The problem is bigger than Keir Starmer – Labor centrists are running out of ideas Andy Beckett
TIt should be a good time for the British center-left. A divided Tory government gets into trouble. The Labor Left has been marginalized. The Liberal Democrats are still recovering from their disastrous decisions in office. All over the western world, from France and Spain to Canada and the United States, center and center-left politicians are in power.
Meanwhile on the right Populist regimes did particularly poorly during the pandemic. After a few stressful, polarized years, one can believe that politics is entering a calmer, more centrist phase.
But not in the UK. Even in the medium term and with increasing problems, the Conservatives lead Labor in the polls. Worse, work has few memorable guidelines, an indistinct political identity, and little momentum. With its annual meeting starting this weekend, external interest in the party is mostly limited to the question of whether it can defend itself. Such a scenario – welcome as it may be – is far from preparing for power.
Labor critics inside and outside the party like to blame Keir Starmer, and it is easy to see why. The Führer’s limited political experience and stiff personality, his close circle of advisors and the disorderly party leadership, his disproportionate emphasis on voters in the so-called Red Wall and his failure to clearly state what he stands for: all of these are convincing explanations of underperformance by the workers. Starmer’s publication this week of a lengthy essay attempting to set out his vision for the party and the country is confirmation that his leadership needs another fresh start.
But focusing on its flaws and shortcomings misses a much bigger problem. In the last 20 years since Tony Blair’s administration peaked – around the time of his final landslide victory in 2001 – Britain’s center-left has failed to renew itself self.
The failure is particularly blatant because New Labor saw the ability to change as one of the most important political skills and prioritized “reconnecting the party with the modern world,” as Blair put it in his memoir. As outdated and discredited as its project may look today, New Labor and its intellectual allies took a serious look at how Britain and the world changed in the 1990s. But since then, New Labor’s descendants have failed to update their policies – in Blairit language – despite dominating Labor’s parliamentary party and bureaucracy and receiving much more media support than the party’s other factions.
Rather than developing new and compelling ideas to tackle big topical issues like the accelerating problems of capitalism, the rise of identity politics, and the highly divergent economic interests of young and old, Labor centrists have turned inward. Instead of also understanding and shaping society, they are increasingly fixated on the shaping of their party.
This week, Starmer announced surprising plans to change the way Labor elects its leaders, makes politics and re-elects its MPs – all of which would reduce the influence of party members. The plans appear to be a fuzzy attempt to weaken the left – which is still strong in membership – but equally striking is its introspective view. While the worst Tory government in decades has run amok, Labor fiddles with its rulebook, sparking a controversy that threatens to become the main convention story.
There is something perfectionist and self-destructive about this centrist need for control. Since Blair stepped down in 2007, three of Labor’s four leaders have come from the center-left – Starmer, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown. However, all three have been criticized by New Labor purists, including Blair himself, for not being centrist enough. As with Thatcher and her remaining disciples after they were discharged from office in 1990, no one who leads the party after the great leader is ever considered good enough.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was also viewed by the centrists as a time for internal struggle – rather than thinking that his rise was a symptom of the problems of centrism, such as his inability to speak for the youth. On the rare occasions where the center-left presented an alternate vision – the challenge of Owen Smith’s leadership of Corbyn in 2016, the spin-off from Labor by the Independent Group in 2019 – the lack of new guidelines was instructive.
This was in contrast to the plethora of government plans drawn up by Corbyn’s advisors and the Shadow Cabinet. This political oversupply turned out to be too much for many voters in the 2019 elections. But even then, Corbyn’s vote was still bigger than Blair, Brown and Miliband won between 2005 and 2015. The collapse of Corbynism hid the ongoing decline of Labor centrism.
Starmer’s essay shows some awareness that the center-left needs to change. Compared to the clever but euphemistic New Labor manifestos, its language is more blunt and its criticism of the status quo harsher. He writes about it, “taking the power to rethink our country in a completely new way”. There is also a new focus on realigning the relationship between employees and employers. Starmer seems to appreciate that Britain is far more unequal and troubled than it was during the Blair era, and that the humble economic reforms New Labor promised and implemented will no longer suffice – even if he doesn’t often specify what a Starmer government will do would do instead.
There are a couple of similar, equally belated, concessions to radicalism in another ambitious center-left document released this week: Rebuilding Labor and the Nation, by the Progressive Britain think tank (a new incarnation of the old Blair organization Progress) . Behind its usual centrist claim that Labor can only win by targeting “soft Tory” voters, the report also recommends that the party make “a bold offer for the environment” to attract “voters on the Labor left appeal to those with the Greens ”. So far, Labor Centrists have smugly assumed that such voters have nowhere else to go.
But anyone who hopes that the center-left will finally modernize shouldn’t be too excited. Much of Starmer’s essay and Rebuilding Labor is devoted to tired, familiar, centrist issues: the need for the party to be patriotic and family-friendly, to value the community and “hardworking people,” and to crack down on crime. Labor leaders have been saying these things for a quarter of a century to reduce electoral impact. The conservatives say it better.
The big idea of the essay is “The Contribution Society”: a chunky phrase for Britain that Starmer wants to create, in which every adult is both a contribution and a beneficiary of a partnership between socially responsible business, a protective state and a living one. is local democracy. It’s a thoroughly delightful vision – until you pause for a moment to think about how far it is from reality. Britain is full of competing interests. To claim that it could be otherwise is either naïve or a deliberate circumvention in order to appeal to the broadest possible range of voters.
Under Blair, that kind of centrist talk was a sign of confidence. It feels increasingly like desperation under Starmer.