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KEIR STARMER’S think piece for the Fabian Society, The Road Ahead, has been widely mocked ever since it was reported that he hoped a 14,000-word essay would get his leadership back on track.
The end product has hardly changed minds, with most responses focusing on its vacuousness (“a focus group crafted version of the Sermon on the Mount, filled with platitudes but … no content,” in the words of John McDonnell).
Nonetheless the essay is not irrelevant. Its “10 principles” — vague nostrums like “if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be rewarded fairly” — are a clear bid to replace the 10 pledges (which committed him to actual political positions such as “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”) that he made to secure election as leader.
The vagueness is a mask to disguise just how dramatically Labour is distancing itself from the promise of an “irreversible shift in power and wealth to working people and their families” that inspired the Jeremy Corbyn manifestos.
It does so by sidestepping the questions of ownership and control that lie at the heart of all the problems the essay laments: low pay, under-resourced public services, insecure work, climate change.
Public understanding of the role corporate power has played in blocking action on climate change has grown significantly as a result of movements like Extinction Rebellion.
Building a more sustainable economy relies on taking control of energy and transport away from firms with their eyes on short-term shareholder payouts.
This was Labour policy very recently; it is one reason Friends of the Earth noted that Labour’s 2019 manifesto was greener than that of the Greens: it went further in challenging the profit-driven economic model that is responsible for global warming.
But in Starmer’s fantasy land big business is not responsible for the despoliation of the world it runs.
No, the “private sector is racing ahead” and a lack of progress is down merely to Tory policy. His solutions are purely technological, never social: hydrogen-powered planes and electric cars, not universal cheap public transport or overthrowing the tyranny of the property developers to build green, liveable cities.
Paeans to private business recur throughout. Supply chain problems are down to the Tories having ignored “the concerns and expertise of business” when leaving the EU, not the unsustainable exploitation of cheap imported labour by firms which refuse to invest in training and continually force down wages.
Starmer regrets the loss of real-terms earnings: but he doesn’t seek to empower workers to challenge it collectively. He denounces the nationalism of the Conservatives and the SNP, but offers no explanation as to why Labour has lost support hand over fist to both.
Needless to say, he does not mention the 2017 election or evidence that a left-led Labour Party promising public ownership and radical change can inspire mass enthusiasm and reclaim millions of votes.
The essay is also deeply hypocritical. Starmer attacks centralisation and says decisions about communities should be made by those in them: why, then, his Labour Party’s dictatorial attitude to local branches, imposing candidates and suspending selection processes if the wrong person looks like winning?
Perhaps the low point is when he accuses the Conservatives of using “McCarthyite accusations of Marxist plots” to shut down criticism, when his Labour Party expels members for criticising the expulsion of other members and bans constituency parties from even discussing his withdrawal of the whip from his predecessor.
A point-by-point rebuttal of The Road Ahead would take more space than is available here.
Fortunately, few who read it will need any assistance in seeing through its faux-intellectual smokescreen to the reality beneath: this is a Labour Party leader walking away from the great challenges of our time, a leader who cannot imagine, let alone deliver, real change.
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