Forde report slams party officials, validates Corbyn election strategy


Martin Forde, QC

The Forde report has been finally published, after a long delay. It was commissioned by Keir Starmer in 2020 as a way of defusing the devastating revelations of the Leaked Report on Labour’s handling of antisemitism. As well as demonstrating that the Corbyn leadership did not attempt to suppress or delay disciplinary action over complaints of antisemitism, the Leaked Report brought together WhatsApp chats between senior Labour party officials that contained racist and sexist diatribes against elected representatives as well as extremely right-wing political attitudes. 

One example is an extract from a chat by senior Labour staffer Jo Greening at the time of the Manchester bombings, when Corbyn made a speech pointing out how British foreign policy had opened up the public to terrorist  retribution. She expressed her displeasure at Corbyn’s stance by messaging: “in the face of a terror attack normal people do not blame foreign intervention they blame immigration.”  

The Forde report confirms the accuracy of the WhatsApp messages cited in the leaked report that displayed the tolerance of senior party officials for racist and sexist commentary and their extremely hostile attitude to the Corbyn leadership. It also confirms that the bureaucratic campaign to “validate” members and applicants for membership in 2016 was intended to reduce the vote for Corbyn in the rerun leadership election.

As part of its lawyerly investigation of racism within party institutions, the report called for evidence from members – and certainly got it in spades.  Forde’s most damning conclusion is that the party set up a “hierarchy” of discrimination, where alleged anti-semitism and sexism were prioritized over complaints of anti-Black and anti-Islamic prejudice. To quote from statements from ethnic minority staff cited by the report, “The Party also has created a clear hierarchy of racism and prioritized the viewpoint of certain groups over others … It did not go unnoticed that the [Community Organising Unit] was treated like an enemy within and bullied by the rest of the staff as well as well known MPs and also just happened to be the most diverse.”

There has been plenty of commentary on the Forde report that criticises its attempt to place equal blame on left and right for “weaponizing” accusations of anti-semitism. But the report’s fundamental weakness is that it neglects the role of ideology at the core of the factional antagonism.

The right in the party had developed over many years a “monoculture”, the report states, where officials were hired on the basis of their similarity in outlook to existing personnel – resulting in a hyper-Blairite privilege that was increasingly divorced from both the party membership and public norms. The Blairite/neoliberal ideology of the Labour right ruled out social-democratic approaches to social problems and adapted to the existing structures of wealth and power by elevating the market as the ultimate means of distribution of resources. Policies that sought to restore collectivist solutions to problems were perceived as an existential threat to this ideological outlook.

Corbyn’s supporters who were brought into the Leader’s office clashed with these cultural attitudes since as well as policy differences they wanted to upset the traditional relations between party apparatus and membership – empowering members to democratically decide policy, which threatened the prevailing hierarchy of power. According to Forde, initial tolerant attitudes between the groups became confrontational after the PLP’s attempt to oust Corbyn in the 2016 chicken coup. 

The most concrete examples of ideological difference cited by Forde came over election strategy in 2017. Whereas the party officials wanted to “play it safe” and shore up the majorities of sitting anti-Corbyn MPs, the Corbyn leadership wanted to challenge the Tory parliamentary majority and turn out to previous non-voters, expanding the electorate by appealing especially to young people. At the root of this was a different attitude to the electorate: the right assumed that the number of votes was fixed, but that UKIP voters would switch to the Tories. The left under Corbyn turned outwards through campaigning among voters who had never been contacted before by Labour with transformative policies aimed at ending neoliberal austerity and restoring opportunities for jobs, housing and education. 

The experience of the campaign in the weeks before the election was an enthusiastic reception for Labour’s policies and spontaneous support from people in the streets. The problem was that feedback from canvassing on the ground either did not reach party HQ strategists, or was discounted. In fact there was no mechanism for reporting campaigners’ assessments of voters’ responses to the central office. The party apparatus was wedded to very traditional methods of canvassing through checking off previous Labour voters on electoral rolls, which did not allow for mass campaigning aimed at new voters. This form of practice itself perpetuated a conservative attitude to the electorate. 

