Starmer should be looking to Clement Atlee for inspiration, not Tony Blair
With the Government on the rack amidst the austerity-fuelled school building crisis, yesterday’s shadow cabinet reshuffle gave Keir Starmer one final chance to live up to his leadership pledges: to unite the Labour Party and offer the country a transformative programme, one which is more urgent and popular than ever in the Tories’ broken Britain. Sadly, what we got, as commentators have concluded, was yet another shift to the Right.
Nowhere was this clearer than in moves against the soft left, particularly Lisa Nandy, who was demoted for the second time, now to shadow an international development ministry which doesn’t even exist. Preet Gill, in turn, left the shadow cabinet, while Nick Thomas-Symonds faced another demotion, to Shadow Minister without Portfolio. Rosena Allin-Khan left the Shadow Cabinet after Starmer told her he did “not see a space for a mental health portfolio in a Labour Cabinet”, despite having herself sat in the shadow cabinet in such a role.
These changes offered a vital political insight into this Labour Leadership – and thus into a future Labour government. The move against Allin-Khan’s role- despite a mental health crisis raging through this country, especially our young people – doesn’t only suggest that ambitious pledges on mental health will not be carried through; it is also a slapdown for a soft left figure who had questioned Wes Streeting’s unpopular plan to increase the private sector’s role in the NHS.
Meanwhile, the scrapping of the dedicated Shadow Development brief means that Starmer’s pledge to re-establish the department abolished by Boris Johnson will be added to his long list of broken promises. Nor will there be a dedicated employment rights role, the first time in nearly half a decade that Labour’s Shadow Cabinet has not contained such a role; big business has a dedicated secretary of state, but workers don’t. The loss of these roles signals danger for progressive politics.
Of course, it goes without saying that there were no promotions for members of the Socialist Campaign Group, who are uniformly excluded from the Shadow Cabinet. How far we are from the days when Starmer promised to build on Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda and ‘end factionalism’.
Meanwhile, as the i noted, it was heyday for the Blairities. This is clear as day in Liz Kendall’s promotion to shadow work and pensions secretary, an alarming decision, given her track record of vociferous support for Tory benefits cuts, an unpopular stance which sent her 2015 bid for the Labour Leadership spiralling. But we see it also in the promotion of arch-Blairite – and close friend of the City of London – Pat McFadden, alongside others on the Labour Right.
The Compass Chief Executive Neal Lawson was right to situate these moves within wider attacks on pluralism and democracy from the Labour Leadership. From Parliamentary selections to briefings against Labour’s own mayors, Keir Starmer is intolerant both of independent mindedness, and of the bold policies he himself once promoted.
Nonetheless, there remain a few bright spots in the shadow cabinet. Lou Haigh has been a vocal proponent of both rail nationalisation and public control of buses in her role as shadow transport secretary – and retains her position. Ed Miliband has been a constant target for LOTO sources for his belief in the transformative potential of the Green New Deal – yet after his £28bn-a-year green investment plan was weakened, he remains in post. Angela Rayner’s retention of (some) responsibility for Labour’s New Deal for Working People may at least stave off further attacks on this vital policy commitment, which has already been watered down once.
Nonetheless, the direction of travel is clear. This Shadow Cabinet will not commit to free school meals, will not scrap the two-child benefit cap, will not nationalise energy or water, build council homes en masse or tax the wealthiest. And what few positive policy ambitions remain will be diluted by arbitrary and conservative ‘fiscal rules’ rejected by progressive economists across the board.
The tragedy is that right when a transformative policy agenda is more urgent and popular than ever, Labour is offering more of the same. When our waterways are filled with sewage and our energy bills remain sky-high, the Labour Leadership refuses the popular solution of nationalisation. When our schools and hospitals are crumbling, Labour will not promise to invest in them. And when over 70% back the wealth taxes which could pay for all this, Starmer and Reeves run scared.
The Tories might be on their way out – but the risk is that Labour will not chart a new path out of their ruin. Is it much surprise, then, that Republican U.S senator Chuck Grassley recently praised Labour’s “Reaganesque” economic policies? When you consider that Margaret Thatcher called Tony Blair her greatest achievement, it is perhaps unsurprising that neoliberals across the pond celebrate his admirers in today’s Labour.
Instead of this 1997 tribute act, Starmer should take a leaf out of the book of another leader whose legacy he likes to invoke: Clement Attlee. We may not be emerging from the rubbles of the Second World War, but the crises Labour will inherit from this calamitous Tory government will be on a par. Faced with sky-high debt and scaremongering right-wing attacks, Labour did not yield – instead, we built the NHS, took vast swathes of the economy into public ownership and built a lasting political settlement in the welfare state. Now more than ever, we need these real Labour values.
Hilary Schan is co-chair of Momentum
Image credit: US State Department – Public Domain