Why is the Labour Party leadership election so depressing? Clearly it has something to do with the line-up. In all probability it will come down to the choice between Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate of the left.
Starmer claims that he will maintain the shift to the left that took place under Jeremy Corbyn. This isn’t very credible coming from someone who participated in the unsuccessful right-wing coup against Corbyn in 2016.
Starmer is tacking left to win over a party membership that still predominantly supports Corbyn.
The Financial Times newspaper reports that, “on the pro Tony Blair right of the party, insiders think Sir Keir will win, and they await his gradual shift away from left wing politics”.
In other words, they expect him to follow the path taken by Neil Kinnock, who took over in 1983 after the left wing leadership of Michael Foot and inched the party rightwards.
Unfortunately, Long-Bailey isn’t exactly inspiring. She rapidly caved on the two issues where Corbyn personally stood firm. She has said that she would authorise the use of British nuclear weapons and agreed it is “antisemitic” to “describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist”. In other words, she too is moving to the right.
There are two underlying reasons why this is happening. First of all, the Labour left is still very weak.
Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, spent a generation as isolated and despised figures on the back benches.
The failure of New Labour—underlined by the 2015 general election defeat—gave them their chance, as people radicalised by the struggles against war and austerity rallied behind Corbyn.
This process helped to transform Labour into the largest party in Europe as hundreds of thousands joined to support him. But this support remained largely passive. Of course, Momentum emerged to organise Corbyn’s base within the party, and claims a membership of 40,000.
But it made concessions to the right’s attacks on Corbyn and mobilised its supporters primarily to canvass for Labour.
The left wing programmes that Labour campaigned on in 2017 and 2019 came from the top. They may have inspired party members, but this isn’t the same as a strong organised left developing.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, Labour’s reason for existence is to win elections. When it loses an election badly, the priority becomes to recover lost voters.
In present circumstances, where the defeat was inflicted on a left wing leader by a very right wing Tory party, the logic is move back towards the centre.
This is why we’re hearing so much about “electability”. Partly, I think, for sexist reasons, this favours Starmer, an establishment figure with a knighthood who used to be Director of Public Prosecutions.
It’s this kind of electoral logic that helps to explain why Corbyn’s own Constituency Labour Party, Islington North, has endorsed Starmer. So too has Laura Parker, ex-national coordinator of Momentum.
She said, “I am backing Keir Starmer because he has placed unifying the party at the heart of his mission and made an unequivocal commitment to preserving our core policies...I trust that Keir means what he has written in his ten pledges to us.
“It would be self-defeating for him to say one thing then act otherwise.”
This is simply naive. In his early years as leader Kinnock campaigned in support of the left-wing policies he had inherited from Foot.
In private he told a surprised Peter Mandelson that they were “crap”. The two worked together to dump them, preparing the way for Blair.
But the world is very different today from the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s.
What does moving towards the neoliberal centre mean when this centre is collapsing everywhere? Boris Johnson won by moving rightwards, and he’s not backing down now.
Chasing “electability” may simply doom Labour to the electoral irrelevance into which many continental social democratic parties are already sinking.