Editorial: Starmer’s New Blairism consolidates

Within days of telling the Financial Times (August 5) how “very proud” he was of the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer made it clear that his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn would remain suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) unless he engaged in an abject renunciation of his own past.

These moves came shortly after July’s marathon meeting of Labour’s ruling national executive committee (NEC), which had taken further steps to consolidate the grip of the right-wing.

Corbyn was suspended in November 2020 for responding to the outrageously tendentious report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into antisemitism in the Labour Party under his leadership (see The Establishment HRC Does The Job, in Socialism Today No.244, December-January 2020/21).

In a low-key but completely factual Facebook post he argued that “one anti-Semite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”. Corbyn has referred to a poll finding that members of the public guessed on average that 34% of Labour Party members had been the subject of a complaint of antisemitism whereas the actual figure was 0.3%.

But what is the truth to Starmer when he had the verdict he wanted – and had made use of it over the preceding months to further crush the remaining left within the Labour Party? Corbyn must make “a clear, unequivocal apology” for his response to the EHRC hatchet job, Starmer told The Guardian (13 August), “taking the post down and working with us on antisemitism” – and not even think of defending his record, in other words.

And so, ten months on from what was originally a three-month suspension – and after a defeated court case with nearly £20,000 in costs awarded against him – Corbyn remains outside the parliamentary party that he had led into a general election just two years ago.

The window opened by Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015 to overturn Blair’s transmutation of the party into New Labour – and establish a vehicle for the socialist political representation of the working class under the Labour banner – is well and truly closed.

The capitalist class were shaken by Corbynism, as The Times editorialised when Brexit divisions were threatening to irretrievably split the Tory party. “Its populist economic programme may well prove alluring to many”, they warned their readers, “especially the young who feel that they do not have a stake in the economy”. (20 August 2019)

“For all the flaws” of previous Labour governments, this rabid defender of capitalism argued, “a Corbyn government would be an entirely different beast” and avoiding that prospect was “a national priority”.

In his FT interview praising Blair, Starmer acknowledged how “acutely aware” he was that “among my first tasks is rebuilding the relationship between the Labour Party and business”, to put such fears to rest.

And within the framework of the current Labour Party rules and structures at least, the threat to the capitalists of Corbynism – and conversely, its promise to the working class and young people – has indeed been expunged.

It is more than time that the left – the left-led trade unions above all but also the Socialist Campaign Group of left MPs and Corbyn himself – drew the necessary conclusion that a new political vehicle is needed.

Proscribed lists and other measures

Starmer’s praise of Blair and the confirmed continued suspension of Corbyn followed the nine-hour meeting of Labour’s NEC on July 20, in its last gathering before the party’s annual conference in September. This meeting represented another stage in the consolidation of the new Blairism.

One of the NEC decisions was to agree to the proscription of four left-wing groups and the ‘auto-expulsion’ of their members from the Labour Party.

The four organisations included Resist, set up following the suspension in June 2019 of the left-wing MP Chris Williamson and his effective debarment from standing as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election. Resist is now a component part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), alongside the Socialist Party, the RMT transport workers’ union, and independent socialists.

The most significant aspect of this NEC decision, however, was that it re-introduced the proscribed list, abolished in 1973, which will streamline procedures for future expulsions by removing grounds for individual hearings.

A panel has also been established to look at other groups to be added to the list. The NEC papers pointedly exampled the Momentum group, set up in 2015 to support Corbyn’s leadership, as being, today, a ‘Labour compatible’ organisation. But tomorrow?

Other measures voted through included the party taking over nationally all candidate selections in Liverpool until June 2026. Where will this leave the four Liverpool MPs who are members of the Socialist Campaign Group? Or the councillors who backed Anna Rothery’s bid to be Labour’s candidate in May’s city Mayor election – until she was debarred for her public support for Jeremy Corbyn’s reinstatement to the PLP – or Rothery herself?

Further fortifying New Blairism’s position, the NEC majority also agreed rule changes to go to September’s conference that it should “become a requirement for all seeking elected public office or office in the party” to undergo compulsory antisemitism training, from prospective MPs and councillors to local branch secretaries.

This follows the EHRC’s citing of the lack of training in the party “acceptable to Jewish community stakeholders”, based on the 2019 AGM decision of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to label the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as “institutionally anti-Semitic”.

