With a civilian death toll that is likely to outdo even the Nazis’ air bombardment during world war two (70,000) we experience the full impact of the policies of the right. What of the parliamentary left? Labour wound up its foregone conclusion of a leadership contest a month ago. Sir Keir Starmer won, but who is he, politically? A smart move by the Labour electorate? Starmer steers as close to the middle of the road as possible. History will soon demand he chooses which side he’s on.
Starmer is seeking a clear break from Jeremy Corbyn while not entirely abandoning the popular policies of his predecessor. Even Corbyn’s staunchest supporters were worn down by four years of relentless, puerile attacks and the choice of Starmer was surely a relief, even for members who voted for the more leftist candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Starmer is a politician whose style is approved of by the full spectrum of media commentators and the Labour backstabbers who loathed Corbyn.
The contrasting attitudes towards the two men reflects the narrow parameters of thought in British public life. Corbyn was deemed ‘unelectable’ by most Labour MPs and harassed with media absurdities (claims that he was a Czech spy, a fabricated antisemitism crisis etc) that compromised his public image. From the right-wing (inc. Murdoch) media, this was expected. For the centrist liberal media (there is no major left-wing media in the UK) Corbyn’s unforgivable crime was that he didn’t play their game and never would. He treated journalists with respect. But he treated everybody that way, no matter their status. Never distracted by sycophancy, Corbyn wanted to change society. Keir Starmer is more malleable.
The leadership election result also signalled the narrowing vision of western Europe’s largest political party, Labour. It is worth considering the figures that have elected the party’s leaders. In 2015, Corbyn won a stunning victory with 59.5% of the vote in a four-horse race that included ‘electable’ opponents Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. In 2016 he was forced by the right of the parliamentary party to face Owen Smith in another contest, with Corbyn securing victory with 61.8%. That contest is noteworthy only in that Smith received 38.2% of votes; a miserable defeat, but 193,229 of the Labour electorate backed him and presumably form the basis of Starmer’s support.
The switch from leftist Corbyn to ‘centrist’ Starmer suggests that a lot of Corbyn supporters, socialists, voted for Sir Keir. Labour members have tacitly agreed to a centre-right consensus in British politics: nothing too radical, with the debate framed by a media which spans the centre-left to the far right. The boundaries of what is possible have been reined in.
It is worth taking a moment to consider what might happen if members of leftish political parties just voted for their own interests rather than playing political pundit. In the UK, as in the US, people now vote for the leader they think other people might vote for, rather than for policies. Presumably, the decisive thought here is that the masses have not yet reached the level of enlightenment required to grasp what is being offered to them by straight-talking politicians like Corbyn or Bernie Sanders (who surely would have walked it in November against an incumbent president who advises the population to inject bleach into their veins).
Keir Starmer is the man for this political moment on the left. But by considering just a few of his stances to date, we see trouble brewing for the new Labour leader. He will have to concentrate to maintain his balance.
“The leader of the organisation carries the can, stands up for what goes wrong and takes responsibility” said Starmer during a hustings. He was criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s regime for “turning on its staff” during the so-called antisemitism crisis. This is Sir Keir taking the middle ground, making what he judges to be a politically safe criticism of his predecessor – not of his policies, but of his leadership. The problem is that we now have all the evidence we need that the crisis in the party was a fabrication, one entangled in a marriage of convenience with the Blairites obsessed with overthrowing Corbyn.
A leaked report from within the party since Starmer’s victory reveals the depth of the internal campaign to sabotage Labour’s chances of gaining power under Corbyn. The document shows that senior officials including the then Secretary, Iain McNicol, diverted money to right-wing candidates in safe seats rather than to left-wing candidates in marginals in 2017. This probably extended to Kensington where Emma Dent Coad won a historic victory for Labour in June 2017. When the Grenfell Tower fire atrocity took place days later, McNicol refused to send the help the new MP had requested, presumably for ideological right-left reasons.
The report also reveals the withholding of information from the leader’s office; officials boasting about not working professionally during the campaign; racism; sexism and more. Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner have ordered an investigation into the leaks, but the greatest scandal in the party’s history will need to be dealt with properly if the leadership is to retain credibility within the base – crucial if they are to keep the momentum of grassroots campaigning.
Some of the disgraced officials featured in the report had been tasked with investigating cases of alleged antisemitism. The report shows that these officials deliberately slowed down the process to create the impression that Corbyn was indifferent to Jewish suffering. It worked, and a lifelong anti-racism campaigner was politically assassinated as an anti-Semite.
At root, the concocted crisis was always about Palestine, which Corbyn would have recognised as a state on day one of a Labour government. British Jews were deliberately and cynically scare mongered for political purposes, surely one of the basest tactics employed in our political history.
Starmer cannot be entirely ignorant of the reality of the antisemitism debacle. He must know that the Home Affairs Select Committee found “no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.” And that official Labour party statistics released in January showed that a total of 2,178 Labour members had been accused of antisemitism since 2017, just 0.4 % of the overall membership. Almost all the 0.4% were not genuine cases of antisemitism. A total 56 Labour members had been expelled for alleged antisemitism at the time of the statistics being published, 0.01% of party members. “A third of all cases in 2019 have the same single individual as the main complainant,” states the 2020 document.
