Could Winning an Election Be the End of Keir Starmer?

Yves here. After Keir Starmer disgracefully pushed Jeremy Corbyn to Labour’s sidelines, the idea that Starmer might quickly crash and burn as a national leader seems an outcome sorely to be wished. Note, however that Richard Murphy warns today that the Tories might take some radical moves before their expected ouster, such as abolishing the inheritance tax. So the instability of UK politics does not look primed to deliver good outcomes to ordinary people.

By Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies in the Department of Peace Studies and International Relations at Bradford University, and an Honorary Fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College. He is openDemocracy’s international security correspondent. He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers. Originally published at openDemocracy

Despite the underwhelming Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election result, there appears a near consensus that the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is headed for government in next year’s general election, possibly in a hung parliament but more likely with an overall majority.

At the same time, Labour is a troubled party. Its leadership, determined to move the party towards the centre ground, has scrapped its more leftist policies and ousted members, often on contested grounds. Many tens of thousands of others have simply left in disgust.

Taken together, this has resulted in a loss of 168,000 members since 2017, when the membership was at its peak (564,000), having risen rapidly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in September 2015. Today, membership stands at around 395,000. While this has meant a substantial drop in revenue, there has been increased support from some wealthy donors and companies, with £6m raised just last year.

There are widespread, if largely anecdotal, suggestions that many of the former Labour Party members have not joined other parties but are active in non-party community-orientated politics. There are also signs of deep frustration with national party politics, at least across England, partly as a result of Labour’s shift rightwards.

Of the many indications of these trends, two recent examples stand out. In the north-east, the popular if decidedly leftist politician Jamie Driscoll is the mayor of a local district, North of Tyne, but has not made the shortlist for selection as Labour candidate for a planned larger region, the North-East Mayoral Combined Authority. This has caused widespread anger among party members in the region.

Driscoll has now resigned from Labour and is putting himself forward for election as an independent. Support has been impressive. As he put it earlier this week: “It’ll be tough going, against national parties with slick press offices. But when we launched a crowdfunder for the campaign yesterday, I said if we could raise £25,000 by the end of August, I would run. We’ve raised £75,000 in small donations in just one day. People believe in this campaign.”

The second example was reported in this column two weeks ago, when Corbyn got a huge welcome from a large audience at the Bradford Literature Festival, including a standing ovation. This response – which he gets wherever he goes, though this is rarely reported on – is reminiscent of the huge crowds that gathered to hear him speak during the 2017 election campaign, when Labour unexpectedly achieved lift-off. The wide polling gap at the start of that campaign narrowed sufficiently to deprive Theresa May of her expected landslide victory, instead delivering a hung parliament.

We are in the odd position of a likely Labour victory in next year’s general election, but for a party that simply does not have the enthusiastic support it enjoyed even a few years previously.

If Westminster had a PR electoral system, the Greens would probably gain considerable support from disenchanted voters. But in the absence of that, the obvious question arises of what will happen when Labour gets into power, given that many will have voted for the party only to keep the Tories out, rather than because they genuinely supported its policies.

Some voters will, to borrow a phrase from political theorist Raymond Williams, “elect them on Thursday and fight them on Friday”, while others will be pinning their hopes on Starmer being much more progressive once he gains power (though there is so far little evidence to suggest this will be the case).

Looking at what is known about the Labour policies, which are reportedly due to be thrashed out in the coming days, in most areas there is a grim determination not to make any financial commitments. Potentially popular moves to bring some services, such as railways and water, under public ownership are off the table, and there is little indication of intentions to meet the huge gaps in local authority spending and even social care.

Though Labour could hardly be worse on ‘green’ issues than the current government, it has backtracked on its £28bn investment plansand its current pledges fall far short of what is actually needed. The party does have some useful commitments on industrial relations, especially in terms of job security for the weakest in the gig economy and other sectors, but on foreign and defence policy it is as traditional as they come.

At the root of Labour’s difficulties is an issue that rarely gets talked about: back in the 1990s, Tony Blair accepted the Thatcher-era move to market fundamentalism as irreversible. Blair’s Labour may have sought some reforms, and his early years in office did see some improvements in health, education and, especially, child support, but there has since been a cross-party acceptance that a deep change in neoliberal economic ideology is simply impossible. Only the Greens and, briefly, Labour under Corbyn, have fought this belief.

The problem for Starmer is that his Labour Party will inherit an economic and social mess accumulated over 14 years of Conservative governments that have acted ‘for the few, not the many’. Food banks, multi-year waits for health treatment and increasing poverty are the order of the day.

