The most right-wing British government in generations is being backed by the leadership of the Labour Party

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer

By Mark Buckley

All the Labour leaders since the end of World War II have attempted to position themselves to the left of the Conservatives, even when their own political project was essentially reactionary.  However, for the most right-wing Conservative government in decades the current leadership of the Labour Party simply offers its whole-hearted support. 

The Starmer leadership’s only criticisms of the government are from the right, as when Starmer demanded a ‘no ifs no buts’ return to schools despite the scientific advice they remain closed, or more recently when the response to the Budget was not to criticise another public sector pay freeze or tax increases on workers, but to complain about the shrinking size of the army. 

On three measures, by historical comparison, and relative to the government it should be opposing, and the the depth of the crises it is responding to, this is the worst Labour leadership of the modern era. 

The Starmer group heading the Labour Party represents a thorough political degeneration of the Labour leadership.  There is barely a trace of even the mildest social democracy in its political outlook.  Instead it appears to be an unpalatable cocktail of Blue Labour social policies and Blairite neoliberalism, as Peter Mandelson long ago threatened.

A new Conservative Party

The apparent continuity of name and brand of the current Tory Party is misleading.  It represents a merger of the old Tory Party with the overtly racist UKIP/Brexit Party formation that first emerged as an electoral force in the European elections in 2014. 

It is an openly nationalist-reactionary party more in the image of Enoch Powell that any of its predecessors. It was brought about by Donald Trump who publicly campaigned to oust May from the Tory leadership, to get Johnson in and to get Farage to stand aside, arguing that it was necessary to stop Jeremy Corbyn ‘who would be very bad for Britain’.  Trump meant of course that Corbyn would be bad for US imperialism.

This new Tory party pursues overtly racist polices with great fanfare while rejecting any criticism that it is racist, just as Powell himself did.  It is at pains to publicise how badly it treats refugees. It has increased stop and search mainly aimed at Black and Asian young despite the Home Office’s own evidence showing it is counterproductive.  The same point applies to the Prevent programme, which, like the Prevention of Terrorism Act before it, is designed to intimidate a whole ethnic or religious minority in this county, this time targeting Muslims.

It also pursues a stricter immigration policy even while accepting that it will damage public services and wider prosperity.  It is also attempting to suppress votes with the intention that this will curb the rights of poorer communities, workers, Black and Asian people, all in mainly Labour areas. Discrimination in every area of society is rampant and unchecked. 

In addition, the government is increasingly authoritarian.  The brutality of domestic policing has come to the fore at both Clapham Common and in Bristol.  In both cases, the police have been under ministerial instruction to stamp their authority on society, stamping on heads to prove it. 

This is even before the passage of the latest Police Bill, widely known on social media as the #policeclampdownbill, which is intended to make this style of policing the norm. Two other Bills have already passed which are actually more draconian, the Overseas Operations Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, otherwise known as the #spycopsBill.  In both cases they allow members of the armed forces and the police respectively to commit the most serious crimes, including torture, rape and murder with legal immunity. 

Neither of these two Bills were opposed by the Labour leadership, or by many Labour MPs, with honourable exceptions.  The latest policing bill is clearly only now being opposed by the leadership because of the furore over the policing at the Sarah Everard vigil.

Labour ‘Opposition’ is to its own left

The worst Labour Prime Minister of the modern era was Tony Blair and the Iraq War will forever be his lasting memorial.  But even Blair in Opposition gave the impression of opposing the Tory government, criticising it for incompetence and corruption, as well as limited criticisms of the run-down in some public services.

Despite 150,000 dead in the pandemic, 1.4 million people made unemployed in the last twelve months and the widespread looting of public funds by the Tory Party and its donors and friends, Starmer is silent on all of these issues. 

Or, to use another more current comparison, Biden at least gave the impression that he would do things very differently to Trump, especially on domestic policy.  But, in response to Britain’s own Trump, we only have the equivalent of a Mike Pence, someone happy to be out of the spotlight repeating the mantra that ‘now is not the time’ to offer criticism.

Yet Starmer is not as good as his word. He does criticise the government, but from the political right.  The ‘no ifs, no buts’ campaign to reopen the schools, and the sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey when she disagreed were designed to show Starmer’s loyalty to business interests over public health.  The campaign opposing the shrinking of the army is designed to do the same in relation to his loyalty to British imperialism.

Starmer’s practical role is primarily as a hammer of the Labour left. The objective is crush Corbynism and the most outrageous attack has been the suspension of the former leader on trumped-up charges, and Starmer admits that this was his initiative. Local Labour Parties (CLPs) have been barred from discussing the attacks on the left, and if they even discuss such matters as ‘solidarity’ with Corbyn, local party officers have been suspended from the party. In addition to the 70 plus local party officers suspended for permitting such discussions, hundreds of other activists have been suspended on other charges. Some activists are just being automatically expelled on the basis of false claims that they support another party and not Labour.

