Left activist @damian_from argues that the only threat to Boris Johnson is from his own MPs, as long as Keir Starmer is the so-called ‘opposition’
Boris Johnson has only his own MPs to worry about as long as Keir Starmer remains what passes for Labour leader. Getting the Tories out of power is a matter of sequencing and I will reveal what that sequence is – and it doesn’t involve Starmer.
Keir Starmer could not have been handed a better opportunity to become prime minister. He faces an intellectually exhausted and morally bankrupt Tory government that has been in power for over a decade and which seems more concerned about saving itself than governing the country. ‘led’ by a man rejected by almost half his party’s MPs including a huge majority of those not on the ‘government payroll’.
Bereft of new ideas, the government is aimlessly staggering forward like a zombie – well almost, it isn’t entirely mindless. There remains one dominating thought, a core belief which binds the Tories and propels them forward: neoliberalism. The policies of privatisation, austerity and deregulation have an almost religious significance to Tories. First introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Tories have stayed on that path, rarely bothering to give their intentions more than a desultory camouflage and relying on their media allies to fool the public for them. Some are zealous believers – some would say fanatics – and some merely greedy servants of their corporate masters.
One way or another, then, neoliberalism is the Tory party’s orthodoxy and therefore its justification for everything it has done and everything it is going to do. Without neoliberalism the Tories have no justification and no defence for what they have done to the UK since 1979.
We have now tested neoliberal economic policy with both Tory and New Labour governments for forty continuous years. The results are clear.
The neoliberal experiment
Because of the Tories and their policies, poverty, inequality and debt have all increased over the last 40 years. Mortality rates are up, life expectancy is down and wages have remained stagnant while asset and equity prices have exponentially increased. Tory austerity caused over 200,000 avoidable deaths between 2015-2020 alone. Women, children, disabled people and people on low incomes have been worst affected. 14 million people in the UK live in poverty and the number of foodbanks and homeless people is at record levels. Those are the results.
Those devastating consequences are why Jeremy Corbyn argued against austerity when he was Labour leader. His intervention was important and necessary because the major parties had formed a consensus on austerity, they all supported it. Corbyn broke with that consensus and by doing so caused significant political change in the UK.
I know that is a big claim to make but fortunately it is an easy one to prove: this Tory government is spending more than any government since 1947 and has just announced a windfall tax, a policy proposed by Corbyn in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.
Corbyn didn’t just argue against austerity: he won the argument against one of the three pillars of neoliberalism. By winning that argument Corbyn fundamentally changed the ‘accepted wisdom’ of British politics. He defeated the argument for austerity. That is his true legacy.
I can hear you say that is all very well and fairly interesting but you promised to tell us about the sequence that will get the Tories out of power. What has all this stuff about neoliberalism got to do with Boris Johnson being safe while Starmer is Labour leader? It is relevant because it is one of the two key reasons Johnson has only his own MPs to fear.
Starmer is relying on traditional Labour voters, who voted Tory in 2019 to ‘get Brexit done’, to naturally return to the party after Brexit settles down. There is a flaw in that assumption. Brexit isn’t settling down and it is unlikely to for as long as the person who tried to stop Brexit is the leader of the Labour Party.
Johnson is safe from Labour while Starmer is its leader for two key reasons: Starmer tried to stop Brexit, trampling on the wishes of the voters in the 65% of constituencies that voted leave. Leave voters who fought hard for their victory will not be inclined to vote for the person who tried to reverse it before it had even been done and whose support base is made up largely of people who want the UK to rejoin the EU. The probability of leave voters voting Labour is significantly diminished by Starmer’s mere presence as Labour leader. Having ‘Mr Second Referendum’ as leader ensures leave voters who might otherwise think of voting Labour will stay away.
If I am right that Starmer is an electoral liability then it should be born out by Labour’s election results, so let’s look at the numbers.
Since Starmer became leader the Labour vote has collapsed at every single by-election Labour has stood in except for one. Labour lost 327 council seats and eight councils at the 2021 local elections – and Starmer did worse at the 2022 elections than Corbyn did at the same elections in 2018. Corbyn’s approval rating was also higher than Starmer’s at this point in his leadership.
Some exceptionally bad election results stand out. Starmer holds the record for achieving the worst ever by-election result in the history of the Labour Party. Labour won just 1.6% of the vote at the Chesham and Amersham by-election and lost its deposit.
Starmer also lost Hartlepool, a seat Corbyn had held twice when he was leader and which Labour had held since 1974. In another stand-out result, under Starmer Labour lost its majority on Durham County Council, a council the party had controlled for a hundred years.
A leader who achieves those kind of results is not on his way to Downing Street, it is far more likely that he is on his way to the Job Centre.
Starmer’s supporters will counterargue that Labour is ahead in the polls. True, but a very feeble truth. Being just 3-6 points ahead of arguably the worst Tory government in modern times – and with the media giving Starmer the easiest imaginable ride – is not something to crow about. In 2017 Labour were 8 points ahead on 45% and Tony Blair said that Labour should have been 15-20 points ahead. Yet today, when Labour is on 36%, he says Starmer is doing a good job. The UK needs many things at the moment but one thing it does not need is any more Blairite spin.
Some people might argue that the fact Starmer tried to stop Brexit is not in itself enough to guarantee Johnson’s safety from Starmer’s Labour – but combined with the second key reason it is more than enough. That second reason is that Starmer is not offering voters any real alternative to the Tories – he is only offering to manage neoliberalism better and even that is not convincing. In Starmer’s version of the country, slightly fewer people will die, homelessness and hunger will reduce a little, but nothing will fundamentally change to address the causes of the problems. He offers adjustments to what already exists, he isn’t offering anything new or different. It is a timid, weak offer, especially from a Labour leader.
His offer to voters is so weak it allows Boris Johnson to continually outbid him – on minimum wage, on tax, public sector pay and more – while still keeping his own Tory MPs in line. They are losing confidence in his credibility with voters – but Johnson hasn’t gone too far for them on pay, emergency measures and economic stimuli. He hasn’t needed to and has still been able to ‘outflank Starmer on the left’.
The most recent example of this happening was with the windfall tax on energy companies. Labour proposed a means tested method of distribution which would pay people on low incomes less than the Tories have offered. How on earth did Labour find itself in the position of being passed on the left by the Tories?
Starmer keeps miring himself in this type of political problem because where Corbyn challenged the neoliberal consensus, Starmer accepts it. As a result, he formulates policies in a way that will not challenge the status quo and the result is as thin as dishwater, so weak and ineffectual that the public again believes, with reason, that ‘they’re all the same’. Corbyn won the argument against austerity but Starmer to run away from that victory as far and as fast as he could. He didn’t press home the attack on neoliberalism, he didn’t press home the advantage Corbyn had carved out for him. He told Labour members he would, until he won the leadership election – then did the exact opposite, revealing the pro-privatisation, anti-nationalisation, pro-bigotry reality. Starmer is defending neoliberalism.
At the beginning of this article I promised to reveal the sequence Labour will need to follow to get the Tories out. To defeat the Tories Labour must replace Starmer with a leader who did not try to stop Brexit and who will make a bold offer to voters similar to the offers Labour made at the 2017 and 2019 general elections.
It is a simple sequence and the only path to power for the Labour Party. But instead Starmer and his faction are trying to brick up the door and ensure that no hint of a path to it ever appears again.
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