Starmer knows that the ‘crisis’ had a major impact on Labour’s public image but he did not miss a beat in declaring his collusion with the illusion in his victory speech: “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry” and “I support Zionism without qualification.” A strategic move, or perhaps an indication of his willingness to ingratiate himself to power. He had previously made more neutral statements about Zionism, but in victory sought to establish his credentials, sending an apologetic letter to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, promising to “root out” Labour’s “antisemitism”.
Starmer is also declared supporter of Palestinian rights, opposes President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and has appointed Lisa Nandy, a long-term supporter of the Palestinians, as shadow foreign secretary. For justice in the Middle East, Labour is required to back Palestine’s self-determination and the right of return of seven million Palestinian refugees. Both positions contradict Zionism’s basic premise, an exclusively Jewish state in historic Palestine. When Israel annexes more land, or bombs the Gaza Strip again, Starmer will have to back the oppressor or the oppressed. He will shamefully bow to the Israel lobby while innocents die, or he will take a brave stand for peace and justice. No middle way exists.
The new Labour leader opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but once an MP (he was first elected to the Commons in 2015) he voted against a parliamentary investigation into Tony Blair’s misleading MPs Iraq. While giving Blair a pass, Starmer has been determined to see a journalist who exposed the war crimes prosecuted. In 2010, as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) he played a key role in the persecution of Julian Assange, editor of Wikileaks, who had just published evidence of a litany of western war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the Collateral Murder video.
As DPP, Keir Starmer fast-tracked the extradition of Assange to Sweden (from where he could be easily extradited to the US) for questioning over the most dubious allegations of rape. Starmer advised Swedish lawyers to reject Assange’s offer to be questioned in London, presumably understanding that the Swedes would have no option but to drop their investigation (the case had already been dropped then resuscitated by a right-wing magistrate). This set off a chain of events that have seen this one journalist harassed, imprisoned and effectively tortured and made ill by the British state on behalf of the Americans.
Emails from August 2012 show a sickening betrayal of Assange by the UK. Responding to a suggestion that Sweden might drop their phoney rape investigation, Keir Starmer’s office sent the following message to their Scandinavian counterparts: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!!!”.
Julian Assange remains in squalid solitary confinement at Belmarsh, the prison reserved for the UK’s most violent and dangerous criminals. Despite his sentence (for skipping bail) having expired months ago, he is forced to stay in this maximum-security prison and wait for a judge to decide on his extradition to the US on surreal charges under the Espionage Act. A dangerous precedent will be set if Assange is sent to the dangerous president, never to be seen again. Who will dare inform the world about war crimes then?
Assange, who has a chronic lung condition, could die in Belmarsh. Perhaps this is what the British state wants, to save them the embarrassment of extraditing him. Parliament is quiet on Assange, but as leader of the opposition, Starmer is obliged to call for his release.
With Wikileaks, the middle ground is untenable. Starmer either supports freedom of speech and the rule of law (a person cannot be extradited from the UK on political charges), or he does not.
With the government’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus, the Labour leader has aimed straight down the middle. He is withholding many obvious criticisms of the Johnson government, presumably until the lockdown phase is over and the public is more receptive to apportioning blame. In PMQs this week, the Labour leader challenged government claims of British “success” when the official figures, which are an underestimate, show 30,000 people have died. But by being eager to offer praise where he can, Starmer fell into the trap of repeatedly saying “hospital deaths are falling”. They aren’t falling, they rise every time somebody dies. It was a strange and possibly revealing use of language on his part.
The pandemic will end with a political divergence. A choice, austerity or socialism, will decide the future of the NHS. That Starmer abstained in 2015 on the Tories’ destructive Health and Social Care bill doesn’t auger well for us.
Jeremy Corbyn was unlucky in the sense that two national disasters – Grenfell and COVID – fell the wrong side of the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Starmer has some media support and a chaotic government that proudly declared a decline in shoplifting on a day that saw 813 people die in agony. He has Exercise Cygnus; Dominic Cummings; PPE; the list is long and growing. With these weapons at his disposal, there will be no need to abstain.
A radical change is needed – will Sir Keir seize the moment? To do so, he must break away from the deadening obsession with respectability and electability that gnaws away at the parliamentary Labour party. The middle way, centrism, is an abstraction. It has no meaning in the real world. Under a so-called centrist Labour government, the sale of parts of the NHS to the private sector was accelerated. Starmer cannot retain his pristine establishment image while delivering a revival of our health service.
Like all of us, Keir Starmer is a contradictory person, but unlike most of us, he now holds immense power. In all the scenarios above, he faces a choice: justice or injustice; oppressed or oppressor; freedom of speech or tyranny; truth or illusion.
Soon, he must decide whether he stands for life or for death. If that seems shrill, look at the world around you and the impact of indifference.
A slogan for Keir Starmer’s new Labour?
For the many, not the few For the many and the few? Not for the many, not for the few? For the few not the many? For some people, but who?
by Tom Charles @tomhcharles