These tactics are blatantly aimed at decapitating the Cobynista current and have clearly intimidated many others from criticising the leadership.  There is barely any public campaigning for Corbyn’s reinstatement to the PLP.  The suspension has since been followed by the undemocratic ‘long list of one’ in Hartlepool and the blocking of all the legitimate candidates for the Liverpool mayor selection contest with their replacement by yet another appointment.  It has not always been the case that Socialist Action agrees with Derek Hatton.  But he is completely right to say that the Tory takeover of Liverpool city council is even more undemocratic than Thatcher’s banning of 47 Liverpool councillors in the 1980s, because at least then there were by-elections and democratically elected replacements.  Now there are only government-appointed commissioners.  But even this measure is one that Starmer supports.

None of this is helping to rebuild Labour support. Labour polling is in a downtrend ( see below) and the latest YouGov poll puts it at 32%, below the level of 2019 general election. But the policy is not designed to be electorally popular.  Instead, the purpose is to prove Starmer’s credentials as a safe instrument of the ruling class in government.

Britain Voting Intention for next General Election – October 2020 to March 2021

Re-treading this Blairite path to power is unlikely to prove successful.  While the ruling class has no antipathy towards Starmer, it also has no need of him.  The Tories have a huge majority of 80 seats and, despite a disastrous record in government have not lost credibility with the public, largely thanks to the support of both the media and of Starmer himself.  As a result, it will take some huge political upheaval for Labour’s fortunes under Starmer to reverse.  Barring some unforeseeable cataclysm, and one which Starmer pinned on the government, his project seems doomed to fail electorally.

Getting away with murder

The term ‘social murder’ was first coined by Engels in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ and has since been revived by left and Marxist sociologists, economists and campaigners, specifically in relation to the death toll arising in the countries that implemented austerity 10 years ago. 

Engels wrote, “when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live….[and] knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains”.

Naturally, this is a perfect description of the policies of the Western imperialist government in response to the pandemic.  Among these criminals, the British government is the worst as measured by the per capita death toll.

In addition, ten times the number of dead have been made unemployed in the last 12 months. Half of the workforce has seen its pay cut in real terms.  Currently, British Gas workers are engaged in a struggle which has huge consequences for the entire working class, as the employer threatens to fire the workers unless they accept swingeing cuts in pay and terms.  Throughout the crisis, Black and Asian people have suffered hugely disproportionately, women have been forced to take on enormous domestic burdens and people with disabilities have been treated as entirely expendable.

It is these crimes, and this huge offensive against the working class and oppressed that Starmer has supported.

That Starmer himself has faced almost no serious opposition from within the labour movement is also very telling.  There has been a string of defeats in the recent period as the political landscape has been reshaped around the overly racist-nationalist Tory Party.  These include Labour’s defeat in 2019, losing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the imposition of a Hard Brexit and adoption of Starmer as leader. 

The pandemic has also been used as an opportunity to launch a huge attack on the workers and oppressed after those defeats.  The purge inside the Labour Party is designed to remove the political resistance to that attack.

All political forces are affected by those defeats and to some extent are a product of them, including Johnson and Starmer.  The trade union leadership, like the vast majority of Labour MPs have quietly acquiesced in the offensive, mostly having no desire to confront the Starmer leadership.  Preaching the Tory slogan of ‘build back better’ has become an alternative to accepting there is an immediate and enormous ruling class offensive, one which has already scored important victories.

Naturally, socialists are not immune from these defeats too. But, as the attacks on the working class and the oppressed will not cease, neither can the struggle against those attacks. 

Equally, the struggle for socialism is always and everywhere an international one.  Internationally, the situation is very different with setbacks and defeats in the Western imperialist countries taking place at the same time as successful defences and even advances in the non-imperialist world.  This can be seen in resurgence of the left in Latin America, the growing weight of China, the emerging strategic alliances with countries refusing to become subservient to the US, such as Iran and Russia, and in other trends.

The task for socialists is first to face reality and call things by their right name.  There are exceptionally right-wing leaderships of the Tory party and of a Labour Party that supports it on all serious questions.  Opposition to the Labour leadership line is minimal, and members are being cowed into submission or expelled.

However, in the period ahead it is also inevitable that resistance to this offensive will take place.  The aim must be to link those outbreaks and the leaders they throw up, however sporadic or partial, to the wider global struggle for socialism.