Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Britain’s Labour Party ended with a whimper in April. The country was in coronavirus lockdown; dependent on the National Health Service, which Corbyn had repeatedly warned was underfunded and understaffed; and at the mercy of the decisions of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose career experience does not include crisis management.
The Covid-19 crisis had sucked the air out of the election to succeed Corbyn as Labour leader, a poll triggered by the party’s heavy defeat by Johnson’s Conservatives in the December 2019 general election. Corbyn was, as long predicted, succeeded by Sir Keir Starmer, formerly Labour’s Brexit spokesman, who won the ballot of Labour members, supporters, and affiliated trade unionists with about 55 percent of the vote, only slightly less than Corbyn’s win in 2015 with 59.5 percent of the vote.
Starmer was Britain’s chief public prosecutor before entering politics (he only became a member of Parliament in 2015), and he brings to the leadership a brisk touch of establishment efficiency, which Corbyn did not. Calm competence was core to his pitch to the party electorate after five years of turmoil; he presented himself as a man whom voters could envisage entering 10 Downing Street.
Starmer urged Labour to move beyond factionalism, probably optimistic given that the party has always hosted a range of competing tendencies, even in the years of Tony Blair’s ultracentralizing neoliberalism; the best Starmer can realistically hope for is to lower the fevered temperature of the ultrapolarized Corbyn years. However, he did not propose to move away from the main policies the outgoing leader had championed—public ownership of railways and utilities, major boosts to spending on public services to be partly funded by increasing taxes on the rich and big business, greater state intervention in Britain’s hubristic banking sector and elsewhere in the economy, a big increase in public housebuilding and more.
Enough of immiseration
Starmer did not demur, being aware that ditching such radicalism would likely alienate the three-quarters of the vastly increased party membership (far greater than all other British political parties’ put together) who had been inspired to join by Corbyn’s socialist leadership. After 10 years of a Tory government imposing a regime of social immiseration dubbed austerity, there is little dissent within Labour from a more progressive domestic agenda. The “New Labour” hallmarks of the Blair years—deregulation, low tax, marketization of key services—have few advocates now. Corbyn’s landmark break with 40 years of bipartisan neoliberal hegemony in British governance will not be swiftly reversed, and may be consolidated.
For the first time ever, the traditional party right—the dominant tendency in Labour for generations, from Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin in wartime to Tony Blair and David Miliband—failed even to get a candidate on the ballot paper in the leadership election. Their original standard-bearer, the outspoken Birmingham MP Jess Phillips, never seemed fully serious and dropped out when it became clear she would struggle to secure enough trade union or local party support to make the final cut. That speaks to the changing dynamics of Labour politics, almost as much as Corbyn’s 2016 reelection as leader in defiance of the 80 percent of the party’s MPs who had wanted to remove him. Never before in Labour’s 120-year history had its parliamentarians, traditionally the ultimate source of political authority in the party, been put so firmly in their place by the membership.
However, to speak of a transformed party would be too much. The media hailed Starmer’s ascension as a return to normality. His initial steps as leader, overshadowed by the all-consuming health crisis, tended to confirm that.
Corbyn’s closest political associates, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, who held the economic and home affairs portfolios, had already indicated that they would retire to the backbenches when his leadership ended. Starmer, choosing his own shadow Cabinet, sent nearly all the other Corbynistas to join them. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the pro-Corbyn runner-up to Starmer in the leadership poll, was retained as education spokesperson, but few others. They were not replaced by veterans of the Blair-Brown years, most of whom had abandoned the front bench (and often politics entirely) upon Corbyn’s election or during the 2016 attempted parliamentary leadership coup.
Instead, Starmer has advanced figures from the parliamentary party’s center ground, neither radical nor neoliberal, and mostly without a profile in the recent factional wars. It is not back to the future, but Starmer will surely represent a break with the most distinctive features of Corbyn’s leadership, which allowed one to speak of Corbynism, although he himself denied its existence, saying “there is only socialism.” The first is Corbyn’s radical anti-imperialism. He was a resolute opponent of the wars of intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria; a supporter of the Palestinian cause; a skeptic of NATO; an advocate for Britain unilaterally discarding its nuclear weapons arsenal; and a critic of Britain’s military and economic ties to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf despotisms. He spoke at the huge public rallies denouncing President Donald Trump during his U.K. visit in June 2019, when Trump declined to meet the Labour leader.
Concern at Corbyn’s policies
It is true that Corbyn would not have been able to enact the whole of this agenda had he ever become prime minister. There was never a parliamentary majority for unilateral nuclear disarmament, let alone withdrawal from NATO, given the level of dissent among Labour MPs on these issues. But still, this aspect of Labour’s policy agenda under Corbyn caused most concern among the establishment, including the Labour right wing, with its imperialist and Atlanticist traditions: The party elite could live with a state-owned water industry with relative equanimity, but not with a rupture in the alliance with Washington or an upending of Britain’s Middle East policy. Starmer is opposed to Iraq-type interventions but will maintain an otherwise more conventional line.