Adding to this will be an international energy system made uncertain by Putin’s war in Ukraine that empowers the wealthy and, overshadowing it all, progressive climate breakdown. In other words, Labour will likely face multiple crises from day one, with little capacity to inspire hope and the consequent risk that any public optimism with the new government will evaporate within a year.

Provided Labour has a working majority, this will be the time – the mid to late 2020s – when those very many people, including the Jamie Driscoll supporters and the crowds who still rush to hear Corbyn, can come into their own, demanding that a new generation of Labour politicians delivers the kinds of progressive policies that were at the heart of Corbyn’s proposals of 2017. They may even succeed.

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  1. JohnA

    I can imagine The Sun and/or the Daily Mail running scare headlines along the lines of:

    Vote Starmer, get Corbyn

    However Corbyn has been barred from standing for re-election as a Labour candidate, but has not yet said whether he will run as an independent – he has held his constituency in north London for about 40 years with a big majority.
    Starmer has also purged many potential Corbyn leaning candidates, so it is highly unlikely there would be any chance of a socialist inclined MP having sufficient support among the parliamentary party to oust Starmer. For example, the Labour candidate who was elected at a by election last week was a private sector educated 25 year old whose only work experience since leaving university was as an assistant to a Tory MP and a political analyst for the Confederation of British Industry, an employer organisation very anti Labour.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, John.

      Did you mean Wes Streeting, a red Tory, for whom Mather worked?

      The Labour candidate in Uxbridge was parachuted from Camden, much to the disgust of locals, not just the former chairman of the local Labour Party.

      Beales in Uxbridge and Mather in Yorkshire typify the new breed of Labour candidates. The one parachuted into Pembroke has a quadruple barrel surname, but uses one, Tufnell, and is the son of a landowner, a gentleman with a few thousand acres in Gloucestershire and Pembrokeshire and head of the landowners’ association. George Osborne recently mused to his firm’s clients that Starmer’s Labour party is a safe bet for them and a Tory defeat should not worry them unduly.

      What’s little reported is how low turn out was last week and, in particular, Tory voters stayed home. There’s still much to play for although Tory HQ is considering a plan to save the blue wall and try to retain at least 200 seats, so bouncing back after a term of Labour disasters is doable.

      Speaking of CBI, you and I have exchanged comments about the Grauniad’s principal, but not sole, sexual harasser. The former CBI director general is the common denominator between the CBI and Grauniad scandals, scandals involving several pests.

      The Labour scandals, involving at least two shadow cabinet members and some of their staff, can be kept under wraps until required. The persons involved are uber Blairites.

      1. Stephen

        My reflection is that UK politics is aping US politics. Colonies do have a habit of copying the centre.

        There is far less money involved in U.K. politics but the same ingredients of a uni party, increasing voter disinterest, reduced popular participation in parties, a greater share of corporate / oligarch donations, pure careerist politicians and lower voter turn outs are all there. Linked to these factors we see the same common theme of “outsiders” mounting the only challenges to the oligarch imposed policy agenda; such as Farage, Driscoll, Trump, RfK and so forth. Which is not to state approval for their respective (and different) agendas but simply indicative that the political system is broken and cannot be called democratic in any meaningful sense.

        Of course, the colonies face the same dynamic that the Washington regime and the local deep state will use global media and intelligence capabilities to stamp on any leader who steps out of line and gains serious traction when doing so.

        With respect to Parliament, I believe that the breaking of the link between constituencies and their Member has been a fundamental enabler of change. In my youth, parties did not parachute people into seats in the systematic way that it is done today. There was typically some pre-existing link (albeit it was not perfect). The change was allegedly done to create diversity but in reality seems to have been much more about central control.

        1. Anonymous 2

          Murdoch is an important common factor for US and UK politics. Given how close he is/was to Farage, I doubt you can realistically describe the latter as a challenger to oligarchs – Brexit was very much the project of a number of the UK’s oligarchs, designed to strengthen their control of UK politics.

          1. cosmiccretin

            “Brexit was very much the project of a number of the UK’s oligarchs”.

            Examples? Supporting evidence?

            1. Anonymous 2

              Murdoch, Dacre (fronting for Rothermere?), the Barclays – evidence : read the UK press over the last 30 plus years. These are the men who really run the UK. Read Kiernan, Chenoweth, Page, Woodrow Wyatt’s diairies, watch the BBC programme the Rise of the Murdoch dynasty. See Liz Gerrard’s article in the New European of 13-19 July.

