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Editorial Corbyn’s successes, not his failures, haunt Keir Starmer

Three months since he removed the whip from his predecessor, the shine is coming off the ‘new leadership’

THREE months have passed since Sir Keir Starmer withdrew the Labour whip from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

Two Jewish members of Corbyn’s own constituency party have marked the occasion by writing directly to Starmer demanding it be immediately restored. And Corbyn is far from the only Labour member to be targeted by the new leadership.

The growing Tory lead over Labour has provoked talk — probably unrealistic — of a leadership challenge, hints of an impending policy blitz and demands for a change of direction even from Starmer allies.

A withering assessment by Tom Kibasi, who worked on Starmer’s leadership campaign, savages a strategy of going easy on the Conservatives while provoking an “unnecessary war on the left” that has alienated a party membership that overwhelmingly picked him to lead it.

Kibasi’s logic is impeccable, but he takes too much for granted — firstly in taking Starmer’s election as proof that Labour members saw Corbynism as “a political project that had hit the buffers,” and secondly in assuming the war on the Labour left is designed to win back voters.

After Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton for the US presidency in 2016, left-wing Democrats quipped: “Don’t tell them Bernie would have won. They know. That’s why they stopped him.”

Similarly, it is not 2019, when Labour led by Corbyn crashed and burned, but 2017, when Labour led by Corbyn bagged its biggest vote share increase in seven decades, that haunts the Labour right.

When 2017 is mentioned at all, it is treated as a strange anomaly.

But understanding this anomalous election is of critical importance — because it explodes the “electability” myth that has so often helped the right to dominate the Labour Party and demand “realism” (lack of radicalism) from the trade unions.

Starmer wasn’t elected to drop the Corbyn project — the leadership candidate who defined herself against Corbyn, Lisa Nandy, came last.

Starmer made 10 now infamous pledges which appeared to commit him to most of the political content of a Corbyn project that retained the enthusiasm of Labour’s mass membership.

That is why, in the Labour right’s eyes, the war on the membership is far from unnecessary — they are an affront to the cosy politics of the Westminster bubble.

Starmer was picked because he was supposedly “electable.” Finding the polls say he isn’t, he has summoned Blair-era strategist Peter Mandelson to fix the problem in the way a celebrity chef turns round the fortunes of a failing restaurant on reality TV. Unfortunately, “reality” TV is a misnomer.

Blair chased Tory voters on the premise that voters in Labour heartlands had nowhere else to go. It should be obvious following the collapse of the “red wall” that the premise no longer applies. 

Less remarked is that winning over voters from other parties can be done by engagement, persuasion and mass politics, not by attempting to close the political gap between left and right. 

Labour’s vote in 2017 rose in many unexpected places: the shock victory in Canterbury was merely the most famous. Labour piled on votes by the thousand in Tory strongholds from the Cotswolds to Cornwall.

At the same time, most of its northern and Midlands MPs saw their majorities increase, and its vote rose in Wales and Scotland.

What this said about the common anxieties of millions of people all over the country around jobs, privatisation and living costs has been lost in the wreckage of the subsequent 2019 election. But electoral success and socialist policies are not an either/or.

Voters’ cold reception of Labour’s non-opposition is a signal to the left to counterattack. The policies the country needs can become the focus of public campaigning with or without the Labour front bench. 

And the trade union movement can use it to point out that trashing Corbyn isn’t doing the party any favours. Starmer should be warned that continuing to withhold the whip will have consequences.

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