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Opinion Starmer’s Labour: The UK Establishment’s Supernova

by Radhika Desai, Alan Freeman and Carlos Martinez

SPEAKING from 10 Downing Street, newly elected Prime Minister Keir Starmer said that the country had voted “decisively for change” and “for national renewal and a return of politics to public service.” Neither claim could be further from the truth. 

Never has a government with so large a majority been elected less “decisively.” No claim to bring about change has rung hollower, though both governing parties have repeatedly made such claims to dissimulate the continuity of their common commitment to unpopular neoliberal policies. 

Starmer’s “responsible” manifesto promised very little to working people, while showering generous subsidies, low taxes, lucrative contacts and permissive deregulation on big corporations and the rich, both British and foreign. Promises of increased social spending are predicated on growth that is unlikely if neoliberalism prevails, and such social spending as is undertaken will involve contracting services out to greedy big corporations, as Wes Streeting, the new Health Secretary, has already indicated. 

The falsehood of both claims has been noted. What is less discussed is that together these falsehoods will prevent Starmer’s Labour from fulfilling its assigned mission and might even end the party. 

Over the past five years, as the Conservative malfunction mounted, Britain’s political establishment invested in Starmer — the British establishment’s “safe pair of hands” — and his party to turn it into a reliable political instrument through which to control the British state and society. No wonder Starmer had the support of the mainstream media, from the Guardian to the Financial Times to the Sun, not to mention the majority of the corporate capitalist class which has entertained Rachel Reeves lavishly as the presumptive Chancellor of the Exchequer in recent months.

However, as the governments of major neoliberal financialised countries around the world — the US, France, Germany — are finding out, keeping control over state and society while implementing the neoliberal policies corporate capital, domestic and foreign, requires, is difficult, if not impossible. 

In Britain, with decades of neoliberalism topped with austerity, the disasters of Brexit and Covid, creaking public services administered by extortionate corporations, and the Rwanda deportation farce, the process is much further advanced. 

With the Conservatives headed into disintegration or irrelevance, the incoming Labour government may prove the penultimate stage in the collapse of the UK political establishment. The brightness of its success in fashioning Starmer’s Labour into its instrument is the gaseous brilliance of the supernova, the  efflorescence that precedes a star’s death. Once Starmer’s government and party start malfunctioning, as they must soon, the UK political establishment will lose its last instrument of social and political control, falling into an unprecedented and unpredictable crisis.   

‘Decisive’ vote? What ‘decisive’ vote?
 
Usually used to label any big electoral victory, “landslide” refers to a tiny shift in the popular vote delivering a large majority of seats in a first-past-the-post electoral system, much as a small falling stone can trigger a landslide. Starmer’s Labour has won a such a landslide passively benefiting from the unprecedented 20 percentage point collapse of the Conservative vote from 43.6 percent in 2019 to 23.7 percent in 2024. 

Five years of failures and disasters made the Conservatives irretrievably unpopular: austerity; low growth; a disastrous Brexit; the murderous shambles of Covid mismanagement exemplified by Partygate; a savage cost-of-living crisis; a cruel housing crisis that sickens, as in Grenfell, kills, a “migrant crisis” manufactured by parties competing to be racist and xenophobic; factional infighting; Liz Truss; high interest rates; and the breaking of promises made to win the “red wall” in 2019. 

These came on top of a decades-long decline that started as early as the 1990s divisions over Europe, keeping the Conservatives out of power for 13 years and returning them there in 2010 without a majority because it bled support to the UK Independence Party.  

Currently taking the form of Nigel Farage’s Reform Party, this far-right force nipping at the Conservatives’ right heel became formidable in the 2010s. It threatened the party’s base on a political landscape transformed by Labour’s decades-old decision to capitulate to Thatcherite neoliberalism by moving to the right rather than challenging it by moving to the left. 

As the process culminated in Blair’s New Labour, as any forces to its left were destroyed, enough of the discontents of neoliberalism could be beguiled into supporting Reform and its predecessors which advanced by attributing popular woes not to neoliberal policies being applied since 1979 but to the EU and/or immigration. 

Reform and its predecessors had already forced Cameron to promise the Brexit referendum to win his tiny majority in 2015. After they contributed to the Leave victory,  Johnson — “irresponsible, narcissistic, dishonest, self-serving and incompetent” — with his ear to the electoral ground, could win a far more substantial majority, but only by capitulating to Farage’s politics to break down the “red wall” in 2019. 

This strengthened the far-right faction so much that a historically unprecedented party split is on the cards in the wake of defeat. It also benefited Liberal Democrats: as Conservatives alienated by the far right gave them highest seat tally (72) ever, though with barely any change in the vote share. 
  
Though the Conservative vote collapsed, Labour’s 2024 “historic” majority of 174 was smaller than Blair’s 1997 majority of 179, when the Conservatives were electorally healthier. Labour’s vote rose by only 1.6 per cent, chiefly in Scotland where, though the SNP’s 48 seats in 2019 declined to 10 in 2024, its vote share dropped only 1.3 per cent while the Conservative vote dropped steeply. Strikingly, in 2017, with 40 per cent of the vote on a 69 per cent turnout, Corbyn’s Labour narrowly lost; in 2024, with 34 per cent of the vote on a 60 per cent turnout, Starmer’s Labour won a “historic” majority.

