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