BEST LEADERSHIP FORWARD: WHERE’S THE OPPOSITION?

by Sunetra Senior

To mount successful opposition, Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, must embody an Evolved Left.

The ambiguous outcome of the recent by-election at North Shropshire has been telling: screaming even. Starmer is a leader of airs over recognisable reformative action. A microcosm of the calamity of the general election in the summer, the traditionally Tory stronghold in the North of England was lost to the Liberal Democrats as opposed to Labour, despite it being fertile territory for the latter in the wake of recent Conservative catastrophe: the explicit exposure of corruption, incompetent handling of the pandemic and the creeping economic fallout of Brexit, have seen the Tories floundering in the polls. Starmer’s red party should enjoy a stronger lead. A piece for Open Democracy states: “After the Conservatives, the biggest loser from this by-election is Labour. The party shed more than half of its vote share, from 22% to 10%, and was pushed into third place.” This is a deepening of the disillusionment from the nation-wide local election held earlier this year. Labour failed to make substantial gains, while also unable to regain Hartlepool as the party’s traditional heartland.  For someone who made ‘winning’ a lynchpin of his manifesto as announced at the annual Labour conference in Autumn, Starmer’s performance has been persistently poor. 

Instead of emptily shadowing the Tories then, turning into an enabling clone of the electoral ‘evil twin’, Starmer must embody an alternative systemic future, incarnating contemporary radical soul.

This is because he is politically neutral and verbally vague, choosing to prioritise PR-based strategy over authentic investment in the fundamental wellbeing of the people: a revival of the era of New Labour; a historic gambit which already failed. Starmer made this clear at the conferential address when he announced “Labour will launch the most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation, echoing the Blairite slogan of ‘Education, Education, Education’! But there is so much more to answer for: from deep economic inequality to the resurgence of racism, and the UK’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Labour’s current lukewarm relationship with social democracy, lack of pushback against the disturbing socio-political landscape and superficial propaganda simply imitate the narcissism of the current cold self-serving state. There seems to be no viable concrete challenge and, with it, abandonment of hope. Indeed, by fully returning to Centrism Starmer makes himself interchangeable with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak: tipped to be the next PM in line after Johnson. Starmer reinforces the individualistic hyper-hierarchical status-quo, complicit instead in what’s fast-becoming a one-party system. People need a solidly oppositional, confident, progressive force: clear morality in this dystopian chaotic time, and one with which they can passionately identify. As emphasised by the recent popularity of the Lib-Dems, the sole big party to back Remain in the momentous 2019 snap election, the public want a rigorous contender to the apocalyptic present.  The party realistically able to deliver this needs only to give it to them.

IInstead of emptily shadowing the Tories then, turning into an enabling clone of the electoral ‘evil twin’, Starmer must embody an alternative systemic future, incarnating contemporary radical soul. This means substantiation of his centrist approach with meaningful leftist policy otherwise known as making accessible the beating heart of the left, or, ultimately what I call the Evolved Left. This will allow Starmer to soundly achieve momentum when he’s just breaking ideologically even. Even The Guardian, typically behind the big business-friendly leader, has criticised his relentless purge of the party’s prominent left-wing; again, a cut-throat, manipulative move you’d expect from the Conservatives: “Removal of Ed Miliband as shadow business secretary – and his replacement by the City-friendly Jonathan Reynolds – is a retrograde step. Mr Miliband pursued his brief with vigour and radicalism when it came to the environment (…) though he has pitched his tent on what used to be called the centre ground of British politics, he (Starmer) should be wary of causing gratuitous offence to the party’s left and its allies. The decision to launch the reshuffle while a blindsided Ms Rayner made a key speech on sleaze seemed disrespectful. Disunited parties rarely make a good impression on the electorate.” This last month also saw newly appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, appallingly denounce support for former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, claiming he regretted the decision to back him at the time, perpetuating the harmful culture of in-fighting.