The Forde report considers it “reasonable” for the central office to have pursued a defensive strategy, given the fact that opinion polls shifted only in the final two weeks of the campaign, but canvassers on the ground had much more accurate information on the outcome. The eventual result was that Labour gained 3.5 million more votes than in the previous election, but the party had no idea who these voters were.

My own experience canvassing in Luton South bears this out. The Labour candidate Gavin Shuker was convinced that his 5,000 majority would be wiped out by the UKIP vote which in the previous election had also come to 5,000. Half an hour before the polls closed, Shuker was still fearful of losing his seat and insisted on going out to win as many last-minute votes as possible. I assured him that he had nothing to worry about – and in the event his majority was tripled thanks to the public response to Corbyn and the party manifesto. Shuker eventually defected from Labour to join Change UK, and was trounced in 2019 when he stood as an independent.

Despite the fact that Shuker and the party bureaucracy were genuinely convinced that they had to shore up their existing seats, they were actively working to undermine the strategy of the democratically elected leadership. The slush fund set up in Ergon House that diverted campaign funds to the preferred candidates of the apparatus was an overt example of this, but a more subtle undermining of the leadership’s strategy was in selecting some constituencies as winnable, allocating them the necessary resources, and identifying marginal constituencies as not winnable, starving them of campaign material and funds.

The Forde report’s assertion that it was “unlikely” the diversion of funds and personnel into the Ergon House operation cost the party the election – while admitting there is no evidence either way – underestimates the importance of central office support for enthusiastic campaigners in even unlikely constituencies. When candidates found themselves unable to get literature or canvassers because of a focus on a nearby safe seat, this contributed to demoralization of the membership. The relative success of Labour in 2017 where marginal seats Kensington and Canterbury were taken from the Tories was achieved despite the efforts of the party HQ, not because of them, and contributed to the shock felt by the establishment at the loss of the Tory majority in parliament.

The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party: from Attlee to Corbyn


By Martin R. Beveridge

NHS in Crisis – Fix it now protest organised by the Peoples Assembly and Health Campaigns Together, Central London. NEU and Brent and Isleworth Labour Party banner

In The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party: from Attlee to Corbyn,
Martin R. Beveridge gives a compelling and accessible history of the sometimes ferocious battles within the Labour Party over achieving a fairer society based on collective solidarity, respect, and equality. Drawing on interviews with Labour members and supporters, as well as primary and secondary sources, Beveridge uncovers the persistence of what he terms the socialist ideal in the Labour Party: the conviction that society should be organised for the benefit of the many, not the few.

As Beveridge writes, this ideal has evolved through several stages since 1945, when the election of a Labour government ended the drastic poverty and mass unemployment of the 1930s. The Labour movement’s idea of socialism changed to that of statist nationalisation, social welfare, and full employment; yet, as he argues, the Labour left has continuously struggled since against those within the party who would suppress the ethical socialist legacies of Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, and most recently, Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn’s leadership created a political space for imagining a turn away from top-down government reform towards decentralising economic power so as to rebuild and stabilise regions and localities and to create a truly participatory democracy. The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party offers strategies for survival against those who would banish these ideals from political discourse and collective memory.

Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper, writes: ‘Based on original historical study and in depth contemporary interviews while Jeremy Corbyn was leader, it is a resource for hope in grim times.’  

Martin R. Beveridge got his start in political activism at the age of 14. Since then, he worked as a printer for a socialist newspaper, became a socialist writer, and is active in the Labour Party, Momentum, Unite the Union, and various US citizens’ groups. His experiences inspired him to write an interpretation of Labour Party history that foregrounds the role of its members, and to examine how social and political change has shaped discourse on the left. His work has appeared in Jacobin magazine, and he regularly blogs on current events at coloneldespard.wordpress.com. He currently divides his time between the UK and the US.

