Keir Starmer’s failures as Labour leader have been much of his own making. Expending precious political capital removing the whip from Corbyn, suspending hundreds of members who issued motions in support of the ex-Labour leader and glibly repeating the slogan “under new management” until blue in the face has left a policy and vision vacuum that has pushed the party backwards.
Why then, when a Labour Party that is led from the right does poorly in a set of elections, is it the fault of “hard left factions attached to trade unions”? Ask Peter Mandelson. In a set of interviews in the wake of Labour’s dire council election results, the Blairite spin doctor has sought to put his own curious twist on proceedings. For Mandelson, last Thursday’s failure is only evidence that the Labour leadership’s crackdown on the socialist left hasn’t gone far enough. You know that strategy you’re trying out that is demonstrably failing? Do that but with even more vigour, he demands.
By now, it’s almost become a reflex for Labour right politicians. Just this morning in an ITV interview, Tony Blair sternly warned Starmer to distance himself from the “far-left agenda”. Lose more than 300 Labour councillors while offering no transformative vision of what the party could do in local government? Blame the left. Get thrashed in a Hartlepool seat that Corbyn had won in 2017 and 2019? Blame the left. Can’t find your car keys? Blame the left. It’s pathological.
The ironic thing about it all is that the charge that Mandelson and the Labour right often direct towards socialists in the Labour Party is that we need to “face out to the country”, and stop playing to a narrow sect within the party. But it’s pure projection.
When faced with an election defeat that they have authored, their reflex is to immediately attack left-wing Labour members and strengthen their own position within the party, as if that’s what voters were clamouring for, rather than, you know, facing out to the country and actually providing a compelling vision for the future.
What would it look like for the party to truly face the electorate? Well let’s look at the polling on policy in Hartlepool – a seat Labour must win back at the next election. According to a Survation poll conducted in early April, 69 per cent of voters in the area support universal broadband by 2030, 59 per cent want Royal Mail returned into public hands and 67 per cent want to prioritise investment in public services. The country that Mandelson loves to ventriloquise wants nothing to do with a failed Thatcherite economic model that he championed back in the 1990s, and now offers no alternative to.
Meanwhile, there are Labour administrations around the country showing what a modern, socialist Labour Party can achieve. In Preston, council leader Matthew Brown’s revolutionary approach to local government – insourcing, support for cooperatives, living wage for council workers – has led to the Labour council bucking the national trend and holding all of their 30 seats. In Salford, mayor Paul Dennett is kickstarting the biggest council house-building programme seen in the city since the 1960s, investing in local infrastructure and bringing thousands of jobs to the city. The local authority has been named the greenest council in the North West. In Thursday’s election, the Salford Labour council increased its vote share, even picking up seats from the Tories. And just down the road in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham won on an increased vote share promising to bring back the buses into municipal ownership.
What these results show is that offering a vision of a better society built on strong socialist principles can win elections. With a by-election in Batley and Spen looming, the leadership needs to change course as a matter of urgency. To see the kind of swing that will show us the party stands a chance of winning in 2024, Starmer must ignore the has-been Labour grandees and learn the lessons from last Thursday. Attacking the party left is a path to electoral oblivion; bold and exciting policy offers are popular and win you votes.
Callum Bell is a vice-chair of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group
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