It may be an odd headline for an anarchist to write about a Labour leader, but hear me out.
There’s been a couple of incidents in the last few days which have left people using the dread word to refer to the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
In the first instance there is his sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey for retweeting an Independent interview of Maxine Peake, in which she briefly linked Israeli training of US police officers to the death of George Floyd. The second involves his perfunctory dismissal of the idea of defunding the police, following on from his risible after-the-facts agreement that Edward Colston’s statue should come down, just “not like that.”
Both of these are of course examples of a man with his eye on serving the media’s views, and perhaps his most influential allies, rather than principle or loyalty to the cause. But calling this a sellout, or listing it as evidence of him being shiftily right biased, is a misplaced perspective on Starmer, how institutional politics works, and the true nature of electoralism.
It is of course easy to see why some people are surprised or upset by the tone of Starmer as leader, because while he and his ilk are not a new phenomenon they are a different one to what went before (though it’s worth remembering even lovely fluffy Corbs wanted 10,000 more cops on the streets and was not entirely above dropping a problematic peon or two like a sack of potatoes when required).
But this is what electoral politics does. This direction of travel and the man leading it is the vaunted Practical Option in action, the one that vast numbers of people signed up in 2015 to because they couldn’t envisage the Impractical Option ever getting anywhere. Exciting though that moment may have been to many, Corbyn was a (semi) exception rather than the rule, and he was relentlessly punished for it. He lost because of it. And the strategy Starmer is now using to remedy it sits directly within the utilitarian logic of electoralism and institutional discipline.
Man for the job
Born into a solidly working class household, Starmer was at one point a lawyer of some activist distinction (he aided Helen Steel and Dave Morris in the McLibel case and was known as a helpful presence to protesters) before beginning his long march through the institutions in the 2000s. So in this sense alone, perhaps, the term “sellout” might have some merit. But it’s been a very long time since Sir Keir, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB, or “Kindly Call me Boss” if you will), was anything close to grassroots.
He’s been an MP since 2014 having taken the classic lawyer/senior lawyer/politician route, one which has seen his outlook moulded by institutional life and a high-end income for more than three decades. He’s not a class warrior, he’s been a man of the system for longer than many activists (and certainly many Corbynites) have been alive. His attitudes and strategies are shaped by that experience.
And as much as the rest of the pack who ran for leadership when Corbyn stepped down, his experiences mean “just call me Keir” knows what the game of party politics involves. In fact that very knowledge is what won him his spot. He was the only one of the old centrist crew smart enough to keep his head down and drift with the prevailing left winds in 2015-19, and was rewarded with a prime placement when those winds shifted in December of last year.
He knew that if Corbyn won then he’d be in with a ministerial post, and if the old leftie lost the logic of electoralism would see him placed as the only plausible candidate. Because electoral logic is stark. Under its writ, to change anything you must be in power. To be in power you must win an election. If you can’t win from the left you are fundamentally little more than a placard waver with a media platform. Therefore the most plausible option for the institution, the only way to change anything, in the wake of a left defeat is to build a voter coalition which incorporates people from the right.
And that is what he’s doing. It’s not a sellout, it’s Starmer doing his job using the tools and strategies he believes will win an election. The left can cry foul all it wants, it can call him a hypocrite for promising to heal Labour and then firing the most prominent leftist in his shadow cabinet, it can call him a sellout for decrying statue slapdowns, it can pour scorn on his support of the police, but all of these decisions are perfectly sensible electoral calculations. The left has nowhere to go but non-voting, while the right must be persuaded to switch allegiances to build that coalition. In practice you can’t assume power without stepping on at least some of those despised by power.
Bargain = basement
This is the Faustian pact you make when you set yourself on the electoral path. You cannot suborn the power of nation-state and capital using their own machine, it is not possible to win a game as brutal as parliamentary democracy without sacrificing friends and inviting unsavoury people into your home. This has been the path trodden by generations of electoralists, each beginning with hope that they can change the system for the better, failing, compromising, failing, compromising, and then, all in the cause of that better system, putting a Blair or a Clinton to the front of the room.
For those of you experiencing this for the first time, the disappointment and despair, take it as a lesson. You have not as yet wasted your weeks and months of activity. You have learned valuable skills and made contact with like-minded people.
But now is the moment to take stock, and make a decision. Do you want to crawl further into that rabbit hole, finding yourself years down the line arguing for an unprincipled leader and policies barely worth the asking, for the sake of having a purple tie at PMQs? Or do you want to get to work on the one thing that can change the logic of electoralism – the building of working class power and unity to counter ruling class money and cruelty?
Class struggle is not limited to the ballot box, or to the lawyer-knight’s coat tails, it’s yours to make real.