What Now? The Future of the UK's Left-Wing Under New Labour Leader Keir Starmer

Seven months on from Jeremy Corbyn’s election defeat, MPs and activists from the party’s left-wing react to Starmer’s early days in office.
July 15, 2020, 1:07pm
What Now? The Future of the Labour Left Under Keir Starmer
Photo via Alamy. 

As Jeremy Corbyn’s head of strategic communications and the co-founder of Momentum, James Schneider had spent almost every day with the Labour leader for over three years. On the night of the 2019 election, he was at the party’s HQ, preparing responses to a number of different voting scenarios. Then the exit poll came in.

“I just realised I wasn’t going to be chatting to journalists all night,” he tells me now, six months on. “I didn’t have anything to say.”

At 4AM, Corbyn arrived at the party’s office to commiserate with staff, then went home to catch a couple of hours sleep before interviews in the morning. Schneider stayed where he was. “Everything felt flat. It’s hit me in different ways ever since.” Losing tends not to be kind on those deemed responsible. “As you can find out quite brutally, history is not written by the defeated,” Schneider says. “The 2017 result is being written out of history.”

The months since Labour’s resounding December election defeat have been difficult for those on Britain’s political left. There have been feelings of sadness, exhaustion and rage, as well as a sense that hope has been extinguished. For almost five years, the left was in the unusual position of holding the Labour leadership. Now, there are signs that it could return to agitating mostly from outside the party. If the 2017 election result under Corbyn is being written out of history, then what happens to those whose voices are no longer at the heart of the Labour Party?

Keir Starmer won Labour’s leadership with an offer Schneider describes as “80 percent Corbynism”, plus "winning". The former shadow Brexit secretary launched his campaign with a slick video that burnished his left-wing credentials – complete with picketing mine workers and opposition to the Iraq war. But his early months in office suggest he is looking to push left-wingers to the side-lines, with approving editorials in the liberal press hailing his “quiet revolution”. David Evans, who worked for the party under Tony Blair, has replaced the socialist Jennie Formby as Labour’s general secretary. Almost all of Corbyn’s main allies have been removed from the front bench.

Starmer’s hair-trigger sacking of political rival Rebecca Long-Bailey for sharing an article allegedly containing an anti-Semitic trope, his reference to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment” (which he later said he “regretted”), his dismissal of calls to defund the police as “nonsense” and his non-confrontational establishment style – “Sir Haircut” being one recently bestowed nickname – have all been sharply criticised. A leaked report that appeared to prove that key Labour Party staff members were actively sabotaging Jeremy Corbyn’s chances at the 2017 election only added to the animosity the left feels toward the party’s centre and right-wing.

Schneider calls the sacking of Long-Bailey a "troubling absurdity", pointing out that the actor Maxine Peake’s suggestion that US police had learnt the kneeling technique that killed George Floyd from Israeli counterparts was originally linked by the Independent to an Amnesty report. “I find it personally maddening that, as a Jewish person, I should be grateful to Keir Starmer for protecting me from the sharing of an interview in a mainstream British paper with an award-winning actor, in which she makes a claim that, when Becky shared it, was sourced to a major human rights organisation," he says.

Long-Bailey’s sacking was “seen by many as being politically motivated”, says Leeds East MP Richard Burgon, a steadfast Corbyn ally. For Burgon, though, there’s no question of leaving the party, and when I ask him if he’d join a new party on the left, he points to a history of failed endeavours in that respect and reiterates his belief in Labour as the most powerful vehicle for progressive change in the country. With that in mind, he and the other MPs in Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group – which includes Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, as well as a new intake of younger parliamentarians – aren’t going anywhere.

“We think the path to a Labour government lies not in tinkering around the edges, but necessitates proposing practical policies that are radical,” says Burgon, who joined Labour aged 15. He adds that any “left movement that has a chance of changing society will inevitably be subject to attempted sabotage and destabilisation, including from within”.

While the party leadership is no longer in the hands of his faction, Burgon insists that he’ll be loyal to Starmer. “As a proud left-winger, I’m never going to indulge in the kind of disgraceful behaviour from right-wing members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which sabotaged our General Election prospects in 2017,” he says. “They sought to capsize the Labour ship. They sought to steer the ship towards the rocks. They really sought to make the elected captain of the ship walk the plank. That’s not the approach I would take.”

For Ash Sarkar, contributing editor at left-wing media outlet Novara, Starmer’s leadership has been disappointing so far. “He could use his establishment credentials – Sir, QC, met the Queen – to make a compelling case for popular left-wing policies, but he just doesn't seem to do brave,” she says.

Sarkar began the 2010s as an anarchist in the student movement, and ended it as one of the Corbyn project's highest profile supporters in the media. While mainstream publications on the liberal left often made no secret of their disdain for Corbyn, Novara championed an emerging and energetic new left that felt represented – however imperfectly, at times – by Labour post-2015.

Sarkar, who joined Labour just before the 2019 election in order to more fully take part in a range of local events around the country, won’t be leaving the party, but believes Starmer is most concerned with winning back the votes of "radicalised pensioners who own their own homes", and who opted for the Conservatives over Labour in key seats at the last election. These voters, she says, "would rather sacrifice their grandchildren to climate change than have their statues of Colston and Churchill pulled down".

Recalling the pain of the 2019 election, Sarkar says: “With his direction of travel when it comes to policy, I don’t think I’ll invest that much genuine hope and excitement in a Keir Starmer manifesto.”

Alex Niven, author of New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England and a Labour member since 2010, says something similar about what he calls the “centrist triangulation” of a leader whose election represents a “return to power of the 45-plus New Labour demographic”.

Niven, who won't be leaving Labour, says that Corbyn’s election “felt like a breakthrough moment”, given that “things had been getting so bad for so long”. Starmer, on the other hand, is “a cause for considerable pessimism. He’ll probably be unsuccessful, and even if he’s not, I don’t think he has the radical instincts to implement the sort of reforms we need to reverse the last 40 years of neoliberalism.”

Chardine Taylor-Stone, founder of Socialists of Colour, says Starmer’s response to Black Lives Matter shows how “out of touch” he is. The activism that has led to this “moment” has been a long time coming, which was something Taylor-Stone believes Corbyn understood. “That’s why a lot of Black people supported him. It’s not because we are all socialists.”

Despite the change in leadership, Taylor-Stone says she’s staying with the party, “because I’m a masochist, but also because now I know a bit more about how policy works, I know that if there are no Black voices on the inside, there will be no change”.

Her friend and fellow Black activist Aviah Day, who is part of Sisters Uncut, understands Taylor-Stone’s position, but says her “dance with Labour is over”.

“It feels like the right of the party has assumed control now,” she says. "I think my support for Labour was contingent on the left having a certain amount of influence, which they no longer have. I think that trying to regain that influence would drain too much energy from the left, especially given the bureaucracy of the party. The best thing the left can do is build power in communities and trade unions.”

With the United Kingdom drifting further out into rising seas under a reactionary Conservative government, the left finds itself out of the Labour leadership but in a better position than it was in 2015. Feelings of tiredness and depression are understandable, says Schneider. Still, he adds, “there are no shortcuts. This is for the long haul, but there can and will be victories along the way.”