The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party: from Attlee to Corbyn is available now 

from merlinpress.co.uk at £14.99

ISBN 9780850367768

Defending Labour’s Past


Rethinking Labour’s Past (Bloomsbury), is a collection of essays with an introduction by Rachel Reeves. Mike Phipps has written an excellent review of the collection, in which he points out that the Labour right are trying to reclaim Labour’s past achievements in a way that marginalizes the left. My own book, The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party (Merlin Press), examines the relation between the party rank and file and the leadership in Labour’s history, and the left’s continued renewal despite current challenges.

One of the most striking examples of how the battle over Labour history is playing out comes from historian Steven Fielding. He rubbishes Ken Loach’s film “The Spirit of ’45,” dismissing Loach’s reconstruction of 1945 as “seen through the prism of visceral far-left sentiment,” and accusing it of artificially connecting the Attlee government’s achievements with the popular policies of the Corbyn project

Some of Fielding’s arguments deserve close attention, since they are likely to be recycled over and over. He bases his assessment of Attlee on a single historian, Paul Addison, who “claimed that many of the reforms with which the 1945 government was associated were the product of members of the ‘upper middle class of socially concerned professional people’ who entered Whitehall during Winston Churchill’s coalition government.” 

Now, while it is indeed true that much of what Attlee’s government legislated was mapped out in plans that liberal reformers had advocated in the 1930s and 1940s, these plans were never implemented. As I argue in my book, “The difference was that Labour actually realised these plans, which the Tories would have diluted and hedged around with multiple concessions to private interests, and was ready to commit the huge sums of public spending required. In its historical context, Attlee’s government was in fact extremely partisan; while the Tories later adapted to the welfare state, continuing this rate of spending was the most challenging decision their party had to make.”

Fielding continues to rely on Addison’s interpretation of the Attlee government, claiming that “most historians” accept the gist of it, and specifically “his claim that Attlee fostered a ‘politics of the Centre’ in which the two front benches agreed to a historically remarkable degree on policy means, even whilst they continued to disagree about ideological ends.” Fielding does not refer to the interpretations of other historians – such as that of Harriet Jones and Michael Kandiah, who argue that the Tories were by no means reconciled to the egalitarianism implied by the welfare state, instead mounting a propaganda offensive championing individual property ownership and the demand to end wartime economic controls. The very distinguished Labour historian Lewis Minkin also questions the idea of political consensus, arguing that “The post-war ‘settlement’ was more an acceptance of a new balance of power forged during the Labour Government than a conscious all-party agreement which predated it.”

But Fielding’s real intention is to minimise the influence of the Labour left. “Addison is clear,” he states ,“the left – both in and outside the Labour Party – played a minor part [in the consensus], remaining at loggerheads with Attlee notably over his reluctance to nationalize more industries.” Fielding conveniently forgets the role of Aneurin Bevan in establishing the National Health Service, nationalizing the hospitals and negotiating against the hostility of doctors organised in the British Medical Association. As I explain in my book, “No Tory government would have nationalised municipal and voluntary hospitals, and even within the Labour party opinion was closer to those who, like Morrison, favoured keeping hospitals under local authority control.” Bevan overcame stiff opposition from both inside the Labour cabinet and from Parliament – let’s not forget that the Tories voted 22 times against the legislation that set up the NHS. My judgement is that Bevan’s socialism “clearly guided his practices in driving through the compromises necessary to get the NHS established.”

Although Fielding concedes that the complexity of 1945 admits different interpretations, he savages any attempt by the left to interpret it, whether by John McDonnell or Tony Benn. And when it comes to Loach’s film, he dismisses some of its commentary because it was given by individuals from left groups. Instead of engaging with the ideas expressed, he simply writes them off as “the prism of far-left sentiment,” rather than querying why the Attlee government had such a symbolic significance for the left. Fielding’s own research shows that the public in 1945 was not generally motivated by socialist idealism, instead continuing to be politically sceptical and disengaged. But while motivated by bread-and-butter issues rather than politics (not surprising after the privations of wartime), that doesn’t mean that there was not a general radical collectivism and the hope for a better future.

