As Soviet communism fell in 1989, the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote a defence of the art of possible that deserves to endure. Terrible regimes aren’t always toppled by romantic revolutionaries, who reject everything they stand for, he wrote in The Heroes of the Retreat.
‘In the past few decades, a more significant protagonist has stepped forward: a hero of a new kind, representing not victory, conquest and triumph, but renunciation, reduction and dismantling.’ Only insiders, who are complicit in the regime’s crimes, have the access to power needed to destroy them. Only they had enough credibility with enough of the regime’s supporters to limit resistance from the old guard.
Keir Starmer looks as if he will be Labour’s hero of retreat. If Labour members had the moral capacity to accept the shame that is theirs, Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy would be far ahead in the leadership contest, and Starmer wouldn’t stand a chance. But like others who boast of their righteousness, shame is not an emotion many Labour members have time for. They cannot accept that they twice voted for a regime that institutionalised racism at the highest levels of the party, handed the Conservatives at least five more years in power, failed to fight for Britain’s membership of the European Union, and reduced policy making to a series of infantile stunts and screeching insults.
Starmer is pulling them back from Corbynism so gently they barely notice they are moving. He is holding their hands, flattering and comforting them as he leads them out of a hell of their own making. He says they and Corbyn did nothing wrong. ‘The fundamental shift in our policy from 2015 to 2017 and then to 2019 to a more radical politics was the right fundamental policy,’ he said at the start of his campaign. ‘I am very concerned that, as we move forward, we don’t either trash the last Labour government or trash the last four years.’
He is against racism, of course he is. But unlike Phillips, who did not serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, or Nandy, who resigned on principle, he cannot say so plainly. At the first Labour leadership hustings, Nandy condemned ‘the collective failure of leadership at the top of this party’ which ‘gave a green light to antisemites’. Phillips said, with justice, that she had fought antisemitism ‘when others were keeping quiet’. Starmer could only mumble his excuses because he was a part of the ‘collective leadership’, and if he ever broke his ‘silence’, no one outside the shadow cabinet heard him.
What is a moral failure to outsiders is a source of strength inside the party. The far left does not know what to do with Starmer. I expected it would arrange the contest so that Rebecca Long-Bailey was the favourite, and its outriders and propagandists would destroy anyone who challenged her. As it has turned out, the far left is smearing itself. A significant section is refusing to come to terms with its prejudices, and is damning Long-Bailey for agreeing to accept pledges to combat antisemitism. Unite was searching for an alternative leader, and is clearly unhappy with her. The factionalism is so deep that much of the far left has given up on the leadership and is concentrating its efforts on ensuring Richard Burgon becomes deputy leader. And any movement that places its hopes in Richard Burgon is so deep in the dustbin of history it is composting.
Starmer is proving an impossible candidate for the far left to attack. It can’t resort to its usual tactics and call him a ‘traitor’. How can he be when he served Corbyn? It has tried to pretend Corbyn’s unpopularity and his preposterous manifesto never existed, and made a stab at blaming Labour’s epic defeat on Starmer’s ability to persuade Corbyn to support a second referendum on EU membership. The line doesn’t work because it concedes their great leader was a weak and easy to manipulate fool. In any case, the majority of Labour members think Brexit is a disaster, and will not blame Starmer for opposing it.
Labour members who voted for Corbyn can slip over to Starmer because he has shown he is one of them. His perfectly pitched campaign videos tell how he provided legal representation to striking print workers at Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping plant in 1986, striking sailors in the P&O dispute of 1989, poll tax rioters in 1990, sacked miners in 1992, greens who wanted to stop the widening of the M3 at Twyford Down in 1991, and Greenpeace activists who occupied the Brent Spa oil storage bay in 1995. He defended Helen Steel and David Morris as McDonald’s sued them for libel in a grotesque abuse of the civil law. In the 2000s, he recounts how he defended the Menwith Hill protesters, and published legal opinions against the Iraq War and in defence of asylum seekers.
Outsiders won’t have heard of half his causes – Menwith Hill, anyone? Younger readers will not even have been born in time for most of them. But to Labour members, with an average age of 53, Starmer can play back the greatest hits of the struggles of their youth like a disc jockey at a birthday party.
He has not said as much, but everything about Starmer’s campaign suggests that he wants to avoid recriminations. When Franco fell in Spain, the Colonels in Greece, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and Apartheid in South Africa, there were no mass purges or trials of the guilty men and women. Too many people were implicated. The effort of bringing all but the worst collaborators to justice would have derailed the building of new societies. Millions of Labour voters, hundreds of thousands of Labour members, and thousands of Labour politicians and officials collaborated with Corbynism. I cannot see Starmer wanting to take them on and miring the Labour party in years of infighting, Not least because he collaborated himself.
Enzensberger’s point was that collaborators can bring about change. ‘It was Clausewitz, that classic strategic thinker, who showed that retreat is the most difficult of all military operations,’ he wrote. Often only horribly compromised politicians ‘who belonged to [the] innermost circle of power’ were in a position to order the end of unconscionable regimes. In their grubby way, they were heroic. They might have kept their world as it was but decided instead to change it.
Starmer is a compromised man. But if he can return Labour to a position where it can become the effective opposition the country needs, there will be a touch of the heroic about him.