International politics

It’s the ‘labour’ party, stupid!
New UK Labour leader Keir Starmer’s predicament contains lessons for Australian Labor

UK Labour leader Keir Starmer. Source: Facebook

We should be grateful for small mercies in this plague year. For the British Labour Party, it has arrived as a belated 120th birthday present. Finally, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is at an end, albeit not without causing carnage, as I warned prior to his election as leader in September 2015 and after the 2017 election “triumph” [$].

The Corbynised Labour Party is alienated from the mainstream of British political life. It was humiliated at the 2019 general election, its fourth straight defeat within a decade. It faces an ascendant Tory prime minister in Boris Johnson who skilfully pivoted left on economics, well before COVID-19. “BoJo” attracted life-long Labour voters beyond the so-called red wall. He did so on account of Brexit, but also because they were repelled by Labour’s extremist leader. Corbyn infamously described radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends”, and he cosied up to the theocratic Iranian regime and Vladimir Putin’s Russian gangster state. For many working-class voters, Corbyn and his ultra-left Momentum faction couldn’t organise a fire in a match factory, let alone defend their country or its way of life.

Labour changing leaders won’t necessarily address its deep-seated structural and cultural problems. The party has changed dramatically over the past few decades, for the worse. Consider this: Labour’s last prime minister, Tony Blair, was a middle-class lawyer who led a recognisably working-class party seeking to win over swing seats in Middle England, especially in the south. Blair’s New Labour won three elections in a row – the breakthrough of 1997, followed by the 2001 landslide and a slimmer victory in 2005 on the back of Britain’s backing of the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Blair is the only living Labour leader to have won government from the Tories, and the most successful ever. In the past 50 years, only Blair and Harold Wilson have led the party to victory. Optimistically, Labour will have been out of power for nearly two decades if it gets itself match-fit for an election two cycles away, in 2029.

Now Labour is led again by a middle-class lawyer, Sir Keir Starmer, who defeated Corbyn’s proxy Rebecca Long-Bailey and northern England MP Lisa Nandy in the party’s leadership election. Yet Starmer leads a recognisably middle-class metropolitan party seeking to win over working-class northern England and Midlands seats. The south is a foreign country. Scotland is lost to the nationalist party as, increasingly, is Wales. Labour is a London-centric party, projecting a socially liberal form of cultural elitism disconnected from mainstream British life.

Starmer is, on paper, of impeccable working-class pedigree. His father was a toolmaker, his mother a nurse. They named him after party icon Keir Hardie. He presents as electable: competent, intelligent and articulate, if rather wooden. It is possible to imagine a Prime Minister Starmer. Upon becoming leader, he spoke of working with the government to fight the coronavirus, but not without opposition where it is warranted. He apologised to Britain’s Jewish community for Corbyn’s handling of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. He made “restoring trust” a leitmotiv. Yet the task before Labour’s 19th leader is Sisyphean when compared to what Blair faced.

Starmer’s career trajectory in the context of Labour’s middle-classing may prove problematic. He is a knighted lawyer from North London, an area Corbyn represents, making the now predictable journey from student politics to the law and parliament. In many respects he looks and sounds like a Liberal Democrat or small “l” liberal Tory MP, or their traditional voters. A former director of public prosecutions, he was the leading figure driving Labour’s promise to hold a second Brexit referendum, popular among Labour members, but anathema to much of its working-class heartland.

Starmer faces the challenge of mainstreaming Labour, and the leadership contest proves the point. The contest was engulfed by an irrelevant culture-war sideshow, namely the debate around so-called TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who argue that transgender rights can prove problematic vis-a-vis women and children who were born as and identify as women). That this debate was allowed to take centrestage, by a party that had suffered its greatest defeat since 1935, is unfathomable. Candidates signed pledges promising to expel TERFs as they constituted “trans-exclusionist hate groups”. One candidate argued on national television that babies are born without a sex. Another suggested that a man who rapes a woman and then subsequently self-identifies as a woman should be sent to a women’s prison. Dissenters were called bigots and agents of hate. This debate was irrelevant to the lives and aspirations of many British voters. Structurally, this issue’s prominence reflects Labour’s middle-classing; culturally, too, it projects the image of a post-material progressive party unconcerned with substantive topics like the economy and jobs.

