Steven Fielding

Starmer could regret breaking with Corbyn’s grassroots politics

Starmer could regret breaking with Corbyn's grassroots politics
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Labour’s recovery under Keir Starmer has, for the moment, stalled. Most surveys suggest voters are less inclined than they once were to see him as ‘prime ministerial’ and his party as ready for government.

It is too early to say if this is due to the pandemic looking like it is finally under Conservative ministers’ control or to inherent problems with Starmer’s own pitch to the public. But it confirms that after Labour’s appalling 2019 general election result, if Starmer ever ends up in Number 10 it’ll be close to an electoral miracle.

During his first year as leader Starmer has tried to find ways of winning back voters who have gradually abandoned Labour for over a decade. These are, according to the insightful authors of Brexitland, ‘identity conservatives’, voters who are disproportionately white, mature, male and with a basic education. This explains Starmer’s acceptance of Brexit and his embrace of patriotism and other culturally conservative tropes. His calculation has been that Labour will retain its support amongst ‘identity liberals’ – mostly found amongst the young, the metropolitan middle class and ethnic minorities – because politically they have nowhere else to go. 

But ultimately Starmer has been quietly – perhaps too quietly – crafting an appeal he hopes will win over both groups, one defined by an interventionist state committed to reducing inequality. The Hartlepool by-election will be a significant test of this strategy.

Starmer’s ‘patriotic turn’ was partly in reaction to the harm Jeremy Corbyn’s radical internationalism did to Labour amongst identity conservatives and which significantly contributed to Boris Johnson’s 80 seat Commons majority. But Starmer has also changed the party’s direction in another way, one less noticed by commentators whose vision remains exclusively fixed on Westminster.

Until Corbyn, Labour was led by those who believed that, as the future Cabinet minister Douglas Jay famously put it in 1937, in most respects ‘the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves’. 

Corbyn promised to change all that by turning Labour from a top-down politics towards local communities so as to transform the party into a social movement. His rhetoric obscured a familiar centralising focus and legitimised a power grab by a small number of activists at the expense of MPs and councillors not known for their enthusiasm for Corbynism. But some on the far left genuinely hoped for a new kind of grassroots politics that would radically reengineer how ordinary people engaged with politics. However, despite the creation of a community organising unit in 2018, words did not give birth to many deeds: some suspected the unit was merely a platform to promote Corbyn’s faction within the party.

Starmer has closed down the unit and rejected other Corbyn-era initiatives which had similar ostensible ends. Instead, he has returned Labour to its more traditional parliamentary emphasis. He should however be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For interest in community politics has never been the exclusive preserve of a self-interested far left. 

When he was leader, Ed Miliband saw it as a possible means of reconnecting Labour with the very people Starmer is today endeavouring to re-establish a connection. He brought over the leading American community organiser Arnie Graf to test how the party might benefit from this approach to politics. There is some evidence Graf’s short time working in Lancashire made a positive impact, but the initiative was closed down by those in the party machine who saw it as a waste of precious time and scarce resources. Yet as the Democrats’ recent success in Georgia suggests, grass-roots community organising, when done properly and given time, can pay electoral dividends for a centre-left party.

This is very much the argument made by Marc Stears, an academic who became Miliband’s senior advisor and chief speechwriter. His new book Out of the Ordinary uncovers a hidden tradition in British politics, one of local attachments and civic pride, which he pieces together from the writings of George Orwell, J.B Priestley, D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, figures who placed as Stears puts it, ‘humble, everyday humanity’ at the centre of their optimistic understanding of a politics of a patriotic and progressive left. Orwell et al. are all figures from the past, whose influence peaked during the 1940s. But Stears believes they give hope Britons can escape the current culture war which pits a conservative ‘Us’ against a liberal ‘Them’ and he cites various contemporary local initiatives to back up his belief.

This is an optimistic – some might say an overly-optimistic – view of politics but it makes a refreshing change from the dark pessimism currently surrounding Labour. Stears and Starmer share a common aim, to unite a diverse Britain behind a progressive agenda, but their means are somewhat at odds. Even advocates of communitarian politics see it as needing a generation to take root, a timeframe a party leader cannot accept. But given Labour has failed to win an election in over 15 years, Starmer could do worse than read Stears’ book and take heed of its implications: given the Labour leader’s present predicament, every little helps.

Written bySteven Fielding

Steven Fielding is professor of political history at the University of Nottingham and is writing ‘The Labour Party: from Callaghan to Starmer’ for Polity Press.

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