        2. John Webster

          Spot on. Labour is more the ‘B’ team today than it has ever been in my life time (I’m 75). When Tories screw things up they can always rely on the dull mediocrity of opportunists like Starmer to do their bidding. If we had PR then change would be possible because the first past the post system massively reduces the chances of real change. If you add to that the domination of the Murdoch media and the hysterical campaigns deployed to destroy people like Corbyn (ie groundless allegations of antisemitism) alongside the emerging plans to muzzle social media, the prospect does not look bright. And we are racing against climate change which will destabilise things much quicker than people can imagine.

          1. digi_owl

            I dunno about PR changing much.

            What you get over time are two big parties dominating and a churning mass of smaller ones that they form coalitions with in order to get a majority.

      2. JohnA

        Thank you Colonel. Streeting is de facto a tory MP, but I was referring to Mathew Parris. However, double checking I see the new Labour MP, Kier Mather, was a researcher for Parris while still a student, and perhaps when Parris had already left the Commons for the Times. Even so, Mather does come across as a Tory in all but name.
        Another such is shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who is now giddily reviving the ludicrous Skripal story as a means to throw more mud at Corbyn and assure voters that national security is safe in Labour’s hands. Clearly more spendng on Nato and Ukraine will continue to take precedence over health, education, welfare, infrastructure, the environment etc., etc.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, John.

          I had heard of a Parris connection after the shill had spoken well of Mather, “including their muscular approaches to travellers”, but not how the pair are connected.

        2. c_heale

          Well one question about the Skripals has still not been answered..

          Where are they now?

      3. Paul Art

        “MPs are not chosen by ‘the people’ – they are chosen by their local constituency parties:thirty- five men in grubby raincoats or thirty- five women in silly hats…”
        – Sir Humphrey Appleby

  2. The Rev Kev

    ‘If Westminster had a PR electoral system, the Greens would probably gain considerable support from disenchanted voters.’

    I believe that it was Alexander Mercouris who said in a video several week ago that the Greens in the UK were just like the Greens in Germany. That does not sound like a recommendation to me.

    1. digi_owl

      As best i can tell, the US green party is the outlier. The rest are basically like the German.

  3. Not Again

    In 2020 we voted for a moron to keep the other moron out. Nothing changed except we have a few more rainbow flags and “the first of her ancestry/sexual identity/race/gender to ever be nominated to be a …….”

    Good luck, Britain. You are going to need it.

  4. Altandmain

    Starmer has no real solution to the problems that the UK is facing. Inequality is rising and inflation is hitting the nation hard, in no small part due to the subservience the UK has toward the neoconservatives in the US. It’s no secret that me and most people here are rooting for Starmer to fail quickly.

    Labour may win the next election, but without solving the problems facing the public in the UK, it will quickly lose legitimacy the way Prime Ministers Sunak and Johnson have.

    One can only hope that at that point, real change, will occur and that the current London regime will be replaced by one that actually represents the people.

    That could mean a new party or perhaps the existing government will end up like the USSR.

  5. Sub-Boreal

    It’s interesting to see this piece from Paul Rogers, who used to be a fairly regular guest commentator on international affairs on CBC Radio, before it became even more milquetoast.

    Watching the Corbyn years from afar, I was most impressed by the rapid membership growth of the Labour Party, something which the current leadership seems to view as a bug rather than a feature of his leadership.

    All-in-all, we seem to be in for pretty grim times, when the best options are either a late-stage, neoliberalized social democratic party or some type of Green party with a large degree of flakiness.

    At least the Aussies seem to know how to tell it like it is.

    1. Alex Cox

      “Professor of Peace Studies” Paul Rogers has become a milquetoast, too. He blames the lack of cheap energy in Europe on “Putin’s war in Ukraine”. How about attributing it to “NATO’s war in Ukraine” or “the US blowing up Nord Stream 2”?

      1. Geoffrey

        I used to hear ‘professor of peace studies’ -Paul Rogers interviewed occasionally on topics that touched on east-west relations – and he always came across to me as somewhat of a war-monger! …always casting aspersions on Putin, Russia, China, any non-Western ‘bad’- actor. Like other progressive/leftists public figures, their true role is to guard the progresssive flank from drifting too far off-message from the mainstream pro-Western narrative. Enforced presumably by such figures needing to be on good terms with ‘respectable opinion’ in the institutional settings they depend on for their living.