Corbynism’s second novelty was its rebalancing of Labour’s politics toward mass extra-parliamentary agitation rather than exclusively parliamentary action, its embrace of a more dynamic relationship with popular movements and street protest. Corbyn himself embodied this; as a fairly marginal parliamentary actor for his first 32 years in the House of Commons, he was familiar to anyone who had attended a rally or protest against war, austerity, and domestic or international injustice. Indeed, from 2011 until his 2015 election as party leader, he was chair of the Stop the War Coalition, which mobilized two million people for Britain’s largest-ever demonstration in 2003, against the attack on Iraq. And his first act as party leader was to speak at a march for refugee rights. As did McDonnell and Abbott: McDonnell became the first shadow chancellor in history to regularly attend trade union picket lines while in office.
Corbyn’s enemies within Labour derided his political track record for displaying an infantile preference for protest over the pursuit of power. The establishment were alarmed by his ambivalent attitude toward the hallowed hypocrisies of parliamentary politics almost as much as by his anti-imperialism. That was partly the reason why his efforts to transform—or even modify—the nature of the Labour Party largely foundered. Without a majority on its governing committee until 2018, and besieged by the parliamentary party, Corbyn’s democratic reforms were modest (it was made slightly easier for local parties to replace recalcitrant MPs), and other change did not go much further than recruiting a cadre of community organizers to rebuild Labour in ex-industrial areas where its roots had atrophied.
Brexit the final straw
Corbyn was never happier than when campaigning around the country, but the work of parliamentarianism incrementally sapped Corbynism’s vitality, the more so when it was combined with grappling with Labour’s divisions over Brexit; there was intractable estrangement between the opinions of the party’s MPs and most of its members and the views of most working-class voters.
The difficulty that most of the left had contemplating life outside the European Union in the end finished off the Corbyn project, just as it had broken Syriza’s hopes of ending immiseration in Greece; Syriza was at least more aligned with the views of its electoral base than Labour. Labour’s leaders, heavily weighted toward politicians from North London’s liberal, multicultural milieu, including Starmer, leaned too heavily toward those who thought the imposition of austerity across Europe, the constitutional entrenchment of capitalism, the EU’s democratic opacity, and Fortress Europe refugee policy mattered less than Brussels’s notional commitment to the main signifiers of cultural liberalism and international cooperation and its actual promotion of environmental, consumer, and labor standards often in advance of Britain’s.
The split in Labour’s support between those who prioritized liberalism and those who preferred democracy always had the potential to abort Corbynism. This was avoided in 2017, when a commitment to respect the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, aligned with purposeful radicalism, won Labour the biggest increase in its general election vote share since the Second World War, from 30 percent in 2015 to 40 percent, within an ace of unseating the Tories. The coalition painstakingly assembled behind Corbynism was blown apart by two years of dismal drift into a position in which it effectively sought to reverse the 2016 verdict on the EU (via a second referendum, pitting Remain against a putative Labour-negotiated “soft Brexit” deal), combined with blocking any and every parliamentary initiative to resolve the crisis. Since the leadership of the radical left depended above all on delivering electoral success, the December 2019 slump to 32 percent of the vote, with a major loss of constituencies in England’s once-industrial North and Midlands, was enough to conclude this departure from politics-as-usual. Though in fact several Labour leaders have secured fewer votes and/or a smaller share of the poll in general elections over the last 40 years.
Labour’s right wing, stunned by the unexpected advance of 2017, was happy to attribute this setback to Corbyn’s views on defence and security and immigration—his anti-imperialism—as well as vicious allegations about his personal antisemitism. Claims that a section of Labour’s membership, small but too numerous to dismiss, has been infected by such views are alas not so absurd. The 2019 election setback would have happened in 2017 if those issues had been a determinant for many.
Is time on Starmer’s side?
So over to Keir Starmer, who confronts a changed political landscape. Corbyn and his team had invested heavily, and successfully, in opposing austerity, through which the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May had squeezed both the public services and popular living standards relentlessly for nearly 10 years, further impoverishing the already poor and devastating the public realm in almost all respects, while carefully safeguarding the interests of the rich and propertied.
Even before the full hit from Covid-19 arrived, the Johnson government had been moving away from continued austerity and had been talking of spending more on the health service and police, raising the minimum wage and boosting public investment projects. It would take that to retain the newly won industrial seats in the North, and Johnson’s own brush with viral mortality during the epidemic may reinforce that.
Starmer may no longer have the austerity target to aim at, but the government’s shortcomings over the pandemic—lack of preparation, a delayed lockdown following a misguided flirtation with “herd immunity,” a chronic shortage of protective equipment for health service personnel, and a huge lag in testing capacity—could be promising substitutes. With another election not likely for four years, he has time to build. An initial aim might be to reach polling numbers as good as Corbyn’s in 2017.
Four years may be time enough for Starmer, but it may not be sufficient for Johnson to generate the feel-good politics that is key to his pitch. Britain has been among the countries worst hit by the pandemic, and according to some estimates, the economic damage is such that the level of 2019 will not be restored until 2022. In reality that means the level of 2008, since the country has already suffered a lost decade of income stagnation and, by many indicators, had barely reached the pre-2008 crisis level by 2019. So for Britain, the latest crisis simply compounds the existing one, and the claims of Boris Johnson’s populism to overcome it look as hollow as those of centrist neoliberalism.
Andrew Murray is chief of staff of Unite the Union and was an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. He is the author of The Fall and Rise of the British Left, Verso, 2019. This article first appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique and is reprinted here by permission.