Then there is the question of Momentum and Corbyn, who appears determined to remain as a backbencher and no doubt protect his vainglorious legacy. Corbyn told supporters his “voice will not be stilled. I’ll be out there campaigning for socialism, peace and justice”. Starmer, having won many “soft” Corbynites to his cause, will need to distance himself from this cult, which he has seemingly done by demoting Corbynite figures both inside and outside parliament. This week’s leaking of a bombshell internal report – part of Labour’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is investigating Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations – has again thrown Labour into turmoil. It underlines and will only intensify the hyper-factional warfare between the party’s moderates and pro-Corbyn elements.

British Labour’s predicament contains lessons for Australian Labor – it beggars belief that some senior Laborites downunder supported the Corbyn project. In the manner of Blair, both Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke were middle-class lawyers, notwithstanding the latter’s ockerism. Yet they led recognisably working-class parties. They were credible mainstream leaders who appealed to swing-seat middle Australia.

It’s the “labour” party, stupid! Like its British cousin, Labor has in the eyes of many become associated with the nostrums of liberal progressive thought and toxic identity politics. Labor was once a working-class party that needed to attract middle-class votes to win federal elections; it has become a university-educated, white-collar, securely employed party that needs blue-collar, non-tertiary educated, precariously employed votes to win. It won just 33 per cent of the popular vote at the 2019 election.

Its leaders and potential future leaders have, correctly, sought to remedy this following the May 2019 election defeat. Anthony Albanese speaks of climate change action in economic terms. Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers has urged his party to focus on the economic concerns of suburban and regional Australia. Clare O’Neil has called on the party to push back against political correctness. Importantly, former leader Bill Shorten owned the 2019 result, saying: “It pains me to realise after the election that I’d misread some of the mood in Queensland and Western Australia. There they saw some of our policies as being green-left, not for the worker.”

COVID-19 may render Labor’s soul-searching null and void for the time being. Saving lives, dealing with an economy in deep recession and mass unemployment are policy priorities by default. Yet it shouldn’t blind Laborites to their ongoing task: internal party reform and cultural change. Like British Labour, the ALP is too often culturally disconnected from the suburban and regional people it purports to represent. Too many Labor MPs and activists look and sound the same as their rivals from the Greens.

Labor has shown little appetite for internal reform. It remains a party dominated by inner-city, tertiary-educated activists. There has been no effort to recruit actual working people into its ranks: tradies, small-business owners, hairdressers, electricians, nurses, paramedics, assembly-line workers, train drivers, teachers, miners, cleaners, retail employees or plumbers. Many are on the COVID-19 frontline, or have been left jobless, unable to pay their rent or mortgage, and frightened for their families.

There has been no attempt to reform Young Labor, which draws upwards of 90 per cent of its members from university campuses. There are no efforts to recruit apprentices, TAFE students and young workers who don’t attend university into the Labor fold. In other words, there’s no recruitment aimed at the 72 per cent of Australians who don’t hold tertiary degrees. Perhaps it’s too difficult or too uncomfortable. This is not an academic point. Young Labor sets the culture for the future party and its MPs.

We are living through a turning point in history: the end of Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, the end of hyper-globalised free markets, and the end of endless mobility of labour and capital. The liberal progressive, capitalist hegemony, which both labour parties largely ignored or merely tinkered with, is over. National sovereignty and sovereign capability will be our new watchwords. Geopolitics enters a new phase that demands Australia negotiates a riskier, multipolar world.

In Britain and Australia, Labo(u)r’s refashioning as “progressive” cut it adrift from the majority of the working class and poor it was established to serve. Yet history has come roaring back in 2020 and culture has been shown to trump policies or slick electioneering. The task for both Labour and Labor is to invite working people back in their full diversity, having no regard for gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion. If either party is to have anything meaningful to say in these troubling times or during the post-COVID reconstruction phase – on job creation and security, wages, debt reduction and more besides – they’d better be extending those invitations pronto.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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