      2. John Webster

        Quite. One of the major blackspots in the current Labour Movement is its inability to understand US Imperialism (via its tool NATO in Ukraine) when it sees it, and its studied ignorance towards real antisemitism by confusing it with the contentless allegations of the pro-Israel lobby who insist that Israel is ‘democratic’ and that Corbyn and the whole of the Left is ‘antisemitic’ for daring to criticise it….Recently the UNITE General Secretary banned a discussion on Union premises to be led by Asa Winstanley about his recently produced (and excellent) book ‘Weaponising Anti-Semitism’. They did so (I think) because they consider such discussion to be just an irritating time wasting and controversial diversion, rather than considering and understanding how exposing the use of groundless allegations of antisemitism has been used to torpedo those who may challenge the ‘establishment’ (aka The Ruling Class).

  6. Feral Finster

    “The problem for Starmer is that his Labour Party will inherit an economic and social mess accumulated over 14 years of Conservative governments that have acted ‘for the few, not the many’. Food banks, multi-year waits for health treatment and increasing poverty are the order of the day.”

    Britain’s problems could be fixed, but any realistic attempt to do so will tork off MI5, MI6, The City and most ominously, the United States.

    Which means that, even if it were to get a voting majority, a Labour government will be able to do very little as a practical matter, other than stir up trouble abroad so that the United States will step in and the UK can demonstrate its slavish loyalty to its American master.

  7. Aurelien

    I hadn’t come across Rogers as an expert on UK politics before. He does get around.
    I think the key to this is how you expect the next few years to play out. I personally have an uncomfortable feeling that things are about to get very rough, and that much of the western political class will be unable to cope with what’s coming. If Starmer had any sense he would realise this and position himself appropriately. How would Starmer and his party react in a crisis, with power cuts, fuel shortages, food distribution problems, extreme weather … to mention just the obvious ones? At that point, analyses like these suddenly become absolutely useless.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Starmer, of course, doesn’t have any ‘sense’ of the kind you indicate. Starmer instead has a much more important sense – the sense of what the people of power behind the curtains want, and in fact, require. Under Starmer ‘Labour’ is fulfilling its most important function – to fill in for the tory party during one of its intermittent periods of unpopularity when it has run public finances into the ground again (i.e. siphoned as much as possible into private hands).

      This is the sole purpose of this fraudulent party – to be the acceptable face of capitalism when the true face has shown its colours too blatantly. A party composed of, on the one hand, frauds – on the other hand, dupes.

  8. mohookoo

    Well, Aurelien, with your professional experience you surely have no confidence that any plans for resolution of such a full house of catastrophes are being drafted. (Brexit? Covid? The single-problem, entirely-predictable flood disasters after the Environment Agency was gutted of funds?) Or even the orders for them, from our feckless, talentless leaders and shadow leaders. The traditional muddling-through approach to crisis-management will be relied-on. In other words, how to contain and massage away public rage, rioting, mass deaths?

    The best positioning Starmer could take is to not win the election and to leave the Tories to it.

    It is bitter fun to speculate on, but only too easy to see the blame being shifted to uncontrollable external factors, introduction of a “government of national unity” and a call to the public to display “the Dunkirk spirit” yet again. In other words, shut up and take it, little people. The party leaders are already so much of one mind that they have to desperately seek theatrical “wedge issues” to pretend to the public that there is some meaningful difference between them.

    The vapid Starmer, PM, might not have war-gamed this, but I bet Blair has. Both Labour and Conservative MPs would gratefully hand the mess to him, as would the public. For them, he would be Churchill in 1940. For him? Not big enough. Arthur returning and riding out to the Last Battle? Not big enough yet. For verily, it is the Second Coming and the Messiah will be covered in glory.

  9. John D.

    In the aftermath of the last UK election, I found myself scrolling through several British political forums and came across more than a few comments along the lines of, “I think Corbyn is a decent man, and regret having to vote against him, but I feel I must because of the Brexit issue.” I suspect a fair number of people are having serious buyer’s remorse about which way they chose to leap that election. But really, what else did they expect was going to happen? Did they honestly think as blatant and transparent a grifter & con artist as Boris Johnson was going to resolve Brexit in any reasonable way? More importantly, if Corbyn didn’t win, he was going to have to step down as party leader, and was almost certainly going to be replaced by another business as usual neoliberal Blairite type, which is exactly what happened. This was all predictable as hell.

    The one election in any Western country, for what seems like decades, in which a legitimate choice was on offer, and the British people blew it. They should have had Corbyn’s back. They didn’t. They entirely have themselves to thank for the mess in which they now find themselves.

