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IN A recent interview with Stop the War Coalition’s Sweta Choudhury, journalist Peter Oborne observed that “the main political parties seem to be detached from the moral problems of our age.”
The problem for Labour leader Keir Starmer as he attempted another revamp at the weekend (“I’ll take my mask off and show why I should be prime minister,” he declared ahead of an article to mark his first year in the job) is not just that he exemplifies this detachment. He has defined himself against the most important movement for far-reaching change to have emerged in Britain in decades.
While Starmer was penning his Observer piece, his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was on the streets, standing with demonstrators opposed to the government’s plans to criminalise peaceful protest.
The contrast in styles is obvious. It extends beyond style to authenticity: a lifetime of standing in solidarity with the oppressed leaves no-one in any doubt that when Corbyn takes a position he means it.
Starmer’s vacillating position on the policing Bill, which Labour only decided to oppose after the public uproar over police violence against women on Clapham Common, denotes a politician whose stances are more often based on how he imagines a particular line will play with target audiences.
He attempted at the weekend to sketch out a vision of a different Britain — one that might woo voters from a Conservative administration that has failed the country throughout the pandemic, landing us with one of the highest death rates anywhere on Earth while displaying brazen and unapologetic corruption on an unprecedented scale.
He makes entirely justified criticisms of the Tories for running down public services and attacking public-sector pay, but his latest relaunch is heavy on platitudes and short on specifics.
This vagueness stems partly from a desire to be all things to all people. Hence his stated desire to “get Britain working again” in partnership with both trade unions and business. Across the Atlantic, at least Joe Biden combines his warm words for unions with condemnation of the anti-union tactics of Amazon and other major employers.
In fact Labour has proposed nothing approaching the significant investment in infrastructure and job creation that the US president has announced.
Starmer’s timidity is predictable. However much he distances himself from the Boris Johnson government, he has spent his first year as leader defining himself not against the Tories but against his predecessor.
That has not only involved disgracefully removing the Labour whip from Corbyn, but the suspension and persecution of the ex-leader’s supporters and an alarmingly authoritarian crackdown on democracy and debate.
The party more than doubled in size under Corbyn because for once a major political party was not “detached from the moral questions of our age.”
It struck a chord by pointing to the yawning gulf between the super rich and the rest of us, and to the way that our economic model is the cause of global emergencies like climate change and the refugee crisis.
If the Corbyn years were the aberration his detractors claim, if it was a purposeless caper led by an unrepresentative crew of hard-left oddballs, perhaps Starmer could combine crushing their memory with an idealistic appeal to the country to join him in the fight for a better future.
But they were not. They were a revival of mass party politics that directly engaged hundreds of thousands and won the votes of millions who understood that radical change is both possible and necessary.
No serious movement to reform this country is even conceivable without the passionate and committed activists who formed the backbone of the Corbyn movement.
Starmer has not just turned his back on this genuinely mass movement, he has done his best to stamp it out.
Actions speak louder than words. And Starmer’s first year in charge of Labour has exposed him as an enemy of progressive change.
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