This supports the general sentiment of a piece I wrote roughly a year ago in which I first put forward the concept of an contrasting political movement that should mindfully modify itself: “As opposed to attempting to officially eradicate the controversial leader (Corbyn) as if a malignant blot, new head of Labour, Keir Starmer must aim to consolidate his ailing party and fully deliver what past predecessors could not (…) Corbyn was not perfect, but his renegade caring politics had relevant revolutionary clout. As opposed to immaturely rejecting this, attacking his supporters, or edging apprehensively around him, Starmer should eventually accept this, backing sense over pettiness and leading by appropriate example. In due course, such cohesion within the party would surely do the same for a frustrated broken nation.” Indeed, it was the height of internal division caused by the infamous anti-semitism row that lost Labour the elections. The Conservatives capitalised on the rift to win in a landslide. An incisive piece in the New Statesman even stated:Labour, not The Tories, was the largest party among Low-income workers in 2019.’ This means Corbyn did appeal to white working-class Britain as well as cosmopolitan cities and young liberal voters. It was retired nationalist voters who would have never switched that were not behind him and tipped the vote towards the Tories. Indeed, the former leader’s entire election to leadership was a sensible reaction to the party’s wayward neo-liberal past. Progressive politics based in highly competitive economics practically undercuts itself. Corbyn’s defiantly different left-wing platform was much needed and not in of itself untoward. An idea unpacked in last year’s long-read: Corbyn was truly exceptional as a politician, brazen and real, though not the best, in the end, as party leader. Unfortunately, this is more a reflection on society than the focussed honest man himself. We are not used to seeing uncensored, purely issue-based governance. There is a degree to which a leader must be traditionally strategically aware: show familiar commanding strengths. 

We are not used to seeing uncensored, purely issue-based governance. There is a degree to which a leader must be traditionally strategically aware: show familiar commanding strengths. 

Thus, Starmer must now seriously holistically adapt: responsibly moving Labour forward in consolidation to achieve long-term benevolent change. He must value key leftist vision, honouring equality, providing opportunities and protection for the socially vulnerable across the board and learn from the past. He must further be spirited in the endeavour, coupling the charismatic character of the modern Left with the tactical social awareness of centrism to create a universally relatable Labour: for he faces having to rectify the fallout of a darkly devastating order. If he does not and the party continues to flail, he will inevitably be the victim of his own demise as there will be a natural push within the party back towards the hard-left or call to change leader altogether where Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham and Angela Rayner are all tipped to successfully complete the contemporary job. Khan, for example, had vocalised horror at the way the women’s march was violently cracked down upon following Sarah Everard’s death, calling out the government’s move to curtail progressive protest. Here, my previous piece also discussed the unexpected positive shift away from Trump’s very right-wing Republican party during the US elections in 2020 due to the demonstrable marriage of grass-roots liberalism and formal centrism: a nascent form of an Evolved Left. Biden worked alongside fervent institutional activists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well as showing marked support for significant leftist campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter while maintaining a Mainstream image. In this vein, promoting Angela Rayner – who has been a die-hard trade unionist and outspoken MP as Deputy Leader – was a promising move. She now has a position of strong radical influence also Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Secretary of State for the Future of Work. Unsurprisingly, it was Corbyn who first appointed her to the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, where she presented the concept of a National Education Service akin to the NHS.  However, when Starmer brutally expelled the ‘far left’ following last year’s local elections, it was an upsetting undermining mistake.

The Tory party is currently lapsing into in-fighting with a piece in the Economist summarising: “the Conservative Party is divided down the middle between its traditional supporters in the prosperous shires and its new-found supporters in the industrial North. Shire Tories claim nobody joins the Conservative party because they want to raise taxes and expand the state. But the Brexit earthquake gave the Tories a cohort of working-class voters who are more dependent on the state than its traditional voters. It also gave the party a new agenda – levelling up by providing better opportunities for the left behind, even if that means higher taxes and looser planning laws.” The Conservatives have been the ones to morph along the way, but solely to implement the party’s megalomaniac agenda. Concern for social health is, of course, fake: food shortages, socio-economic turmoil and clearly indifferent crooked leadership prove this. The time is ripe for Labour to rise, demarcating itself as genuine and emotionally invested through powerful resonant policy. They must counteract and transmute fruitless promises with the dynamic truth. This is to heed the big picture in a way that salutes humanistic values. Finally, what timely poetic closure if they could achieve such striking political eclipse.

Featured image CC BY 2.0 Maurice (colorised with a red hue)


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