Starmer’s vision: the road to Blairism

Dave Kellaway offers a review and dissection of Keir Starmer's Fabian Society pamphlet 'The Road Ahead'.

You don’t have to wade through the whole bland 35k word essay to understand the anti-Corbyn shift to the centre that this pamphlet expresses.  Just compare Corbyn’s key slogan For the Many not the Few with the ‘contribution society’ soundbite chosen by Starmer.  He summarises his vision in a promotional article in today’s Guardian:

The role of government is to give every person, every community, and every business the tools they need to contribute to our success(…) I am clear-eyed about what that future looks like and how we will achieve it. It is one where a modern, efficient government works in partnership with a brilliant, innovative private sector to create jobs people are proud of.

Guardian, 23.9.2021

At least Corbyn maintained a minimal sense of classes and conflict and consequently the need to name the forces opposing your reformist project.  He did call for some sort of mass support and an active mass movement. For Starmer people, communities and businesses are all in the same boat contributing without contradiction to our (i.e. national) success. The Tories are the nasty people who divide people but Labour is about bringing everybody together.

Their politics is about dividing people, whether by breaking up our country or stoking tensions between different groups. Theirs is a road to nowhere. Labour would strengthen the ties that bind us together – family, community, the union..

Guardian op cit.

When first reading this I thought union might refer to trade unions but if you click the inserted link he takes you to a Gordon Brown piece on how to maintain the union of the United Kingdom. So the contribution he wants Scottish (or indeed Welsh) workers to make is to accept the union imposed on them by the British state.  Of course, the Tories talk in very similar terms about our success and the nation but in practice, they are always divisive as they defend the class interests of capital. As Arthur Scargill, the historic miners’ leader, once said, we need a leadership that defends our class, as well as the tories defend theirs.  But all such talk is deemed by Starmer to be the Corbynism that has to be expunged from Labour.

Starmer and his team of focus group pollsters think that you can only win if you steal your enemy’s clothes.  I suppose it is another way of not really accepting the idea of enemies, it is like dressing up for a cosy game of charades.  The other keywords to go with contribution are security and opportunity.  Security allows him to reprise Blair’s tough-on-crime mantra as well as to ditch Corbyn’s left social democratic international policy for bipartisan support for national security.  We have already seen this with shadow foreign secretary Nandy’s enthusiastic support for the government line on Afghanistan and the Aukus coalition against China. Opportunity is something every political party will support and is fairly meaningless if the basic systematic structure of inequality is not touched. At best such policies may promote some individuals but as long as the ratios between higher and lower-paid jobs remain the same, all you are doing is changing the faces of some individuals.

Starmer and his team of focus group pollsters think that you can only win if you steal your enemy’s clothes.  I suppose it is another way of not really accepting the idea of enemies, it is like dressing up for a cosy game of charades.

Even a moderate labour commentator like Stephen Bush in the New Statesman, who gave Starmer a soft soap promotional interview in the magazine the other week, recognises there is a bit of a problem here:

But one thing that is missing from the pamphlet is a sense of what this society’s enemies are. We don’t, as far as Starmer is concerned, live in a contribution society in 2021. Are its opponents solely the Conservatives and austerity, or do they also reside elsewhere, whether in businesses or in households? Part of providing definition to a political project is describing what it’s for, and you can see how Starmer’s ‘contribution society’ can provide Labour with that. (…) But the other part of describing a political project is setting out what it is against, who and what is out of that society’s bounds and who stands in the way of its creation: and that will have to form part of Starmer’s conference speech just as surely as further policy detail will, too

from Stephen Bush’s Morning Call email, 23.9.2021

I think Stephen may be kept waiting if he thinks the conference speech will suddenly confront corporate power since Starmer will not want to antagonise a potentially ‘brilliant, innovative partner for a modern efficient government.’  The pamphlet’s ideas float in a nebulous other world removed from any real analysis of the world as it is or any actual, concrete proposals. In a week that the energy crisis shows the complete failure of the capitalists and their feted market efficiency to provide a reasonable service people can afford, our Keir is going out of his way to big up these innovators.  He might have raised in his article or pamphlet the 2017 and 2019 Labour party policy of taking back these utilities into public ownership. Will such policies even make it into his manifesto?