It’s that hope that Loach’s film attempts to recapture. And although it does romanticize the collectivism of the postwar era, as I have previously written, was there truly a “Spirit of ‘45”? There was certainly a rejection of the Tories until they moved to a centre-left position following their election defeat. As Fielding himself states in his major publication: “Labour’s 1945 victory owed much to the way the Second World War led many voters to regard the Conservatives in a new and critical light. … Labour’s supporters were not for the most part enthusiastic about the cause of ‘socialism’ – as some in the Party considered. They were not even particularly sympathetic to Labour’s nationalisation programme – as various political commentators supposed. However, they did hope – manual working class and middle class alike – that Labour’s support for welfare reform was genuine. By implementing Beveridge and building houses they trusted that Labour would stand a good chance of preventing Britain returning to pre-war poverty and misery.” [Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, ‘England arise!’: The Labour Party and popular politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester UP, 1995)]

Although the public is portrayed here as exerting its influence passively, efforts by Labour leaders like Bevan to improve health and housing to the best possible standards reflected a long struggle for the betterment of workers’ cultural opportunities, carried out by more skilled or militant sections, but with the tacit support of the rest. The government’s efforts were premised on a general and pervasive radicalization of social attitudes, rather than a concerted campaign to change social structures. Labour’s success in preventing Britain returning to pre-war poverty and misery earned the government a deep loyalty from the working class at the time. 

As Labour ponders its future, the history of the left’s role in the party has become a hot button issue. I am honoured that  Momentum has invited me to present my book at a Zoom meeting on Tuesday June 21 at 7pm. Registration link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYvce-tqjksGtBM5ce6V0atyBiNxysinOyU

The meeting is free but pre-registration is required. 

If you are in the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire area, I will have an in-person book launch at “The Angels Share” in Hitchin on Sunday, June 26 at 7pm

Looking forward to seeing you

Keir Starmer: An anti-left Frankenstein’s monster


Oliver Eagleton’s new book, The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right, published by Verso, is an eye-opener. I try to resist conspiracy theories of history as a rule, so when Keir Starmer rapidly and efficiently began to install an apparatus for disciplining Labour’s membership through its own elected bodies, I tended to the view that Starmer was leaning on the Labour right to consolidate his position. But the book documents a real right-wing conspiracy to install Starmer as leader and take control of the party.

There are a number of reviews of Eagleton’s book that pay close attention to its first chapter, which discusses Starmer’s legal career before he entered parliamentary politics: a very good one is by Tom Blackburn in Jacobin, and there is a great interview with the author by Aaron Bastani of Novara Media. However, I am going to focus more on the later sections that deal with the way he got himself elected leader.

The first chapter describes Starmer’s legal history as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). It is particularly revealing because Starmer was sold as a principled human rights lawyer to the Labour membership, when in fact he had taken some extremely reactionary positions, such as collaborating with Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, in an attempt to extradite an autistic individual accused of hacking the Pentagon and facing years of jail time. Starmer then reacted furiously when Theresa May blocked the extradition in October 2012 on compassionate grounds. He was also in direct contact with Holder when Julian Assange had his extradition appeal rejected.

Starmer was also involved in the cover-up of the SpyCops scandal. He commissioned a supposedly independent investigation by Sir Christopher Rose into the CPS deployment of undercover police surveillance of left political groups, in which serving officers duped women activists into sexual relations while spying on them. However, Rose’s job had included approving the deployment of undercover officers, so in effect this meant he was investigating himself. It didn’t prevent Starmer from touring TV news studios to stress that the report had not uncovered any systemic failings at the CPS – but the report had been set up in such a way that it could not have uncovered any such thing.

