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Editorial: What does Starmer's Labour Connected speech tell us about the party's direction?

KEIR STARMER makes a direct appeal to electability in his Labour Connected speech.

His observation that the Tories have had as many election-winning leaders in five years as Labour has in 75 is startling to those who see the two main parties as equivalent competitors for the job of managing the British state – as are the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, who have each had seven post-war presidents.

The reason they are not equivalents is because Labour, from its foundation as a political arm of the trade union movement, has a direct connection to organised labour. It is therefore a potential vehicle for advancing working-class power, even if it is rarely controlled by forces prepared to do so. 

So it has always been viewed with suspicion by the British ruling class and, if a mobilisation of all state and Establishment institutions (army, spooks, media, Civil Service) against the opposition — as occurred when Jeremy Corbyn led it — is rare, it fights every election at a disadvantage, with those holding the levers of institutional and social influence rooting fairly consistently for the Conservatives.

Starmer could retort that the point isn’t to list reasons why Labour loses but to come up with ways to win. His leadership victory in March pointed to a strong feeling in the membership that, while they supported the radical policies developed under Corbyn — which Starmer pledged to maintain — they wanted a leader seen as “electable.” 

In practice, almost all activists are prepared to make policy sacrifices in return for power to deliver on other issues. Starmer attacked Tory spending cuts in his speech. Labour remains an anti-austerity party, an advance on its 2015 position and one which some socialists such as former Corbyn aide Andrew Fisher have argued demonstrates the continuing worth of working with the new leadership.

Of course Labour opposing spending cuts is better than Labour supporting spending cuts. But even the Tories have abandoned the rhetoric of austerity, while the current government has shown it is prepared to ramp up public spending (if largely by handing lucrative contracts to private-sector parasites and subsidising business). 

What’s missing from Starmer’s speech is any sense of the scale of change needed — though he speaks of “structural flaws in our economy,” he is so wedded to the status quo that he cannot even detect a case for social housing in our housing crisis (instead hoping that “young people [can] finally have the prospect of owning their own home”). 

This is combined with a “patriotic” pitch which endorses smears on his predecessor — “We’re under new leadership. We love this country as you do,” he declares, echoing the repugnant insinuation that Corbyn did not on the grounds that he opposed militarism and war. 

Combined with his paean to Nato, this is dangerous when Britain is backing Donald Trump’s new cold war against China and boasting about an increase in provocative military “patrols around Russia’s borders and coasts in an unprecedented operation” described frankly by The Times as an attempt to “goad” Moscow. 

The risk of war is real. The aggressor is Washington. Responsible politicians should not encourage the racist brute in the Oval Office.

Starmer’s speech shows Labour is not offering fundamental change: in a crisis that has exposed the injustice and unsustainable nature of the current system as dramatically as Covid, that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because it ignores the causes of Labour defeat in recent years, which were nothing to do with the party’s radical and popular manifesto but had a great deal to do with its being outmanoeuvred by the Tories who used Brexit to pose as the party of radical change — abetted by a disastrous Continuity Remain operation backed by Starmer.

And it’s a problem because the social, economic and environmental crisis is already upon us and unless we change course it will continue to wreck the planet and ruin lives.

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