One argument he uses in favour of his shiny new ‘contribution society’ is the experience of the pandemic:

During the pandemic we’ve seen that when people pull together, they can achieve remarkable things. Community-level efforts kept neighbours safe. Businesses, scientists and the NHS vaccinated the country. We’ve seen that when it comes to building a safer, better, more prosperous Britain, we all have a part to play.

Guardian opcit

While it is true that in many communities working people rallied around to provide mutual aid during the lockdown, the pandemic also was a magnifying mirror to the systemic inequality in our society and to a callous Johnson government that failed to protect ordinary people. Starmer must have been so busy being constructive that he failed to see the super-profits handed out to Tory cronies for products and services that were often completely useless like the test and trace system or unusable PPE supplies.  

The pamphlet is much more critical in hindsight than Starmer was at the time.  But his criticisms are not coherent they do not mesh into a critique of corporate power.  The pandemic showed the true face of capitalism as well as showing the solidarity of ordinary people. But in Starmer’s world, you can’t see any enemies or contradictions, just lots of contributors. Private business was very innovative in making mountains of money from the crisis.  The needless numbers of deaths in care homes were partly a result of the privatised chaos it had become with poorly paid staff and little coordination locally or nationally. 

So despite some exposure of the inequalities thrown up by the pandemic he limply proposes an alliance with the private sector to rebuild. He seems to idealistically imagine there is a ‘good’ private sector he can work with and a ‘bad’ one whose pockets are lined by their Tory friends. 

The pandemic showed the true face of capitalism as well as showing the solidarity of ordinary people. But in Starmer’s world, you can’t see any enemies or contradictions, just lots of contributors.

In the real world capitalism is a system of social, class relations that operate whether or not the people running the companies are particularly sympathetic or not.  In the section on climate change, he even suggests the private sector is doing better than the government by giving examples like the Airbus hydrogen wing (p 16, The Road Ahead).  This seems a rather one-sided take on the aviation industry and the idea that private capital will address the climate emergency without much intervention.

Starmer’s new vision involves him doing a complete U-turn on his previous position of opposing Brexit.

The desire of people across the country to have real power and control – expressed most forcibly in the Brexit vote – remains unmet.

Guardian opcit

Here he is buying wholesale the idea that Brexit was all about power and control.  It is true that many working-class Brexit voters reacted to the lack of power and control over their lives – their de-industrialised towns, poor wages, or public services – by identifying Europe as the cause.  No mention is made of the reactionary little Englander, anti-migrant, racist aspects of this vote. The ‘desire’ was also about controlling and stopping migrants.

This desire for more real power and control is not taken up by him to raise any challenge to the real power in the country but translated into platitudes against the centralised system and giving people more local control. He calls for a “new settlement,” between businesses, government and the public that involves, “completely rethinking where power lies in our country – driving it out of the sclerotic and wasteful parts of a centralised system and into the hands of people and communities across the land”.  How power is driven out of the hands of corporate giants like Amazon is not really discussed. Doubtlessly the Preston or Salford models will be wheeled out as an answer for this alongside some new devolution proposals.

There is a patronising tone to the section in the pamphlet where Starmer outlines the 10 things that a  young working-class family should be guaranteed

Appropriately Starmer chose the Fabian Society press to launch this vision statement. This current has always been a moderate reformist current in labour where well-intentioned intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, and the Webbs would draw up detailed, data-rich policies for a Labour government to implement. Very top-down, managerial, we-know-what-is-best-for-you – some of them even proposed eugenicist policies. There is a patronising tone to the section in the pamphlet where Starmer outlines the 10 things that a  young working-class family should be guaranteed: an instrument, join a competitive sports team, visit the seaside, the countryside, or the city, go to cultural institutions, ride a bike and learn how to debate their ideas.”

(pg 27 The Road Ahead)

Nobody is saying these are not worthy things but it really seems quite minimalist since the number of families that do not do most of these activities must be pretty small, so how is this very radical?  Then the idea that poor people cannot debate their ideas is well… debatable. They might pontificate like a barrister but this just fails to understand working-class life, particularly when people get involved in strikes or campaigns.  When working people have enough resources and time they do most of these activities anyway so why not focus on changing people’s material living conditions rather than preaching about the correct type of behaviour they need.

