It is hard to tell who was more upset by Labour’s breakthrough result in Wakefield: those circling the wagons around the soon-to-be-ex Prime Minister? Or the self-styled Labour ‘left’? Given their vituperation once the news of Simon Lightwood’s victory came in, I would say the latter.
I won’t give them the oxygen of publicity, but the general line was this – turnout was low, the share of vote was down, and of course the old favourite Labour did better in 2017 under ‘Jeremy.’ One of them tweeted ‘Mr Starmer is a dud’ as Labour celebrated a 12% swing from the Tories. Another said it was a ‘kick in the teeth’ for working people, as Labour returned another MP to Parliament.
The entire orientation of the ‘left’ is now to tear down Keir Starmer. They have little else to say or do. Their heyday, punctuated by glorious defeats in 2017 and 2019, seems like a long time ago. Once they fixated on ‘Jeremy’ as saviour, now all that psychic energy has turned on enthusiastic hatred of his successor.
Take a new book by Oliver Eagleton called ‘The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right.’ It’s an unoriginal tale of paranoia, betrayal, enemies within, and the reversal of the ‘gains’ of the Corbyn era.
It’s a bad book. But there are two interesting aspects. One is Eagleton’s clear statement, should any have doubted it, that
‘Corbyn’s support came from disparate sections of the extra-parliamentary left – anti-imperialists, environmentalists, alter-globo activists, veterans of the student movement, anti-cuts campaigners, Trotskyists and Communists.’
Not Labour members, then, but alter-globo activists, Trots and Commies who paid their three quid and put Corbyn in charge. So, let’s never do that again, shall we?
Eagleton sees this lefty melange as the seeds of ‘resistance to the Starmer-Johnson Roadshow’ led by activists ‘no longer concerned with the immediate task of winning an electoral majority’. Observers of the Corbyn leadership might contest the use of ‘no longer.’ Defeats in local elections, European elections, the referendum, and two general elections might suggest the ‘task of winning’ was never very high on the to-do list.
But the message is clear – the ‘left’ will never retake control of the Labour Party, and so it is pointless trying. The likes of Jon Trickett and Richard Burgon aren’t going to do it. A better plan is to leave Labour, and work through trade unions and protest groups. Yep, sounds good. Cheerio.
The second interesting thing about Eagleton’s book are the revelations about the true architect of Corbynism’s failure – Keir Starmer. Wait, not Keir Starmer. John McDonnell. Yes, the avuncular old silver fox himself. There was a snivelling traitor in the midst of Camp Corbyn, like Emmanuel Goldstein, secretly plotting with the Leader’s enemies. Unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the hate lasts more than two minutes.
John McDonnell is accused of multifarious crimes against ‘Jeremy’. He became the self-appointed emissary to the ‘Labour Right’, spending hours at the feet of Alastair Campbell. He brought in a ‘raft of centrist aides’ into the leadership offices. He plotted with Starmer to save David Evans from a ‘member-led initiative’ to sack him. He cornered poor old Corbyn in his office for hours, wearing down his lifelong support for the UK leaving the EU, and even ‘ambushing’ him on his allotment at the weekends.
Eagleton makes the extremely serious accusation that McDonnell was responsible for briefing the media against two of Corbyn’s top aides Seamas Milne and Karie Murphy. I trust the Verso lawyers took a look at that passage before publication. McDonnell is even responsible for bringing Starmer into his front-rank role, making a ‘forceful argument for handing him a senior position’ against everyone else who was opposed to the idea.
Eagleton peppers his take-down with our old friend using ‘anonymous sources’. These nameless individuals claim that McDonnell was ‘the worst strategist I have ever seen’ and ‘he has a tendency to panic’. McDonnell is ‘famously unreliable in times of crisis’ with ‘a reputation for making knee-jerk decisions.’
This charge-sheet adds up to what Eagleton calls McDonnell’s willingness to ‘divide the Left, demoralise the leadership and empower the ghosts of New Labour’. According to Eagleton ‘he was convinced his strategic nous was superior to Corbyn’s’. Although on this last point, there are aphids on Corbyn’s courgettes whose ‘strategic nous’ is probably superior.
Entertaining though it is, Oliver Eagleton’s animus towards John McDonnell reveals a deeper truth. After 2015, Maoists, Militants, Tankies, Trots, weekend bolsheviks selling papers outside Sainsbury’s, folks glueing themselves to motorways, grizzled Bennites, fresh-faced students, union leaders and lost souls, all found shelter under Magic Grandpa’s big umbrella. His presence somehow transcended every schism, split, and sectarian squabble since Kronstadt. The purges, the secret speech, the ice-pick – it was as though none of it had happened.
With him gone, normal hostilities on the left have resumed. On every strategic point (aside from their hostility to Starmer), they are divided. For example, the internal elections for the ever-shrinking ‘Momentum’ organisation are descending into comedic farce. New slates have been formed, each more focused on beating each other than beating the capitalists. Forward Momentum has rebranded as Your Momentum. Momentum Renewal has become Momentum Organisers. And oh boy, do they hate each other.
Workers’ Liberty, a small Trotskyist party proscribed by Labour, delights in ‘the defeat of the conservative, anti-democratic, Stalinist-nationalist and viciously sectarian Momentum Renewal initiative’. Momentum Organisers say they offer ‘a laser-focus on the key objective: defending and, where possible, advancing the left’s place in the Party and beyond’ (i.e. winning seats on the NEC and National Policy Forum). Yet Momentum could not even field a full slate for the NPF in this year’s elections. ‘Momentum’ is the most misnamed left-wing group since the ‘Socialist’ ‘Workers’ ‘Party.’
Back to Wakefield. What the by-elections in Yorkshire and Devon tell us is that whatever allure Boris Johnson once had with the voters, it has evaporated. The populist right is collapsing. The Leninist left is sterile and divided, quelle surprise. What remains is an opening for a radical centre-left Labour Party, winning over disaffected Tory voters and tactical-voting Nationalists, Greens and Lib Dems, and dominating the centre-ground of politics where most of us live.
Last month’s Paul on Politics discussed the need for a written constitution, as well as the future of the Monarchy. Read it here.