Opinion

Labour’s Problems Go Deeper Than Starmer

The party needs to reinvent social democracy for the twenty-first century.

Tracy Brabin Keir Starmer
British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer campaigns with Tracy Brabin, mayoral candidate for West Yorkshire, in Pontefract, England, May 5 (Labour)

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are out in force arguing his successor, Keir Starmer, must surely resign after losing the Hartlepool constituency, a Labour bulwark since 1974, to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Corbyn lost all seven elections (local, national and European) during his five-year leadership and still his supporters refused to accept he might be damaging the party, but Starmer loses one seat and it’s all the proof they need to conclude that he can’t defeat the Conservatives?

Big if true.

Election results

In local elections last week, Labour went down from 1,672 to 1,345 English council seats with 29 percent support while the Conservatives went up from 2,110 to 2,345 with 36 percent; a mild improvement for both parties from the last local elections, when Corbyn and Theresa May were party leaders. (Labour lost seats despite increasing its vote share due to the British first-past-the-post voting system.)

Labour did better in Wales, where it gained a seat in the regional assembly with 40 percent support, up from 35. The Conservatives also increased their vote share from 21 to 26 percent and gained five seats. The centrist Liberal Democrats and far right lost.

In Scotland, support for the two major parties was almost unchanged from the last election. The pro-independence Scottish National Party and Greens won a majority.

Trend

It’s too easy to blame the lackluster results on Starmer, who only became leader a year ago. He hasn’t had time to win back the trust Corbyn and his acolytes betrayed.

Tony Blair, the longest-ruling prime minister in the history of the Labour Party, and who opposed Corbyn from the start, cautions against returning to radical left-wing politics in an essay for the New Statesman. But he isn’t wild about the moderate Starmer either.

Blair points out center-left parties are struggling everywhere. France’s Socialist Party is a shadow of its former self. Germany’s Social Democrats are on the verge of being eclipsed by the Greens. The Dutch Labor Party placed behind the far-left Socialists as well as the liberal Democrats in parliamentary elections this year.

The trend is the same across Europe and North America: working-class voters who feel left behind have switched to the (far) right; middle- and upper-income voters with more confidence in the future prefer outspoken Green or social-liberal parties.

The progressives who remain are either “radical chic“, in the mold of Corbyn, or too-cautious moderates, like Starmer.

Or, as Blair puts it:

The progressive problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical.

Challenge of our time

Ruy Teixeira, a keen observer of center-left politics in America, has similarly argued that today’s radical left, which rallied around Bernie Sanders in the United States, combines “woke” identity politics with retro-socialism. Neither is appealing to the broad center of the electorate.

Nor should they be; these are not the answers to the central challenge of our time, which Blair argues is to harness technological change for good lest it put even more power and wealth in the hands of those who are already well off:

It is a challenge tailor-made for the progressive cause. It requires active government; a commitment to social justice and equality; an overhaul of public services, particularly health and education; measures to bring the marginalized into society’s mainstream; and a new twenty-first-century infrastructure.

Some of the solutions may be associated with traditional left-wing thinking, such as regulation of big tech or higher public spending. Others may come from the modernizing right. Britain’s antiquated National Health Service, for example, could learn from the Netherlands and Switzerland, where center-right governments put competition between health providers and insurance companies to use in order to provide universal as well as affordable health care.

Practical

Practical policies will have to come from practical-minded social democrats, but they are too often shouted down — and let themselves be shouted down — by far-left activists who are suspicious of patriotism; reduce almost every major societal problem to racism; flirt with defunding the police; and demand total economic reconstruction to slow down climate change. (Teixeira subdivides this last point into catastrophism, growthphobia and technopessimism.)

Little wonder voters living on benefits, or who can’t afford rent, much less a mortgage, in London or another big city despite working a full-time job, don’t believe the center-left understands their problems.

Corbyn’s platform was a throwback to the 1970s with proposals to nationalize industries, outlaw bonus pay, transfer shares in big companies to workers and raise public spending by one-tenth. His foreign policy was anti-American, anti-Israel, pro-Chávez and pro-Palestinian. How was this meant to help long-time Labour voters in the North of England and Midlands, where industries have disappeared and the available service jobs are low-paid and insecure? The Conservatives picked up dozens of seats in this English rust belt in 2019.

Starmer has repudiated the worst of Corbyn, which is a start, but it’s not enough to be against something. He needs to redefine what the Labour Party is for.

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