Starmer says if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

In his first conference speech as Labour leader Keir Starmer mentioned “Britain” seven times, “family” nine times, “opportunity” eight and “country” twenty-six writes Andy Stowe. Some cynical souls on social media were quick to notice that country, family and work were also slogans of the Vichy regime. It’s an entertainingly provocative, though inaccurate, comparison. What Starmer was really doing was really doing was to show himself as the competent alternative to the Tories and that he shares many of their fundamental ideas. 

Like Socialist Resistance, Starmer has concluded that the Corbyn project was smashed up by Brexit and English nationalism. Cummings and Johnson harnessed the racism of parts of the older white working class and Corbynism didn’t have an answer to it. We concluded that it had to be fiercely opposed. Starmer has decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em though without actually saying so.  

He taunts Johnson to get Brexit done and isn’t particularly fussed what sort of deal the Tories do or don’t get saying: “… if the Prime Minister fails to get one, he will be failing Britain. If that happens, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself. And he will have to own that failure. It will be on him.” 

This is incredibly irresponsible. Starmer is saying that for the sake of Johnson making himself appear more feckless and incompetent than he already is (and that’s a big ask) he is willing to acquiesce to huge restrictions on freedom of movement, weakened environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up the NHS to American corporations and a host of problems that we don’t even know exist yet.  

Surrendering in the culture war  

Like Blair he is calculating that most existing Labour voters, particularly the party’s Corbyn supporters, have nowhere else to go. Scottish Labour once had the same idea. His pitch is to the most demoralised, racist sections of the English working class because he appreciates that, as in the United States, a culture war is being fought. His solution is not to fight back against reactionary ideas but to surrender to them. 

The thread running through Starmer’s speech was his determination to break with the radical, left social democratic politics that the Corbyn movement represented. His judgement is that the most easily understood way of doing that is to appeal to English nationalism. His reference to national security evokes Spitfires and British troops in Afghanistan. He talked of “Britain leading the world”, a little titbit for the disappointed Ukip voter. 

He’s not been leader for very long, but beyond platitudes about opportunity and fairness there was no hint of what a Starmer programme might look like and how it would be different from Rishi Sunak’s. He was putting on notice the people who supported Corbyn’s ideas that this was, if he gets his way, no longer their party ideologically.  

Starmer made much of the 2019 wipe-out but made no attempt to explain, allowing his listeners to conclude that it was fundamentally because Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t patriotic enough and modestly noting that him getting knighted at Buckingham Palace was the proudest moment of his parents’ lives. Corbyn was defeated because virtually the entire parliamentary Labour Party, every newspaper and the entire ideological apparatus of the ruling class set out to make him unelectable.  

There will be an urge for many Labour Party members to walk away, nauseated by the English nationalism running through Starmer’s speech. This would be a grievous mistake. The coming months will almost certainly bring a tsunami of cuts to local government spending and a rise in mass poverty and unemployment. The party still contains at least 200 000 members who joined it looking for a way of pushing radical socialist ideas of internationalism, class solidarity and transferring wealth from the rich to the poor. Let’s push back against the jingoism

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2 Comments on Starmer says if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

  1. Keir Starmer’s call for work, family and patriotism is a perfect echo of the words used by Marshal Petain at the launch of Vichy France: “travail, famille, patrie” …. it’s not inaccurate to say that he’s surrendering the language and culture of the Party to the Right …. the article actually goes on to suggest this

  2. This article is quite right to attack Starmer’s demand that Johnson ‘do a deal’ with the EU, without specifying what deal. He recently repeated this pathetic line on the Andrew Marr show. Starmer and Blomfield’s formal position is that the government should do a deal in line with the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration that Johnson signed in October 2019, which would in effect keep Britain within the Customs Union. Under the present circumstances, this is a good position. But Starmer’s pubic pronouncements do not mention, let alone argue for, this demand. He is evidnetly scared of proposing anything that might look like ‘staying in the EU’.

    The article, however, confuses this point. It says that Starmer is agreeing to ‘huge restrictions on freedom of movement, weakened environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up the NHS to American corporations’. The latter two points are correct. But the first point is misleading: the current (urgent and vital) negotation with the EU does not include freedom of movement of EU citizens to Britain (nor British citizens to the EU). This matter solely contained in the government’s immigration bill, which does not have to be negotiated with the EU.

    The other problem with this statement is that it says nothing about staying in the Customs Union. I get the feeling that many SR comardes are a best luke warm about this demand, and at worst opposed to it, possibly because it involves controls on state aid. But the restriction on state aid to industry involved in the Customs Union is in practice not onerous: as Polly Toynbee points out in a recent article, Germany has in recent years given three times as much state aid to industry as Britain, all within the EU rules. The key point, then, is that exit from the Customs Union will destroy most manufacturing and much farming in Britain. The government is prepared to do this in order to free key sections of capital from regulation and taxation. This is therefore a massively important class question. SR should be shouting from the rooftops about it, warning the working class of the dire consequences of exiting the Customs Union and explaining why the government is carrying this out. .

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