When the radical youth of Paris ripped up the paving stones for ammunition in 1968, they found a utopian slogan for it: ‘Under the pavement, the beach.’ ‘But this is inaccurate,’ Ralph Miliband reflected eight years later. ‘Under the pavement, there are the sewers.’ The Labour Party spent four and a half years looking for a beach under the street. Now they are in the sewers.
In April, a leaked report into the handling of complaints of antisemitism by Labour HQ revealed the contents of WhatsApp conversations between anti-Corbyn staff, including the then general secretary, Iain McNicol, in the course of which they lamented Labour’s rising poll numbers during the 2017 general election campaign and gleefully anticipated a ‘reckoning’ with the ‘Trots’ when Corbyn was defeated and removed. ‘They are cheering and we are silent and grey faced,’ one staffer posted in the WhatsApp chat when the exit poll showed substantial gains for Labour and the likelihood of a hung parliament. ‘Opposite to what I’d been working towards for the last couple of years! 😞’ The next day, the same staffer posted: ‘We will have to suck this up. The people have spoken. Bastards.’
Now the anti-Corbynists have got what they wanted, and more. The Labour Party, ‘under new management’ as Keir Starmer puts it, has issued an unreserved apology and paid a six-figure sum to the seven staffers who contributed damaging evidence to the BBC Panorama programme ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, broadcast in July 2019, and whose credibility the party had publicly questioned. Jennie Formby, who replaced Iain McNicol as general secretary under Corbyn, has now been replaced by David Evans, a figure popular on the Labour right. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left’s candidate to replace Corbyn, has already been sacked from the shadow cabinet. The party’s National Executive Committee has a majority defined ostensibly by loyalty to Starmer, but more concretely by opposition to Corbynism. The Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing MPs, on whose behalf Corbyn stood for the leadership in 2015 because it was ‘his turn’, has thirty-odd members out of 202 Labour MPs. This figure wasn’t any higher when Corbyn was leader.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo described the Paris sewers as a ‘rout of illusions and mirages’, a place where ‘the filth takes off its shirt’ and ‘nothing is more but what is.’ Under Starmer, the Labour Party has been reclaimed from the Corbynists with such speed, and so comprehensively, that it feels as if something essential about its nature is being revealed. Or perhaps it is simply being remembered. ‘The Labour Party will not be transformed into a party seriously concerned with socialist change,’ Miliband wrote in the 1972 edition of Parliamentary Socialism, channelling disillusionment with Harold Wilson, who appeared to have betrayed his left-wing promise. Miliband thought the left within the party would always struggle to influence a moderate leadership; it seemed impossible to him, as it did to everyone until it actually happened, that someone as radical as Corbyn could take the reins. Left-wing MPs, Miliband wrote, were doomed to remain ‘isolated and often pathetic figures, bitterly at odds not only with their leaders but with that large and permanent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party which entirely shares its leaders’ orthodox modes of thought’. What was so remarkable about the Corbyn era was that all of this remained true.
That bizarre disruption to the proper business of Labourism is now over. The ‘new management’ has been single-minded in its attempt to return – and be seen to return – the party to ‘loyal opposition’, a supporting role in the maintenance of British order, where the price of the adjective is the meaning of the noun. So far, Starmer has only rarely opposed government decisions: he queries the details in the name of constructive criticism, and then endorses them. He ran for the leadership as the unity candidate, and has largely secured the acquiescence of a chastened left and the admiration of a resurgent right. The most militant internal opponents of Corbyn’s leadership, who defected in February 2019 to form something called ‘Change UK’, then the ‘Independent Group for Change’, are now finding new careers in lobbying and consultancy after losing their seats in last year’s election. Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger have joined the communications firm Edelman UK, while Chris Leslie has become chief executive of a trade association for debt collectors. The party they believed to be dangerous and no longer able to accommodate them is now rebranding itself as a kind of democratically elected management consultancy.
