Keir Starmer Turning Against Social Democracy a la Tony Blair

Keir Starmer speaking in the House of Commons.

Keir Starmer became leader of the Labour party in 2019 under what turned out to be 2 false pretenses.

First, he pledged to adhere to Labour’s 2019 election manifesto commitments. These include:

+ increased healthcare spending

+ raising the minimum wage

+ stopping state pension age rises

+ introducing a National Care Service

+ bringing forward a net-zero carbon emissions target

+ nationalizing key industries

+ introducing a new benefits system to replace the controversial and flawed Universal Credit benefit

+ abolishing private schools’ charitable status

+ free bus travel for under-25s

+ giving EU nationals the right to remain

+ building 100,000 social housing units a year.

These pledges have disappeared from Starmers’s purview.

In addition, Starmer vowed to “unify” the party (about which more later).

Starmer was involved in another piece of chicanery— while it was not illegal, he did not declare the substantial donation (in British terms) he received for his leadership campaign from the UK’s equivalent of the US arch-Zionist Sheldon Adelson, “Sir” Trevor Chinn, until the Labour leadership election was decided in his favour.

The promise to “unify” the party has also disappeared.

Starmer began by withdrawing the Labour whip from Jeremy Corbyn, his predecessor as leader, which means that Corbyn does not represent Labour even though he retains his parliamentary seat.

At the same time Starmer purged his shadow cabinet and the Labour party HQ of socialists, and suspended local party branches which passed resolutions in support of Corbyn.

Last week Starmer appointed Sam White, who worked for the Blair and Gordon Brown administrations, as his chief of staff, clearly signalling the Blairite direction he wants Labour to take.

Starmer continued his score-settling last week by proscribing four small Corbyn supporting groups within the party, somehow described as “far left” in the mainstream media. All in all, just over 1000 party members belonging to these groups will be expelled.

Party membership is down 120,000 from its highest point under Corbyn, leaving the party with half-a-million members. The reduction in membership dues is having an effect— 90 staff are about to be made redundant, and the party only holds a month in cash reserves.

Not that this will bother Starmer much. His goal in purging his party’s left wing is a return to Tony Blair’s formula of deemphasizing the party membership, and placing control of policy in the hands of its MPs, with contributions from fat-cat donors offsetting the loss of membership revenues.

Labour MPs, most of whom regard politics as an income-yielding career premised on incumbency, tend, with a few notable exceptions, to be less radical than the party’s ordinary membership.

The context for the Blairite formula is what Tom Nairn called the “two-party equilibrium” in his 1977 classic The Break-Up of Britain. In this “equilibrium”, whose basis is a first-past-the-post electoral system (as in the US), parliament is dominated by the 2 main parties– the Conservatives and Labour— with the other parties consigned to the electoral fringes. These 2 parties then take turns to govern (though the Tories had to form an alliance with the Lib Dems in order to govern from 2010 to 2015).

The strategy for each party is to wait-out the party in government until it runs out of favour with the electorate.

This is exactly what Blair did in 1997. The post-Thatcher Tory government of John Major was mired in sleaze (the married Major himself was having an affair with another minister) and beset by in-fighting, and the suavely media-friendly Blair positioned himself as potentially the better custodian of Thatcher’s neoliberal legacy than the grimly out-of-sorts Tories.

The aim in this formula is to project an aura of “competence”, that is, to not challenge the dominance of Ukania’s capitalist class, and to show that the party is thoroughly at ease with the mores of British state hegemony. Steering that hegemony, while of course being constrained by it, is what “competence” is all about.

This seems to be Starmer’s game.

More and more Brits are realizing (finally) that BoJo Johnson isn’t up to the job of being prime minister, and the Tories are falling in the opinion polls as BoJo’s management of the Covid pandemic descends into chaos.

Starmer however has been reluctant to challenge Johnson and the Tories head on, confining himself to a weekly lawyerly cross-examination, during parliament’s Prime Minister’s Questions, of a blustering and evasive BoJo.

This self-imposed reluctance only confirms the impression that Starmer is more enthusiastic about combatting Labour’s Left than taking on the Tories.

Starmer, the exemplary “man without qualities”, therefore gives no sign he is able to step into prime ministerial shoes, especially when this is placed alongside his continued aversion towards decisive stances on policy issues that beg to be addressed.

In the end, his reliance on focus groups will decide the prospectus Starmer presents to voters.BoJo promised the July 19 lifting of national Covid restrictions would be irreversible. As a result of the upsurge of the Delta variant, the UK’s successful vaccination roll-out has not ended the Covid crisis as the always over-confident BoJo thought it would.

If this Covid upsurge continues, another national lockdown later in the year cannot be ruled-out. The libertarian right-wing of BoJo’s party will not countenance this, and will almost certainly turn this into an issue of Johnson’s continued suitability as the party leader and prime minister.

Parliament is now in its summer recess, and both Starmer and Johnson will be on notice with their respective parties when business resumes in the autumn.

With both parties not performing convincingly, no party is likely to secure a majority if an election were called today.

In the interim, a deadening form of political atavism prevails.

A part of Labour’s “moderate” wing longs, ridiculously, for something like a Blair comeback (a notion the always opportunistic war criminal does nothing to discourage).

Meanwhile, unhinged Tories exhale deep sighs of nostalgia for the old witch Thatcher, who, in their imaginings, would “get a grip” on whatever crisis confronting their party and country today.

Which leaves many Brits, myself included, saying: what a country!

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.