The JLM, an affiliated society of the Labour Party, is not a ‘neutral observer’ of course, but a redoubt of Blairism, which its chair, Mike Katz, admitted “downed tools for the election” in December 2019 because Jeremy Corbyn was “not fit to be prime minister”. (The Observer, 8 December 2019)

Another EHRC demand was for complaints of antisemitism to be dealt with in “an independent process” and the NEC is now proposing that all cases involving protected characteristics – race, gender, disability, religion etc – should have a final appeal body made up of an ‘independent’ lawyer, a non-Labour Party human resources or regulatory expert, and one lay party member, an inbuilt party minority representation.

While 90 staff redundancies were confirmed by the NEC, the party has been advertising for between 30 and 50 new ‘temporary investigation officers’ for the ‘governance and legal unit’ to deal with an estimated backlog of 8,000 complaints, giving a glimpse of the purge to come.

All this only confirms the point we made in our Socialism Today editorial in December 2020 how mistaken was the ‘welcome’ given to the EHRC report even by some on the Labour left, as we warned that the EHRC’s prescriptions opened “the door to hostile opponents of the labour movement having direct powers to decide who can and cannot be a member”, an ominous encroachment on the democratic right to organise.

Earlier this year Tony Blair wrote in the New Statesman of a “total deconstruction and reconstruction” of the Labour Party after Corbyn, while the New Labour architect Peter Mandelson also spoke of “reinvention territory rather than mere rebuilding”. (Financial Times, 8 May 2021)

And that is what is happening. In his FT interview Starmer himself boasted that “we have to turn the Labour Party inside out and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 18 months”.

The unabashed revival of Blairism will undoubtedly disgust many Labour Party members and produce a resistance, with the prospect of a challenge at the Labour Party conference to the appointment of the Blairite David Evans as the party general secretary.

New Labour was not a matter of some “mistakes”, as Starmer put it in the FT interview, but a wholesale adoption of the worldview that the dynamic “enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition” is the way to organise society, as Blair put it in his replacement wording of Labour’s old Clause Four commitment to socialism. That will not be the view of the overwhelming majority of those who looked to Corbyn.

But the idea, as some on the Labour left clinging onto the party are arguing, that the Blairites organisational measures show their weakness rather than their ruthless determination to consolidate their position, is whistling to keep their spirits up.

Over 120,000 members have left the Labour Party since Starmer’s election in April 2020, 250 or so a day, with membership falling from 552,835 to around 430,000 in mid-July.

A YouGov survey finding from July that 65% of current members voted for Starmer in the leadership contest – more than the 56% of individual members’ votes he won at the time – shows that it is left-wing members leading the exodus.

The vacuum of working class political representation – the effective disenfranchisement of the working class once again with the triumph of New Blairism – can only not be apparent to those who wilfully refuse to see it.

Vacuums created will be filled

Corbyn’s victory as Labour leader was responsible for a brief return to ‘two party politics’, with Labour polling over ten million votes in both the general elections fought under his leadership, in 2017 and 2019, something not achieved by Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband in 2010 and 2015, or by Blair in 2005.

The combined share of the vote for Labour and the Conservatives rose from a joint post-war record low of 65.1% in 2015 (joint with the 2010 election) to 82.4% in 2017, the highest two-party share since 1970. As a proportion of the registered electorate, which takes into account non-voters, Labour in 2017, with Corbyn as leader, won its biggest share (27.4%), excepting 1997, than in any election since 1979.

But if the ascent of Corbynism produced a polarisation in electoral politics, by creating both the prospect of real change and a reaction to it, its defeat within the Labour framework has produced the opposite effect.

A yawning vacuum is opening up including electorally, with a mushrooming of campaign groups and electoral organisations – like the Northern Independence Party, the Taking the Initiative Party drawing its inspiration from the Black Livers Matter movement, or the youth-orientated Breakthrough Party – none of which on their own can provide an authoritative vehicle for working class political representation.

In this category includes the growing support for the Greens, who reached their record share of the vote in the elections in May for both the Scottish parliament (220,324 votes in the regional list seats, 8.1%) and the London Assembly (305,452 votes for the all-London list, 11.8%), while making a net gain of 91 council seats.

The Greens now participate in 18 council administrations, but have not been a block on the continued implementation of austerity policies by their right-wing Labour and Liberal Democrat ‘partners’.