    1. cosmiccretin

      There speaks an avid, unreconstructed, Remainder.

      If Corbyn had had the backbone (and the political nous) to take-on the Blairite faction head-on by sticking to his own convictions (amply demonstrated by his decades of fealty to the Tony Benn camp), by declaring unequivocally from day 1 his determination to implement Brexit (as both Labour and Tory parties had promised before the referendum to do, if to leave the EU were to be its result), he would never have been in the position he found himself in at the December 2019 election – being totally wrong-footed by Johnson and going down to a landslide defeat.

      That’s assuming he would still have been the party-leader by then, of course. Quite possibly he would have been deposed in a coup before then but at least he would have gone down fighting and with his integrity enhanced instead of hopelessly compromised.

      1. Bruno

        As I pointed out from day zero, the Labour Brexit disaster was made inevitable when Corbyn’s irremediable left-centrism led him to take the suicidal course of *participating* in the mendacious and misbegotten Tory fraud of an “advisory” referendum on a meaningless choice between the totally undefined words “remain” and “leave.” Boycott of that swindle was the only possible non-brain-dead choice. Instead the unanimous Establishment Media was allowed to use Brexit to shape the political battlefield on which Corbyn was inevitably crushed by unremitting slander.

      2. John D.

        Oh, I realize Corbyn was far from blameless in what happened. His refusal to play hardball was ofttimes infuriating to watch, and his seeming inability to understand that certain people were his enemies was genuine incompetence, if not actual political malpractice. I don’t deny that. From my vantage point in Canada, I knew the Blairites meant him no good, and I didn’t even know many of their names. It’s unforgivable that he was so naive on this point.

        And yet, to an extent, I still understood his behavior: The media was utterly relentless in viciously smearing and lying about him at every turn, and this was when he wasn’t playing hardball. I can’t blame him for worrying about how much worse it would have been had he chosen to hit back. (If, indeed, that was his motivation for not hitting back.) I would have liked to have seen him expel all the traitors who staged their would-be coup against him – as Johnson later did to those who’d crossed him – but I don’t know how do-able that really was. One of the writers at Counterpunch (I forget who) said that it unfortunately wasn’t feasible because there were just too many of them. And as for his all-around refusal to be an attack dog…well, I understood he simply wasn’t that kind of politician. Which is admirable, in its way. Not to the point where he allowed himself to be steam-rolled, but the man is what he is. I think we’ve gotten to the point where simple decency in a person is not enough to win in politics…not by itself, at least.

        Yes, Brexit was a thing, but was it the only thing? The very real danger the NHS was in should have been enough to ensure Corbyn’s landslide victory all by itself. Instead, the electorate stupidly voted into power – again! – the same brutish gang of elitist thugs who were wholly, unambiguously responsible for the horrifying state the country was in. Moreover, they did so when this same band of monsters’ then-leader was a cartoonishly corrupt figure, a malevolent circus clown. And this against a genuinely decent man, whatever his faults, who would have actually tried to help people.

        1. Bruno

          Yes, Corbyn is a genuinely decent man with sincerely socialist politics. He, if anyone, is the successor to Fenner Brockway and the Independent Labour Party. I’m sure that if he had been young then, he would have fought in Spain alongside Orwell. But centrism is as politically bankrupt now as it was then, the 2.5 International as dead as the Second, Third, and Fourth! For a modern revolutionary ecosocialist movement to develop it has to start with a definitive break with all social-democratic and stalinist reformism. By maintaining his passive membership in Labour, Corbyn shows, even now, his incapacity for such a break.

  10. ArvidMartensen

    When Starmer ousted Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2020, I concluded at the time that here is the anointed MI5/MI6/UK oligarch next PM of Britain. A safe pair of hands. The tamer of the Labour Party and all its populist nonsense /sarc
    Therefore I expect that any criticism of Starmer will be muted. With that wind in his sails his will be an easy path to victory for “new” Labour.
    If any left wing independent candidate threatens any officially anointed Labour candidates, the independent will be treated to the usual hysteria and lies wall-to-wall in the media. That is, they have no chance.
    What happens later? Well, it is always the party that can cover itself in the camouflage of ‘pro worker’ that can stiff working people most successfully and with least blowback from said working people.
    My data? Bill Clinton. Obama.

  11. Kerby Miller

    Note the reference in the article to “Putin’s war in Ukraine.” I don’t read much MSM, but I presume it’s the same throughout the Empire. Still, such “normalization” of imperial propaganda is a bit surprising in an ostensibly “left” source.

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