakefield, the entire 16-strong executive of the local Party resigned their positions after the national Party produced a shortlist that excluded any local input – in breach of a rule passed at Labour’s Conference. A similar refusal to heed local activist opinion in Hartlepool in 2021 led to a catastrophic defeat.
Above all, Starmer’s refusal to restore the parliamentary whip to his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn is an open wound in the Party.
Corbyn is hugely popular in his local North London constituency and many activists are appalled at the shabby treatment he has received. Corbyn originally lost the Party whip over his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission Report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. Now, Starmer has advanced other reasons for Corbyn’s continued exile, including his association with the Stop the War Coalition, which conflicts, Starmer announced recently, with “our unshakable support for Nato.”
As Starmer has shifted away from his promise to continue the popular policies of Corbynism and provide a leadership that could unite the Party – it hasn’t – tens of thousands of members have quit. In some left circles, the sentiment is prevalent that Starmer is just another unprincipled politician.
Well, that’s the nature of defeat. Labour’s 2019 electoral rout was inevitably going to produce a counter-offensive by the Party’s right, who are using Starmer’s leadership to make sweeping changes, regardless of the internal damage - and possibly at the expense of winning the next election, which some may have written off already.
But the Party is bigger than its leader and officials.
One reason why the left is under attack is that it is vastly more influential than a generation ago, when Tony Blair could just ignore it. Today it sets the Party’s policy agenda, with radical proposals comfortably passed by its Conferences. Left slates for leadership elections continue to do well – to the extent that the Party bureaucracy has changed the election rules and resorted to other manoeuvres to attempt to minimise the left’s impact.
It is also making headway in local government. Labour’s left grouping Momentum estimate that over 100 genuinely socialist Labour councillors were elected in May’s local elections. Although there are limits to what can be achieved in UK municipal politics, this still matters.
Poor performances by Labour local authorities was one reason Labour lost seats in its heartlands in 2019. Equally, new approaches, like the ‘Preston model’ of community wealth building prefigure what a future Labour government might achieve.
The fight inside the Party for policies that can meet the new challenges is far from over. The current internal regime that sees many local activists as a nuisance will not endure forever and when it passes, the left needs to be there, continuing to make its influence felt.
Mike Phipps is a long-term Labour and anti-war activist, editor of For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power (OR Books, 2018) and of the Iraq Occupation Focus fortnightly e-newsletter. He writes regularly for the platform Labour Hub.
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