Without an explicitly socialist ideological anchor to resist the pressure to follow the logic of pro-market policies, or a class anchor, not having emerged as an expression of workers’ political interests and their trade union organisations, the Green Party on its own is not the alternative needed.

Neither is George Galloway, and the Workers Party of Britain that he now heads.

That the Batley and Spen by-election on July 1 showed the potential for a new working class party is clear. It was under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that Labour won its highest ever vote in this constituency, established in 1983, in the 2017 general election, polling 29,844 votes and a 55.5% share.

The by-election saw Starmer’s Labour, in contrast, fall to just 13,296 votes, 35.3%, with George Galloway on 8,264 votes, 21.9%.

The Guardian’s post-election editorial dismissal of the vote as merely the product of “Mr Galloway’s playbook” – of “stirring up resentments in the Muslim community” which “had worked before” but this time “satisfyingly, he failed” (3 July) – completely misreads the situation.

After all, Galloway had stood in the 2019 general election in the demographically more favourable constituency – using The Guardian’s metric – of West Bromwich East, the old seat of the right-wing former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, with a 64% white population compared to 76% in Batley and Spen, and only polled 489 votes, 1.4%.

The ‘playbook’ didn’t work then because, above all, Galloway appeared to be standing against the possibility of a Corbyn-led government. Eighteen months later, against the added backdrop of another brutal assault by the Israeli state on the Palestinians, Galloway’s pitch in his campaign material for “a new working-class politics” – “we consider Sir Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson to be two cheeks of the same arse” – landed on receptive ground.

Galloway is certainly not an unproblematic figure in the workers’ movement. He has twice been elected to parliament in opposition to New Labour – in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012 – but has never been able to consolidate a base or, eighteen years after his expulsion from Labour, build a stable organisation.

His initial electoral success in the 2005 general election, standing for the Respect party in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, was a reflection of predominantly working class voters from an Asian Muslim background breaking from their traditional support for the Labour Party in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

This turn away from Blair’s New Labour was a positive development, which could have aided the development of the class consciousness of Muslim workers.

But this would have meant turning to other sections of the working class and the trade unions in an attempt to build a new mass workers’ party to challenge the capitalist establishment parties.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Galloway and, at that time, the Socialist Workers Party, Respect did not act as a bridge to other workers in this way, but instead tended to re-enforce the idea that a ‘Muslim community’ of all classes could solve the problems of Muslim workers.

Respect’s breakthrough in Bradford in 2012, winning five councillors following Galloway’s by-election victory, was similarly squandered.

On the other hand, in Scotland, Galloway opposes Scottish independence and has crossed class lines to do so.

Defending the right of self-determination, it is true, does not oblige socialists in Scotland to necessarily advocate independence as our co-thinkers in Socialist Party Scotland do, with their call for an independent socialist Scotland – although not to do so in this period is to seriously misjudge the consciousness of the Scottish working class and young people.

But in May’s Scottish parliament elections Galloway and the Workers Party went further, making tactical voting recommendations for ten Conservative Party constituency candidates including the former Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw.

In the absence of an authoritative working class-based alternative all types of forces can partially, and temporarily, fill the vacuum, sometimes contributing to the process of the formation of a new mass workers’ party, sometimes not. But that only places a greater onus on authoritative workers’ leaders and organisations to act.

No more marking time

Jeremy Corbyn himself certainly has the authority and could have given a clear lead, for example, by standing in May’s election for London Mayor – a better use of £20,000 than funding court cases against the Labour Party – emulating Ken Livingstone’s stand in 2000 but this time using the campaign as a launch-pad for a new party. Not to do so was a missed opportunity.

The Socialist Party fights for steps towards a new mass workers’ party by participating in TUSC, whose democratic, federal ‘umbrella coalition’ structure enables trade unionists, working class community campaigners and socialists from different parties and none, to stand in elections against pro-capitalist establishment politicians under a common banner and an agreed platform of core policies.

TUSC is fighting for the largest possible anti-austerity and socialist challenge in the 2022 local elections, which include contests for every council seat in Scotland, Wales, London and Birmingham, and is organising local no cuts People’s Budgets campaigns in preparation.

Yet we do not see TUSC – and it does not claim itself to be more – as anything other than a herald for a new workers’ party which would embrace mass forces.

That is why we also call for the trade union movement, and in particular the left-led trade unions, to step up to the plate. There must be no more marking time as Starmer’s New Blairism consolidates.