Keir Starmer launched his bid to be Labour’s next leader in my constituency (Stevenage) earlier today (5 January). I attended this to get a sense of where Keir is pitching his campaign, and to get a broader understanding of what his vision is for the labour party, the trade union movement, and the country as a whole. As in any type of election, it is crucial to reflect on what was missing from the points made by Starmer, as well as any inconsistencies with his past record.
I should make clear up front that I am not going to be supporting Starmer in this election, and I knew this before attending. Based on his internal party campaigning record, his personal stance on Labour’s immigration policy and his parliamentary record on welfare, Starmer does not align himself consistently enough with what I want from our next leader. My view on backing Starmer was more solidified after today. I still think it an incredibly important aspect of this leadership election that people hold the contenders to account and challenge their records; that means asking difficult questions of all candidates openly and fairly – please do get along to these candidate meetings and hustings when they crop up – even if the person isn’t your fave/someone you’re even willing to vote for.
The event hosted approximately 60-70 people and after a short introduction from Starmer mostly consisted of policy-related questions (questions on leadership style, views on party democracy, and Labour’s relationship with the wider labour movement were more-or-less absent). For an early bid in the contest, and for a party full of politicos this should probably be expected – I hope these other aspects do get probed very soon though, for the following reasons:
Amongst the most over-used buzzwords in the Labour Party is the word ‘radical’, and this featured more heavily from Starmer today than I might have otherwise expected. In hindsight, I felt this was more of an appeal to the centre-left; that some of the more radical policy elements of what emerged in Corbyn’s Labour would be contained within Starmer’s vision. Whilst he made multiple mentions of his approval of regional investment banks, on inspection the retention of the existing policy platform under Starmer’s leadership looks shaky at best. I was able to ask a question (paraphrased): how would he reconcile his personal views on party policy – for example, such as those on immigration – with a membership which has over the past 3-4 years gone to a far more radical position than his own. This was instead read (deliberately?) as a specific question about immigration rather than Keir’s view of the Labour Party democracy, and as such only revealed that Keir’s view on free movement hasn’t shifted (“the rules must change on EU Free Movement”, 2017), putting him at odds with the overwhelming majority of Labour Members and Affiliates at our most recent National Conference. It remains unclear if Keir thinks our Party Membership is sovereign, and how he would alter our policy programme.
Minimally “keeping the radicalism that we gained post-2015” (his words today) should include a belief in the democratic will of our members. Given Starmer backed Owen Smith in 2016, clearly this hasn’t been his view for the whole of that time. The democratic left should remain committed to the principle of member-led democracy and make it clear to our Leadership contenders that we seek the full implementation of the radical policies that our members have won over the years since Corbyn’s election, not just the retention of a vaguely defined “radicalism”.
“An end to factionalism”, “an end to factions”
Worryingly, a question on the role of factions within a ‘split’ party provided the most anti-democratic sentiment in Starmer’s overall pitch. First expressed (within his opening remarks) as his wish to “unify and unite the party”, his follow-up then led him to express his desire to “end factionalism” (whatever that meant, it aroused reasonable approval within the room). If alarm bells were not already ringing at this, Starmer then went on to state that he wanted to see “an end to factions” – a clearer but more draconian stance on his vision for the Party. Given Starmer’s position, this strikes me as a serious warning shot at Momentum, the most dominant non-affiliated faction within Labour, that their days within in the party could be numbered. Lists of ‘proscribed organisations’ – or banned groups – no longer exist within the Labour Party, although Starmer’s statement suggests these could return, and could be signalling a Militant-inspired mass expulsion of left-wing Labour members – this needs urgent attention and clarification.
As an aside, factions (plural) play a fundamental democratic role within any political organisation – their existence ensures that ruling bodies do not go unchecked, and they provide a framework for people with specific views to organise and fight for their will to be expressed as the majority position. Bans on factions do two things; ensure that unaccountable cliques emerge (this is just unaccountable factionalism) and helps to make ruling bodies less accountable. Jo Freeman’s Tyranny of Structurelessness provides a far more thought through account on the need for factions than my short argument above – but in brief – if Starmer seeks to ban Labour factions, then this is the most anti-democratic pitch yet of how one of the front-running candidates intends to lead the party.
Whilst this doesn’t cover the full event and types of responses he made, I think Starmer poses the greatest threat to the left of the Labour Party – he is a slick, well thought-through, competent politician, a solid narrator and has a positive public profile (I would go as far as saying he reeks of bourgeois competence). I believe that he will win over large sections of the moderate wing of Labour and a significant bloc of softer left-wing members (despite being significantly to the right of them). He certainly won people over today, and with a busy campaign schedule, I predict he can improve his standing even further.
I do not believe Starmer has yet developed a complete vision of what he believes the Labour Party is and what it should be – however there are serious questions that need answering as to what he believes of internal party democracy. Starmer remains the front-runner, and by promising “an end to factions” and holding views that would see the Party take a serious right-ward tack should be treated with extreme caution.