This plan is justified by saying the pupils at posh private schools get lots of this and therefore develop soft skills of communication, teamwork, leadership and confidence. It implies such ‘soft skills’ are the main reason these elites keep their power.  Of course, the elite needs some of its numbers to have well-rounded skills to help it keep up to date and hold on to its rule effectively.  But their confidence and self-assurance are rooted in material class power. The performance of such skills is a consequence of their class position, it does not create or sustain their power in any way.  Ownership and wealth are much more important.   Providing more soft skills in abundance will not change these class relations. Indeed one can exaggerate how wonderful the public school elite are at all these soft skills.  A recent book, Posh Boys How Public Schools Ruin Britain, by Robert Kercaik, points out how their emotional growth can have a real negative effect.  Boris Johnson is surely the greatest rebuttal of any notion of public school students’ superior soft skills.

It is a lot easier and much less threatening to the rule of capital if the labour movement concentrates on soft skills rather than developing working people’s consciousness of how the system works against them and who they have to defeat to change it in the interests of the majority.

Starmer continually talks about the ‘national’, ‘our success’ and ‘Britain’ where classes, exploitation and conflict is magically eliminated. He then uses a whole section to create an artificial opposition between patriotism (good) and nationalism (bad). Obviously, the Tories are for bad nationalism whereas Labour is for good patriotism where the flag celebrates inclusion and togetherness.  At the same time, there is an attack on identity politics which divides people into smaller and smaller groups in his opinion. This allows him to distance himself from radical campaigning on issues of race and gender. He lumps Tory ‘divisive’ nationalism with Scottish nationalism. Even mainstream pundits can see there is quite a bit of difference between Sturgeon’s policies and ideology and that of Johnson so it is rather simplistic of Starmer to lump them together. It certainly will not help Labour recover its vote in Scotland. Concrete positions on free movement, migrants or asylum seekers do not figure in the text since they might limit the sense of openness and inclusion that he waffles on about.

He then uses a whole section to create an artificial opposition between patriotism (good) and nationalism (bad). Obviously, the Tories are for bad nationalism whereas Labour is for good patriotism where the flag celebrates inclusion and togetherness.

A significant tilt to Blairism is shown in a paragraph on public services which moves away from the unconditional support for them expressed by Corbyn towards a more ‘flexible’ approach which could justify restructuring and more private/public partnerships.

It means banishing the culture that unthinkingly accepts public services not keeping up with the sort of advances we have come to expect in the private sector.

(pg 21 opcit.)

The shadow of people like Mandelson – who wrote a stern piece of advice for Starmer on the same day as his pamphlet launch – certainly looms over such passages. Further on the leader firmly sets himself against any element of planning the economy which is dismissed as 20th-century nostalgia:

But nor will it be created by a throwback to the planned economies of the 20th century. The first task in remaking the nation will be resetting the relationship between the government and business to create an economy that works  

(pg 22 opcit.)

There will be no competition between a state and private sector but rather a new joint alliance. Business has generally been good for society it is just those awful Tories who turn it astray. The state will invest to help both workers and owners in harmony linked to a massive new buy British campaign.  There will be a new deal for working people that Starmer will sign off in his first 100 days that will raise the minimum wage and change some regulations on zero-hour contracts.  But the figure set at the moment would not amount to much of an increase and we should wait for the detail on the contracts.  No mention of restoring the rights of trade unions taken away by Thatcher and never restored by Blair.  Britain is one of the countries with the most restrictions on trade union activity.  Starmer’s vision on the rights to contribute seems to fail to spot that one.

The section on education is mostly well-meaning generalisations – but no commitment to have a proper comprehensive system by ending academies or grammar schools.  Public schools remain intact apart from trying to imitate their supposedly brilliant teaching of soft skills._

Crime and security has its own section. There is a paean of praise for Blair’s government achievement in tackling crime. Then you have the same sort of discourse on security that you could find in the tabloid press:

Security for the British people does not just exist at work and at home – it must also mean security from those elements of society who blight others’ lives.

(pg 28 opcit)

You could argue that there are less secure jobs than ever but to say it does not exist at all at work or at home seems over the top and leads to the main concern being protection against anti-social behaviour. Blair brought in the famous ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) which disproportionately targeted young working-class and black youth.  You could imagine how Labour might run this sort of dog-whistle politics in the so-called red wall seats.  More police is obviously a priority here too for Starmer.  Addressing the concerns of BAME people about policing is not on his agenda.

