Neither Holborn & St Pancras nor Ashton-under-Lyne but independent socialism

To begin the era of Starmer and Rayner by taking sides in a battle between two non-socialists would be a mistake. The left needs to develop an independent socialism.

5 min read

The national media will soon settle into its customary position of discussing the Labour Party front bench in terms of personalities rather than politics. Unlike the PM/Chancellor opposition of the Blair-Brown era, the power struggle is likely to be between Keir Starmer and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, since Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds is a relative newcomer with little power base of her own. In the past we have seen how these divides, which are often attributable to infinitesimal differences in politics, have led to one ‘side’ being portrayed by the newspapers as a shouty, Stalinist extremist. Hard though it might be for younger readers to believe this, that is how Private Eye and a thousand expensively educated Parliamentary sketchwriters described Gordon Brown for over a decade, despite his centrality to every stage of the anti-socialist New Labour project. John Prescott was also sometimes pictured in these terms by reporters and columnists whose view of trade unions is based on an undergraduate history lecture and whose entire conception of unions is “1970s things associated with a more left-wing Labour Party”. The same section of political journalists are likely to do the same to Angela Rayner, whose working-class background, accent and career as a union official will be held up as indicators of socialism by those who (deliberately or otherwise) understand none of those things.

Meanwhile, for some on the left of Labour, Keir Starmer’s background marks him out just as strongly as a true socialist, just one who has taken a different path. His career fighting for left and labour movement causes through the courts, a brief stint in a Trotskyist sect, and indeed Starmer’s own supposedly working-class socialist family have all been held up by his supporters as indicators of his true radicalism.

Marsha de Cordova and Rachael Maskell backed him for leader over Rebecca Long-Bailey. Other Campaign Group MPs were rumoured to favour him over her but held the collective line for Long-Bailey. Politically, his new advisor Claire Ainsley’s work on “the new working class” may chime with some on the left who think that there is a danger of fetishising the working class as Leave-voting, northern and white, even as her policy recommendations (“points-based immigration”) differ little from those who do cling onto crude class stereotypes.

But Starmer clearly is not a socialist in the Campaign Group sense, and few would really suggest that he is. For those who have fallen in behind him, and put their trust in him, it is more accurate to say that they are close to Starmer, than that Starmer is close to the left. There are probably around 5-10 Campaign Group MPs who would unquestioningly put their hand up for Starmer if asked to choose between him and Rayner. Most of these are on the ‘soft’ end of the Campaign Group spectrum; they could be considered pro-EU, anti-Unite, and in favour of ‘pluralism’, proportional representation, and other symbolic causes of Labour’s soft left.

Angela Rayner’s appeal to the left is different. Workerists and trade unionists see her as someone who is more likely than Starmer to understand them; someone less metropolitan and less Remainy. Someone who, while not a true believer in socialist transformation, is unlikely to put up much of a fight if others push her to the left on economic policy. Appointing Campaign Group members to her team may be an attempt to reach out to the left but it is an offer that brings with it an implicit assumption of mutual support and acquiescence. Illusions of Rayner’s radicalism are a precise echo of how 90s journalists mistook connections with trade union leaderships for a commitment to radical socialism.

More specifically, Rayner’s past commitments to “standards not structures” in education, her concerns about underachievement among the “white working class”, her complaints that children learn too much about colonialism, and her admiration for Tony Blair should make it clear that there is some ideological difference between her and the socialist left of the Labour Party, to say the least. But, as with Starmer, those on the left who would fly Rayner’s flag are motivated less by her putative left credentials than by their own desire to reach out to their right. For many years, people who have worked with Jon Lansman in CLPD or LRC have noted his belief that the Hard Left cannot win power alone and must build alliances with those in the centre of the Labour Party inside and outside Parliament. This approach underlies Momentum’s support for Rayner’s campaign and complements the close links between Momentum Head Office and figures in Unite’s North West region close to Rayner. Trade union leaderships will always try to have the ear of senior individuals in the Party, and many who were supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, like the Communication Workers Union, may see Rayner as being more amenable than Starmer, whose reliance on Unison and GMB at NEC meetings necessarily means shutting the door on their rivals.

Unions will have their own interests and make their own decisions, often understandably based on lesser-evilism, but members and MPs on Labour’s left should not feel obliged to constantly take a side in a dispute between two senior politicians from the centre of the Labour Party tradition. If the time ever comes when votes have to be cast for one or the other, conversations will be had and decisions will be taken, but to begin the era of Starmer and Rayner by taking sides in a battle between two non-socialists would be a gross error.

Not only is the tendency to support whoever is ideologically closer to the left wrong, it is not clear (unlike in the Blair/Brown era) which of the two that would be. Nor is there a sense that arguments about whom to choose will be anything other than destructive.

It may be that Starmer and Rayner fall out over individual issues where one takes a left and the other a right position, only for this to switch the following week. Falling in behind either would be utterly unforgivable if it ever denied the membership the ability to vote for a socialist Campaign Group candidate in a future leadership or deputy leadership election because Campaign Group MPs had already effectively pledged their support elsewhere.
History shows that, despite Lansman’s desire to heal the splits of the early 80s, unity between soft left and hard left is always on the terms of the former, unless it results from demonstrating the strength of the latter. By standing, and winning, Jeremy Corbyn forced MPs slightly to his right to accept the left’s leadership. Whether or not we are in that position again, to effectively concede defeat at this stage would be a betrayal of those who didn’t just support Corbyn but made his candidacy and leadership possible with their support for his socialist policies, before and after 2015.


Nicky Hutchinson