Labour leader Kier Starmer

Are we going to fight a pro-boss Keir Starmer government or defend it? Let’s leave aside for now Starmer’s capacity to lose an election even against the wreckage of the present Tory rabble.

He is so right wing, so defensive, and so little different to Rishi Sunak’s mob that random factors can play a role.

But all the polls suggest Starmer is near-certain to be in Number 10 next year or early in 2025. It might be a Labour landslide, or—as Starmer would probably prefer—in coalition with the Lib Dems.

And already trade unions, Labour members and socialists are preparing for such a shift. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee sums up the ­widely-held view that we have to shut up and accept every reactionary retreat in order to eject the Tories.

She wrote recently, “Only winning matters, so every obstacle has to be swerved. We wince as Starmer and Rachel Reeves tighten the bolts on the Treasury chest. But wince we must—the more painful the spending thumbscrew, the more convincing to undecided voters. It hurts, but there is a point to it.”

The point is supposed to be that Starmer will be more radical in office than he pretends now and this is what the Tony Blair government turned out to be in 1997.

But Toynbee admits that because Labour had pledged to follow Tory spending limits, one of the first acts of Blair’s rule was to vote through a cut to single parent benefits.

“Labour felt it had to pass this test of its honesty,” writes Toynbee “That vote was an early blooding for many new MPs, and some wept on their way into the aye lobby”—not that their tears helped anyone.

Starmer wouldn’t just be a repeat of Blair. He will be worse because the British economy is far weaker than in 1997—as Starmer admitted recently. His answer is to be “even tougher, even more focused, even more disciplined,” he told the shadow cabinet.

Many union leaders accept the same message of anything but the Tories. Of course, everyone should cheer if the vile, corrupt, racist party of the rich is defeated. But how different will Starmer be? 

Labour’s recent National Policy Forum saw Starmer’s supporters crush any pledges to even the most basic reforms. Motions on increasing the minimum wage, defending the pension triple-lock and taking water into public ownership were all roundly defeated.

Even a motion to fund Sure Start—an example given by Toynbee of the triumphs of the Blair government—didn’t win.

Starmer deliberately faced down calls to pledge repeal of the two-child benefit limit that means less food and worse housing for over 1 million children in poverty. He glories in picking a fight with the left, and collapsing to pressure from the right.

But union leaders took it all. The GMB said Labour now had a policy programme “that would make a real difference for ­workers and industries they work in”. Unite leaders huffed and puffed and refused to sign up to the final document—but won no concessions.

Just a fortnight earlier, in beating off a call to consider alternatives to Labour, general secretary Sharon Graham had said this was the time of “maximum leverage for the union where we can hold Labour to account”. That didn’t happen.

Union leaders are involved in a conscious process of ­self‑deception and peddling myths to their members. The next Labour ­government will attack working class people. Every previous Labour government has done so, but it’s even more obvious with Starmer.

There will be a bosses’ ­economic agenda, and a harsh social programme with hardly any change from the Tories on issues such as immigration and trans rights. Labour might be even worse in its assaults on refugees.

As Labour fails, it will seek to find scapegoats. Blair’s ­government was obsessed with supposedly “anti-social” behaviour, and Starmer also will launch new crackdowns. Such enemies within will be targeted as cover for a ­government that lets people down.

There are three main ­alternatives to ­letting Starmer dominate. One—working from the inside—was put forward by former shadow ­chancellor John McDonnell. He outlined recently his “key stages for exerting influence on the next Labour government”.

The first three steps involve internal pressure at the next Labour conference, the Clause Five meeting that agrees Labour’s manifesto, and then trying to shape the king’s speech that will set out Starmer’s policies.

But all the developments in those areas are imprisoned by the logic that “Starmer must win”.

So McDonnell goes on, “Possibly the most significant period is after the first year of a Labour administration when the real world has intruded, when the lack of serious effective action by the Labour ­government is causing frustration.

“At that stage we have to be ready and campaigning for a radical turn to save Labour from itself and to prevent the build-up of a dangerous disillusionment driving people not just to the right but also the far right.” 

Typically, his answer centres on “saving Labour” and excludes the possibility that anger at Starmer could lead to breaks leftwards.

Because he doesn’t want to see beyond Labour, he can’t even speculate that strikes and mass demonstrations could see a strengthening socialist alternative.

Better are those who are ­calling for electoral alternatives to Labour. Last week Transform Politics launched with a “call to form a new left party that provides a real alternative to our broken political system”.

It comes from a similar group to those who set up the People’s Alliance of the Left in 2022, although it does now include the Liverpool Independents which has won some council seats. It underlines there will be some left challenges to Labour including probably Jeremy Corbyn in Islington, perhaps Diane Abbott in Hackney, Jamie Driscoll in north east England and others.

Credible candidates deserve support, and Socialist Worker will certainly call for support for a Corbyn challenge. But many of these challenges see their mission as forcing their re-entry into the Labour Party after having been suspended, sidelined or expelled.

They won’t challenge the tradition that always puts parliament first—whether the left or right is in the leadership. A Corbyn victory against Labour would be a very welcome bloody nose for Starmer.

But it would be presented as an individual oddity. If it stops there, its main effect would be to entice good activists who are looking for radical alternatives back into the constrained world of electoral politics.

At present electoral ­challenges to Labour won’t mobilise more than a small minority. The real alternative is to struggle through strikes and protests and defiance.

The highest level of strikes in 30 years has to continue and grow if Starmer wins, not be choked off by union leaders because “our government” is in.

Fighting Starmer will be urgent. He won’t be a “disappointing friend” who falls a bit short of our dreams.

At a time of deep social crisis, Labour will break strikes, expel refugees to their deaths, let the climate crisis rip and lock up those who resist its rule. It will be a party that rests on workers’ organisation but serves the ruling class—at any price.

McDonnell is right that one outcome can be the growth of the fascists. Bitter anger at the failures of Labour-type parties has laid the basis for the advances of such forces in countries including France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and Portugal.

Working inside Labour or putting forward Labour Mark II candidates in elections are no bulwark against such threats. It requires uncompromising struggles to win and build the ­independent power of workers.

The unions should commit now to a “100 days” programme to fight and strike for demands such as an above-inflation pay rise for every worker and an immediate repeal of the 2016 and 2023 anti-union laws.

They should also demand the end of all the anti-protest laws. All the Tory anti-migrant laws should go, beginning with the Illegal Migration Act. And there must be no new licenses for any new oil, gas and coal projects

Far more is needed. But ­winning on these issues would be a massive boost to the confidence of our side. The point is to take action, to move away from watching and hoping.

The demise of the Tories has to see an explosion of struggle. But that won’t happen unless every strike is fought to victory now and the racists are ­confronted without delay. The networks of resistance to confront prime minister Starmer effectively have to be grown under Sunak.

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