|He used the “S” word in 2020 when it served his leadership ambitions and now in 2022 he jettisons it in order to serve his prime ministerial ambitions. Starmer’s selective use of the ‘S’ word makes clear that it is a personal ambition to become prime minister rather than any commitment to socialism that explains his actions.
He’s not a socialist. All that he has done since becoming leader of the opposition suggests that his political instincts are liberal and if he felt that the Liberal Democrats had any chance of forming a government he would have joined them rather than Labour.
Starmer poses a real issue for Labour. Someone who aspires to lead the party is not to be judged on the basis of whether he uses the “S” word or not. He has shown that it’s possible for someone to use that word in one context and deny it in another.
It’s up to the party to define what it wants from power and in many ways what Starmer asked in the interview was right. What is socialism? Is it a set of abstract principles or a programme of sensible practical policies that are based on a genuine intent to serve the interests of the working class?
If Starmer meant that a socialist party should develop and pursue a programme of practical policies that favoured the interests of working people and demonstrated that he was prepared to support and develop such a programme, he would not be a problem for the Labour Party. The trouble is that there is little evidence that this is what drives him.
However, the left wing in the party membership also bear some responsibility for this state of affairs. It’s far too easy for the party membership to give the thumbs up or the thumbs down to a leader purely on the basis of who can use the “S” word. But what would using it actually mean when used by someone like Starmer? For too long and for too many it’s simply a symbol that avoids the difficult task of actually formulating practical policies that serve the working class. It’s because so many on the Labour left continue to avoid the difficult task of attending to working class interests and engaging with policy in detail that they are incapable of providing the real debates that are necessary. Where were they on Brexit? This was largely treated as a question of whether or not one was ‘pro-European’ without a careful look at the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership. Where are they on immigration? This is an issue that arouses strong emotions, but also requires a degree of dispassionate analysis and a proper engagement with the reality of working class experience in their neighbourhoods, workplaces and in the labour market. On the whole, the left has ignored that experience and instead has chosen to form policy on the basis of some abstract principles about human rights.
Instead of acknowledging any substance to issues that concern the working class the left has created a comfort zone where abstract principles are more in keeping with its thought processes with the result that more energy and effort is invested in pursuit of identity politics than in the formulation of practical policies that have a real bearing in the day-it-day life of working people. As Sahra Wagenknecht put it when writing about the German left, there is a tendency to live in a bubble of like-minded people without considering that other people who work for their living in different and often more difficult circumstances might have a different but equally valid point of view.
To the left the crude working class can never reach the heights of sensitivityso often found among the advocates of policies like transgender rights and so, rather than pay any attention to issues that concern the working class they prefer to get incensed at the more apparent than real subjugation surrounding each and every kind of identity issue. Working people are not stupid and if they see that those claiming to represent them actually think that they are backward and prejudiced they will vote for someone else.
In the meantime people like Starmer can get away with threadbare policies on social care, no policies on energy (nationalisation seems off the agenda), no policies on transport (ditto), no policies on youth education and training, no policies on housing, etc., etc. By ‘policies’ we mean proposals worked out in detail and shared with those who will be affected by them. Labour is capable of coming up with plenty of fine slogans about these issues, but when detail and acknowledgement of difficulties is required they are wanting.
Labour Affairs would much prefer a Labour leader who had actual detailed and worked out policies that promoted the working class interest on these issues than a leader who wore a red tie, sang the Red Flag and had a tattoo of the words “SOCIALIST” on his arm but was for all practical purposes a liberal.