The book goes on to describe the bad faith with which Starmer, as Shadow Minister for Brexit, manoeuvred the party into support for a second referendum while building his own profile among the membership. He gravitated towards the People’s Vote campaign that had been set up by Peter Mandelson and others primarily to drive a wedge between Jeremy Corbyn and the generally anti-Brexit membership, rather than an honest attempt to campaign for remaining in the EU’s single market. 

After the 2019 election result, Starmer carefully skated over his own role in contributing to the defeat. In the leadership election campaign he presented himself as an “electable” leader with a professional image who avoided political controversy, prioritizing his administrative expertise in a series of expensive and slickly-produced videos that highlighted his earlier legal support for the printers’ unions during their 1986 blockade of Murdoch’s Wapping plant, and the campaign of the Lawrence family after Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993.

But although the party membership was persuaded by its consummate desire to end the factionalism that had derailed Labour’s election prospects, a conspiracy to install a right-wing leader had long been in the works. A confluence of ideologists and political operators had successfully devised a plan to manipulate the Labour membership into support for Starmer’s leadership campaign.

Eagleton describes in detail how Starmer was courted by a secret cabal of Labour right-wingers and groomed for the leadership. “After Owen Smith’s leadership challenge collapsed in 2016, Morgan McSweeney – the New Labourite official who ran Liz Kendall’s campaign in 2015 – began to put together a plan. His allies would not waste their energy on plotting another coup. Instead, they would aim to bring all of Labour’s anti-Corbyn elements into an alliance that could reclaim the party once the leader had stepped down. The vehicle for this project would be McSweeney’s quasi–think tank Labour Together, co-run by Lisa Nandy, Jon Cruddas and Steve Reed.”

“After commissioning reams of private polling during 2016 and 2017, McSweeney developed a theory that approximately 60 per cent of Labour members were committed ‘ideologues’ – 30 per cent aligned with the Left, 30 per cent with the Right. The remaining 40 per cent were ‘idealists’, driven by vague moral principles as opposed to concrete policy positions. This cohort had voted for Corbyn out of a spontaneous revulsion at austerity, rather than any firm political commitments. The Blairites, McSweeney determined, could reclaim the party by appealing to the ethical instincts of the 40 per cent. Its next candidate couldn’t be as openly reactionary as Kendall; he or she would have to be adaptable enough to win this swing constituency.”

Nobody was more adaptable than Starmer, whose carefully cultivated image as a human rights lawyer and his chameleon-like ability to adapt his politics made him the ideal candidate. The campaign to insert him as party leader was highly orchestrated and well-funded. Even before the 2019 election defeat, throughout September and October of that year, McSweeney and Nandy hosted a series of discussions in west London where Starmer joined his affluent backer Trevor Chinn, Wes Streeting, and Bridget Phillipson as well as Blue Labour thinkers and a group of journalists. “Out of these discussions came the core tenets of Starmer’s leadership campaign: an anti-austerity bottom line to win the membership (articulated in his ‘Ten Pledges’, based on the 2017 manifesto policies), along with a clear emphasis on Labour unity.”

“Labour Together quietly built support for Starmer among MPs, trade unions and Constituency Labour Parties. Seven sub-groups were established to cover fundraising and nominations. Starmer attended biweekly meetings with Tom Kibasi, a former McKinsey management consultant turned director of the IPPR, who helped to develop his communications strategy. Kibasi made a grid on which he compiled data on the key Labour constituencies Starmer needed to target, and began to craft a message that could capture them. Job offers were made to some of Corbyn’s former staffers, with the policy adviser Mark Simpson and the former chief of staff Simon Fletcher agreeing to defect to Starmer’s team. On the day of the 2019 [general] election, McSweeney told journalists privately that ‘we’ve already got this sewn up’.”

