Illustration by Ipsita Sarkar
If you had to oppose a gammon-faced, straw-haired, blockheaded Etonian – a man whose picture defies comical description – in a time of mismanaged national crisis, a time wherein over 100 thousand people have died, wherein other countries (governed under the principles of mutuality and communitarian obligation, as in New Zealand) have not seen such botchwork… if you had to oppose that man, would you be six points behind in the voting-intention polls?
The British Labour Party has fallen on hard times, understandably: it is not as if the majority of Britain’s newspapers is at all welcoming of a wholesale challenge to the status quo. Any talk of a ‘leftist bias’ in the broadsheets and tabloids is completely unfounded; a Liberal bias, maybe, but even that is somewhat of a stretch, especially among the Murdoch conglomerate which somehow remains popular in the UK. The LSE reported in 2016 that most of then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s views were heavily distorted by journalists. (Staggeringly, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail accurately, without alteration, represented exactly zero percent of Corbyn’s beliefs. This to a collective readership of over a million people.) So I can understand, even sympathise with, current leader Keir Starmer’s position in the wake of two election losses.
But Starmer is neglecting a huge part of his job function – hell, his job title. Starmer is forgetting to oppose.
When the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was found to have acted unlawfully in the disclosure of COVID contracts which siphoned off taxpayers’ money to his cronies, Starmer was asked if he thought Hancock should resign. ‘I don’t want to call for him to resign,’ he said. How much will it take then, Keir? What would you countenance before a resignation is in order?
On the Government’s boyishly dubbed ‘SpyCops Bill’ (which would legitimise use of undercover police officers, as well as subsources, and would permit the breaking of the law in the performance of duty), Starmer abstained. No, not opposition: abstention. Silence on this matter is complicity. Starmer defended his vote, arguing that ‘nothing can be authorised if it conflicts with or breaches the Human Rights Act’. But even so, the bill is nothing to be proud of. Amnesty International, Unite the Union, and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign all point out what Starmer seemingly forgot: the bill provides immunity for any criminal act done under its conditions. Even the US’s parallel legislation prohibits torture and murder! Undercover cops have already been the subject of an inquiry into the psychologically manipulative and unscrupulous tactics of the Metropolitan Force; this bill simply immunises them from criminal prosecution. Starmer should have raised up his fists at this. Instead he turned the other cheek.
After the ludicrous and excessive police response to the Sarah Everard vigil in London, denunciation of Commissioner Cressida Dick was everywhere apparent – even the Lib Dems, famous for their iron aversion to all things Tory, managed to call for her resignation – but not from Starmer. In an archetypal Starmerite statement he said that the policing itself was wrong but that Dick should not resign over it. It’s a good job the British public have an Opposition Leader that can only condemn vague abstractions rather than call for tangible changes. God knows I needed a leader who was against the concept of bad policing and not bad police, otherwise I would have nothing to rally over.
Rubbing the Government’s shoulders again, Starmer has also capitulated on its decision to take over the running of Liverpool, a Labour bastion. Liverpool’s mayor resigned in disgrace in 2020 over bribery allegations and was suspended from the Labour Party; and instead of selecting new, bold candidates Starmer in fact eliminated leftists from the mayoral roster entirely, provoking objections from MPs, city councillors, and trade unionists. The Labour leader is alienating one of his Party’s most loyal cities by first attempting to install a centrist runner, and then by rolling over and letting Whitehall take control of it – despite the fact that a Conservative hasn’t sat on Liverpool’s council in 25 years.
The intention, it seems, behind such tepid (or absent) opposition, such unwarranted clemency towards Johnson’s Cabinet, is to attempt a form of consensus politics during the coronavirus pandemic. Effectively, Starmer is trying to rekindle the concordant spirit of the postwar Attlee government, only without the boldness – a lofty and worthy ambition. Hence such soundbites as: ‘the government is trying to do the right thing, and in that we support them’.
This aim, however noble, is profitless. Times have changed, and now it is no longer enough to put up a bipartisan front, because of course everything is a partisan issue. The politicisation of popular discourse, propelled by technological development and the extremising of politics in general, has developed more quickly than anyone could have expected. I see what Starmer is trying to do: depolarise. But unfortunately we encounter a crux in the way we approach the question of who should have power, and why. Because for too long politicians have been in bed with capital; for too long money has been a policymaker; for too long the old way of doing things has continued to fry the planet through corporate resource extraction, and increase wealth inequality. This problem cannot have a middle-ground solution: it is either to fix or to continue.
Take an illustration. Austerity. This was Cameron’s response to 2008 (itself a consequence of there being too much power in too few hands), and its impact was crushing. Mental health services, and thereby standards of mental health altogether, collapsed. The huge psychological toll of spending cuts were felt most strongly by the impoverished, those for whom Labour (should) fight. Austerity is inalienably tied to mass disillusionment with the way things are going. The old way of running a country – the lukewarm, Blairite way Starmer is trying to fulfil – is no longer an option. There has to be change. While Starmer may ignore the sway of populism, I’m afraid that it’s no longer possible to sit and wait until the issues resolve themselves. Immediacy is the watchword.
This is what modern politics looks like. This is the state of the world. Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Matt Hancock – these people must be opposed, Starmer must present a viable alternative. His Labour has to embrace its radical side, because the Conservatives have embraced theirs.
I address this not as a pessimist, but as an optimist, because at least I believe that change is possible. Do not mistake my urgency for despair, for I envisage a Labour that says ‘No!’ to Johnson, to the Conservatives; a Labour that reclaims its place as a protector of workers’ rights. I hope Sir Keir can see that too.