Not all of the criticisms of Corbyn’s Labour were wrong. Antisemitism, for instance, is undoubtedly a problem in some parts of the party, and takes distinctive forms on the radical left. The marginalisation of anti-war, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist politics in British public life, especially during the period of the Iraq War and the financial crisis, left these traditions groping around in the dark for intellectual and political representation. Some settled for crankdom and conspiracy theories – some of them clearly antisemitic – and this layer of ideological detritus was carried in on the same wave that brought Labour hundreds of thousands of perfectly decent new members between 2015 and 2019.
Since taking over, Starmer has taken a hard line on the issue. Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked for sharing an interview with the actress Maxine Peake in the Independent in which Peake claimed that Israel trained American police officers to kneel on people’s necks, and then refusing to delete her tweet. Phil Jones wrote on the LRB blog (23 July) that Long-Bailey’s sacking
was a virtue signal to the British electorate (and a convenient way to marginalise the party’s left) rather than an overture to a wider strategy for tackling antisemitism. With his muscular response, Starmer cast himself as a strongman protecting a weak minority, but achieved little for British Jews.
When Steve Reed, the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, tweeted a description of the multimillionaire Richard Desmond as a ‘puppet master’ (Desmond is Jewish), he was not sacked for the antisemitic trope; it was deemed sufficient that he deleted the tweet and apologised when asked to.
Meanwhile, it appears that Corbynism’s excitable and often clumsy politics of structural transformation have been abandoned. Some have speculated that Starmer’s own enigmatic politics are similar to those of Ed Miliband, Corbyn’s predecessor and Ralph’s younger son, to whom Starmer has given the hefty role of shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. But ‘Red Ed’ at least claimed a desire to ‘break the consensus’ of ‘predatory’ capitalism. Corbynism built on this as much as it departed from it. The better comparison is with David Cameron’s time in opposition, when his sole focus was to make the Conservatives seem to represent a return to responsible national government rather than a deep ideological shift. It may well be the case that in a time of crisis, the public sees governments as being like lightbulbs: when they stop working, they need to be changed, and the most important thing to consider about the new bulb is whether it will give you a shock.
The irony is that, once in government, Cameron’s Tories gave British politics its most profound series of shocks since the early years of Thatcherism – first austerity, then the referendum on Scottish independence, then Brexit. Perhaps Starmer just appears to be a safe pair of hands, and is preparing the stealth implementation of the ‘Corbynism without Corbyn’ that some of his supporters promised during the leadership campaign. In the absence of clarity on policy, however, the left’s mounting dissatisfaction with Starmer’s leadership is still largely a complaint about tone rather than content. Starmer has reasserted Labour’s ‘patriotism’, a considerably greater weakness for Corbyn in the party’s ‘red wall’ constituencies than allegations of antisemitism. This runs counter to the cosmopolitan cultural vanguardism of much of the Labour left, who know that this kind of flag-waving – the ultimate access-code to British public legitimacy – is at best a cynical advertisement of lumpen cultural normalcy, and at worst a dog whistle for anti-immigrant and militarist sentiments.
But what right does the left have to school anyone on messaging? Its own analysis of the 2019 campaign is that its individual policies were popular, but the party itself wasn’t. The greatest obstacle to a radical Labour government is the conservatism of English civil society, which reaches deep inside the party apparatus as well as its traditional social base and its target voters. In its few years in charge, the left came up with a great many good policy ideas, and built up the beginnings of a solid apparatus for grassroots mobilisation and education in Momentum. Yet hardly any of that activity extended beyond metropolitan England. The movement’s only lasting electoral achievement was winning Putney.
Some of Corbynism’s policy legacy may endure, especially the turn towards a greener vision of socialism. And yet this is where Starmer will struggle to match the scale of Cameron’s impact. The parameters of British political credibility are set by the forces Corbyn and his supporters wanted to bring under greater democratic oversight, from the media barons to the City of London. Corbyn’s Labour lacked credibility because it defied those parameters, and sought to transform them. By returning Labour to the old style of opposition, Starmer has already added much needed mortar to the ancient, crumbling boundary wall of British political possibility, and placed his party inside it. The true cost will only be discovered in the early days of a Labour government. In Les Misérables Jean Valjean made it out of the sewers, but he knew what awaited him: above the sewers, there are the authorities.