The left-wing case for Keir Starmer

4 July 2020

9:00 AM

4 July 2020

9:00 AM

Do you remember where you were when the BBC showed a rerun of Bowie’s Glastonbury set? When we ask each other that in future, the answer is always going to be: ‘At home, recovering from a day of Zoom calls.’ It’s 100 days since lockdown and as we slowly emerge it’s hard to keep a sense of proportion about the events in between. I remember pricking my finger for a trial antibody test; I remember my delight at discovering that an old-time cockney butcher still exists on a nearby council estate; I remember the absolute stillness of the air as a sparrowhawk circled over south London. Best to fix these memories in writing now, because the cryogenic social frost is well and truly melting.

I’m on a public webinar with Katja Kipping and Jagmeet Singh. Katja’s the leader of the Left party’s 69-strong fraction in the Bundestag; Jagmeet heads the Canadian NDP; but there’s only one person people want to hear about — Keir Starmer. Starmer, whose leadership campaign I worked on, has dragged Labour’s polling average up by eight points during the lockdown and his own personal approval ratings are now 12 points positive (compared to Corbyn’s minus 50 on election day). Surely everyone is happy, ask the people on the call? Thanks to WhatsApp, and Twitter, I know that parts of what was once Corbynism are not happy. Each time Starmer steps up to the wicket, calmly batting away calls for him to abolish the police force or support the desecration of monuments, I get a flurry of messages and subtweets. ‘Is this centrism or actual Blairism?’ asks one comrade. A homeopath from Birmingham tells me that, due to my support for Keir, I am a ‘State & Intelligence Agency propagandist play-acting being a plastic communist’. A left-wing journalist from Germany suggests that Starmer is ‘a traitor who serves the 1 per cent’, directing me to his own seven-part series on Keir’s links with Israel and the Trilateral Commission. I do wonder if, when we all see each other in person at the next Labour conference, I’m expected to smile weakly at my online detractors over a stale ham sandwich, or whether the lockdown is actually suppressing a civil war inside the party.

The Labour Together election review makes grim reading. Unless Labour can take back a large part of Scotland, it needs a swing in England so large that it takes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat in Somerset. We’ll have to take back not only the Red Wall but the Blue Fen. Realistically, the report says, there are three routes back to power: drop social liberalism and bring out the anti-immigration mugs; tack to the centre on economic policy while talking loudly about patriotism; or try to unite a culturally divided working-class base around a radical economic offer that is ‘credible and morally essential’. That third option is effectively the strategy Starmer stood on, but the report also reveals levels of incompetence in the party that will take months to fix. But with goodwill and a united shadow cabinet, it feels like we’re making progress…

At 3.26 p.m. on Thursday Starmer sacks Rebecca Long-Bailey. For my wing of the left, who want to play a constructive role in Starmer’s project, it’s a disaster. Long-Bailey is a competent and engaging politician whose membership of the shadow cabinet was seen by many of us as an insurance policy against the inevitable attempts to pull Starmer to the right. A story emerges of press-imposed deadlines vs unanswered phone calls. Starmer’s people sound flabbergasted that Long-Bailey refused to delete her offensive tweet — and that’s the substance: you can’t have a shadow cabinet member refusing a direct order. Long-Bailey’s people claim it’s all about her support for the teachers’ unions over lockdown. She has to go — but it looks like bad party management. For a few hours, the left talks of open rebellion. There are calls for left-wingers to quit the front bench. But the tweet was offensive, Maxine Peake has apologised; so in the end nobody resigns. It’s a taste of what’s to come. Large parts of the left don’t yet realise how different the party has to look and sound to win back power, even while being committed to radical economic change.

At my local pub the barman, who was living there during deep lockdown, sets up as a takeaway service: he offers nachos, sausages and pizzas, but the only thing people actually want is beer. You have to buy it in a sealed container, so my neighbourhood is suddenly full of blokes sitting on the kerb drinking lager from cartons. Meanwhile my barber rings to say I am on a waiting list for a haircut. The prices will be eye-watering and they’re still trying to find their team, who’ve gone back home to Europe. Whether the slump is V-shaped or more like a Nike swoosh depends on millions of transactions like these.

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Paul Mason is a former economics editor for Channel 4 News and Newsnight.

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