There is a rich irony at one point in the essay when Starmer inveighs against the Tory use of culture wars to create disunity among the British people.  He slams the Tories for protecting slaver statues and attacking those protesting racism.  We can leave on one side the fact that he condemned the Bristol mobilisation which got rid of the Colston statue and criticised Black Lives Matter.  What really takes the biscuit is when he has the nerve to slam Tory McCarthyism

The Conservatives have tried to exploit divisions, leading to an increasingly bizarre obsession with what happens on university campuses, a crime bill that offers statues of slavers more protection than women walking down the street, and McCarthyite accusations of Marxist plots against everyone from teachers to those protesting racism,”

(p19 opcit)

One of the best examples of McCarthyism today is the witch-hunt going on inside the Labour party as left activists including the ‘wrong sort of Jews’ are being expelled for opinions that are allegedly antisemitic but are often anti-zionist. Defending Jeremy Corbyn in a meeting is deemed as being soft on antisemitism and makes you liable for expulsion, Isn’t this McCarthyite?

Finally, on the 31st page, the pamphlet lays out Labour’s ten principles for the road ahead.  That old favourite making ‘hard-working families’ the priority comes back in at number one.  It is a well-loved mantra from the Blair days and an implicit message that Labour has nothing to do with those people who are on welfare,  who cannot work for a number of reasons or maybe are just not very hardworking… Number 2 reinforces the tough love and discipline riff by saying that if you work hard and play by the rules you will be rewarded. I wonder if this applies to all sorts of actions by corporate bosses and owners who bend the rules all the time. I rather think it reinforces the sentiments behind principle number 1. 

All the rest are at the same level of banality and platitude but clearly reinforce the shift away from Corbynism and towards Blairism.

  • Contributions are required from people and business,
  • cooperation is praised over individualism,
  • opportunities for all irrespective of birth,
  • on the one had we should not surrender to market forces but at the same time government is a partner and should not stifle business;
  • we will not waste public money (we are not big public spenders),
  • for decency and against corruption in public life
  • and finally patriotism but not nationalism. 

Principles that define the centre of politics which all the political parties more or less support at least on paper. So totally disconnected from any concrete policies as to be totally meaningless. 

Owen Jones noted today that:

Keir Starmer’s approval ratings are much worse than those of Boris Johnson. Less than a third of Labour’s own voters think he is doing a good job, and more than six in 10 of all voters do not think he seems like a prime minister in waiting. 

owen jones Guardian 23.9.21

This pamphlet is an attempt to convince the establishment that Labour can be trusted to govern again after the aberration of Corbynism.  It moves Labour further along the road to reconnect with Blairism and the embrace of socially liberal politics.  It provides no solution for defending the interests of working people.  Behind the vision is a strategy that thinks that electoral victory lies in occupying what is defined as the centre-ground. It might work if the Johnson government fails on its own or as a result of mass discontent. Then again it might allow Tories to follow through with their Brexit, global Britain, levelling up narrative and appear as the ‘changemaker’ opposed to all those vanilla centrists.  Either way, it consummates in a written form what Starmer started with his leadership victory – the end of the Corbyn project; Starmerism as reheated Blairism.

If the Tories attacks on working people and general incompetence worsen and there is a mass reaction it might provide a route to Number Ten for Starmer since government lose elections more than oppositions win them. Then this essay might provide the vacuous soundbites for a campaign and a government, a bit like the slogan New Labour, New Britain did for Blair. 

Either way, it consummates in a written form what Starmer started with his leadership victory – the end of the Corbyn project; Starmerism as reheated Blairism.

Make no mistake this document should dispel any doubts for some Labour activists that despite everything he has done, Starmer had not dumped the famous ten pledges that helped him win the leadership.  Neither should it give any hope to those activists who think that if we keep our heads down and choose our battles we can affect policy. This essay already sets out the limits of any manifesto and there is not much labour members can do about it, particularly since Starmer is changing the rules on policymaking to make it even easier for the leadership to decide the manifesto.

Labour activists will need a different strategy based on long term building up of networks of committed socialists inside and outside the party. Networks that can begin to offer a socialist alternative based in the communities, workplaces and campaigns. Developing a more stable political culture for coordinating these activists is also important. This is the case whether Starmer or the Tories win the next election.

On the other hand, if Johnson survives and does a Thatcher, as he says he wants to,  then this pamphlet will not have much shelf life and end up like Miliband’s gravestone stunt.  Owen points out, in analysing the leadership rule changes, that it is just as likely that a resurgent right-wing within Labour will use new rules to ditch the forensic one before or after the next election. 

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.


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