Do these revelations mean that Starmer was a politically-vacuous individual adopted as a front man by the right-wing? Or can we extrapolate from his history of authoritarianism and duplicity at the DPP, as Eagleton suggests, to explain his subsequent political trajectory? It seems to me that Starmer’s leadership campaign achieved a fusion of his unscrupulous approach to power with the right-wing’s equally unscrupulous preparations for seizing the party’s leading bodies, creating an anti-left Frankenstein’s monster at Labour’s helm. But what holds the alliance together is their extreme hostility to the Corbyn supporters in the party membership, not an overwhelming priority to get Labour elected to government. That is behind not only their refusal to reinstate Corbyn to the PLP, but also their self-sabotaging rejection of local candidates in by-elections, their centralization of campaigning through regional officers, and their continuing alienation of  constituency memberships.

Corbyn’s legacy: democratic control of the local economy


According to the Independent, the biggest political influence on voters in May’s council elections will be the Tory “Partygate” scandal, not Ukraine or refugee policy. Polling studies from England and Wales estimate that Boris Johnson’s electoral liability means that Labour could gain over 800 seats, and even win control of London councils like Barnet and Wandsworth – although it’s not clear if they took into account a possible switch of voters to the LibDems or Greens.

This shift is entirely because of Tory voters’ revulsion at Johnson’s behaviour, and nothing to do with any increase of popularity for Starmer’s Labour, which seems to be doing everything in its power to lose council seats. The party has increasingly centralized its campaigning strategy for the elections, emphasizing national issues like law and order over local concerns. Constituency parties have been placed in special measures for an indeterminate time which prevents them from participating in selecting candidates, selection meetings have been rigged or candidates imposed by regional officials, and the Labour bureaucracy has expelled so many activists that there is little enthusiasm for campaigning. Canvassing teams that put photographs on Facebook appear to consist mainly of local councillors and party officials.

Right-wing apologist Luke Akehurst has attempted to downplay expectations for Labour, preemptively placing blame for a poor result on Jeremy Corbyn. But the areas where enthusiasm for canvassing is running high are those that have been most influenced by socialist ideas developed under Corbyn’s leadership, in particular where local councils have aligned themselves closely with the needs of their communities. Katie Neame reports in LabourLIst that “Labour’s sudden surge on Worthing council – from zero seats in 2016 to level pegging with the Tories on 17 in 2022 – is attributed to various factors by the councillors, candidates and party activists I speak to. According to campaign coordinator for East Worthing and Shoreham Labour Hilary Schan, the ‘major factor’ was the increase in membership under Jeremy Corbyn. ‘The Labour vote has always been here,’ she explains. ‘But there was just no one there to get it out’.”

In August 2017 Beccy Cooper became Worthing’s first Labour councillor in more than 40 years, and now is the Labour group leader. She told Neame: “We’ve very much based ourselves in the communities and very much based ourselves on listening to the communities and really trying to reflect what it is the communities need.”  Labour’s community work has built the party’s profile in the area, including setting up a Food Foundation that delivers to 100 families a week.  The party has its own manifesto that, according to local activist (and Hilary’s mother) Pat Schan, focuses on “really simple stuff”: “No political speak, no huge promises. Just what the community want.” 

The manifesto proposes to move council meetings out of the town hall and into community venues; empower community groups to change things in their area; and improve seafront, parks and open spaces in the town. Ambitious plans to tackle homelessness with sustainable programmes of social housing are combined with a determination to invest the council’s money and resources in Worthing and its communities, working with local businesses and employers to provide the jobs and training opportunities young people need for the challenges of the next ten years. 

Worthing Labour’s plan has clear echoes of the Preston Community Wealth Building model, that uses the spending power of the city’s ‘anchor’ institutions, such as local government, hospitals and universities, to favour local supply chains, local businesses and cooperatives and so retain wealth in the community. Preston Labour has also produced its own manifesto. It  emphasises city centre regeneration through the investment of £60 million in a new publicly-owned cinema, bowling alley, restaurants and Youth Zone, as well as  a refurbished museum and art gallery. The council will use local suppliers and labour exclusively so as to create new jobs for residents. Public purchasing is a powerful tool for influencing the behaviour of contractors, the manifesto says, allowing the council to insist on a real living wage, union recognition and access apprenticeships.