If the Conservative vote collapsed, the Labour vote barely rose, making the two parties’ combined share of the vote the lowest since 1945. The reason is simple. Starmer’s Labour quashed the very popular elements that enthuse working people. It destroyed the only leader actually committed to “change” and “national renewal and a return of politics to public service,” Jeremy Corbyn, inter alia, by sabotaging the party’s 2017 election campaign so defeat would remove Corbyn as leader. Failing then, they persisted, deploying that favourite weapon of the neoliberal establishment, charging pro-Palestine figures with anti-semitism. An exhausted Corbyn resigned in 2019 and mop-up operations against the party’s left became the biggest political purge ever. 

This purge explains Labour’s actually very poor showing. Candidates imposed or dismissed by diktat in Islamophobic acts dressed up as “fighting anti-semitism” destroyed an important part of the party’s historic base, alienating Labour’s Muslim voters, black voters also enraged at the scandalous treatment of Diane Abbott, as well as traditional working-class voters and youth. This was spectacularly revealed when the independent George Galloway won a by-election in Rochdale, the home of Britain’s industrial revolution, because of Starmer’s hated zionist policy on Gaza.  

Having expunged the left from the party and radicalism from its manifesto, Starmer’s Labour failed to inspire working people. At 60 per cent, turnout was lower than any election in the post-war period barring 2001’s  59.4 per cent. 

This is not all. Starmer’s Labour won its 412 seats, 63.38 percent of the seats in Parliament, on the strength of just 33.7 per cent of the vote or, factoring in the 60 per cent turnout, a mere 20.22 per cent of Britain’s votes. A fifth of Britons will have voted for a government that, theoretically at least, has a steamroller majority. 

Change? What change?

Given the electoral precarity of Starmer’s parliamentary majority, however, the distance between theory and practice can be high. Large majorities can steamroll the opposition only if they remain united and large parliamentary parties almost inevitably don’t: with only so many positions and so much power to distribute, discontents proliferate. 

Further problems will emerge from the late-stage neoliberalism that Starmer’s Labour represents. Sunak’s legacy of a public debt over 84 per cent of GDP and Starmer’s commitment to “fiscal conservatism” will make addressing the problems that Britain’s economy, society and institutions teem with near impossible.  

As it inevitably reneges on its few promises, the public as well as the left of the Labour Party, having lived through 45 years of neoliberalism and Labour and Conservative attempts to tart it up as somehow realising the public interest, will only ever be a hair trigger away from protest.

So, a Starmer government crisis will come sooner rather than later and, with the Tories likely to have wandered off into the farthest wilds of anti-immigrant populism, the British political establishment will be left without an instrument to control the state while keeping alive the appearance of electoral democracy. The resulting chaos could easily spin out of control unless the left organises a political force to take control of the apparatus of the state.  

Despite the best efforts of the political establishment and Farage, the left remains alive. The very conditions they have created demand it. While the far right reached a peak with 14.3 percent of the popular vote, the third highest, and came second in 103 seats, there were also signs of a left revival.  

A significant if embattled left survives within the Labour Party, including Diane Abbott and Zarah Sultana. Jeremy Corbyn, forced to stand as an independent against a Labour Party machine determined to defeat him, starting his campaign late, only after trying hard to get the party’s ticket, not only won his seat but did so with 5,000 more votes in Islington North than Starmer did in Holborn and St Pancras. 

Four other independent pro-Palestine MPs unseated Labour MPs: Shockat Adam, Ayoub Khan, Adnan Hussain and Iqbal Mohamed even though, as the Financial Times pointed out, “it is vanishingly rare for independent candidates to win … under the UK’s voting system.” This anti-zionist grouping of five is now the sixth largest “party” in Parliament. Greens with four MPs increased parliamentary presence by a factor of four while Plaid Cymru, standing to Labour’s left, also won four seats. 

Independents Leanne Mohammed and Jody McIntyre came within a hair’s breadth of unseating Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips. George Galloway almost held onto Rochdale, even though Labour spared no effort against him. Andrew Feinstein, Faiza Shaheen and Chris Williamson’s many thousand votes reflected mass discontent with Labour’s atrocious position on the Gaza war and the impact of campaigns such as No Ceasefire No Vote and The Muslim Vote. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein triumphed in the north of Ireland, bringing Irish unity closer.

Mao Zedong famously quipped that when “there is great chaos under heaven — the situation is excellent.” While the chaos is great and set to deepen, the situation will only be excellent if made so by a regrouped and resurgent left. Otherwise, overtly racist and repressive neo-fascist element can stake a claim to govern and have it accepted by the establishment, a decidedly non-excellent situation. 

With the ascendence of a left-of-Labour group in Parliament — drawing energy from the still-glowing embers of Corbyn’s 2015-19 leadership, able to fashion a socialist and anti imperialist platform against neoliberalism and austerity as well as Nato and nuclear weapons, advocating public services as much as peace with Russia and co-operation with China free from Labour’s cautious bourgeois bureaucracy — the first shoots of a movement that could work towards breaking neoliberal capital’s stranglehold on the forces of the state are emerging. 

The left, however, faces 1920s-scale challenges. Then as now, it can’t just “build another party.” Courageous new left forces outside the Labour Party and those inside it are both necessary to a renewed left.  Only their collaborative work can turn the imminent chaos of Starmer’s failure in favour of working people.
 

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