During the pandemic, the council increased support for community food provision and aims to reach forty outlets incorporating holiday markets, food pantries, hot meal providers and foodbanks. Preston Labour will look at implementing a new school breakfast initiative including provision of free fruit in local schools. £450,000 was secured to help 893 households live in warmer, more efficient homes with insulation and central heating systems. A growing cooperative sector has seen the launch of new employee-owned businesses, as well as the delivery of new models of council owned and cooperative housing.

Council leader Matt Brown told LabourHub: “A big part of it is looking at how we recover from Covid. We are looking at how we can do really practical things like working with our NHS to recruit people in the highest areas of deprivation. And we need to tackle the structural inequalities you get around race and disability and other things.

“Then we’ve got ideas around how to generate energy in local public ownership. We’re looking to collaborate with some of our Anchors – to generate energy not only for their own estates but potentially local businesses and residents. We’re looking at using land and assets for Community Wealth Building measures. We also have a plan for Preston being a Real Living Wage City.”

Preston is not the only council to adopt this approach. North Ayrshire in Scotland has been run since 2017 by a minority Labour administration. The election it faces will be a contest between their achievements in office and the failures of the SNP’s national policies. North Ayrshire Labour’s manifesto emphasises its ambition: a promise to build three solar farms; a programme to build 1,625 new council houses; retrofitting council houses with solar panels; a community bank; and becoming the first council to introduce free period products and mental health counsellors in schools. The council’s Community Wealth Building strategy runs through everything it does, from developing local supply chains, to increasing flows of investment within the local economy.

 “We have challenged the misconception that local government can’t deliver change by replacing timid managerialism with a radical and bold transformative political programme,” says council leader Joe Cullinane. Existing council estates will be improved with a £10 million regeneration programme. Every year Ayrshire spends £1 billion on procuring goods and services, and more of this will be spent with local businesses. Town centres will be regenerated by tackling vacant and derelict buildings with a “High Street buyout fund” so as to recreate thriving high streets. The income generated from council-owned solar farms and wind turbines will be used to tackle fuel poverty. Urging constituents to vote Labouron May 5, Cullinane said: “If people read our manifesto they will see the next steps will be transformative. Our policies are bold and innovative. Look at what we’ve done over the last five years.”

If Labour wins control in Barnet or Wandsworth, hitherto London Tory strongholds, it is not at all clear what they would do differently. But in Worthing, Preston, and North Ayrshire, there is no doubt that Labour councils will use all the powers available to them to transform the existing arrangements of economic power so as to improve the future of their communities. 

‘A resource for hope in grim times’ – Hilary Wainwright


If you enjoy the political and social analysis in Colonel Despard’s Radical Comment, my new book The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party: from Attlee to Corbyn will also interest you. It is available now from Merlin Press. It’s reviewed in the Morning Star here.

The Socialist Ideal in the Labour Party investigates how ideas of collective solidarity, respect and equality have evolved from the time of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to the present day. I show how the expectation that poverty and mass unemployment would be ended brought about the election of the 1945 Labour government, and how nationalisation was understood as a ‘first step’ towards socialism. The book analyses the way the idea of socialism has been redefined since then, while remaining vital to the challenge of building a fairer and more equal society and a better world.

My book argues that despite the capture of the Labour Party’s leading bodies by its right wing under Keir Starmer, most Labour members and supporters share ethical socialist values of collective solidarity, respect, and equality. Although not often stated overtly, these values form an underlying unity among party members without any need for further political discussion. They show how a socialist ideal persists despite the defeats and setbacks the labour movement has suffered over recent years. 

Between the two world wars, labour activists thought that socialism meant the state would own and control all land and industry, and would be the sole employer. It would organise production for people’s needs, and not for profit. When the Attlee government ended years of mass unemployment and absolute poverty with the establishment of the welfare state, the labour movement’s idea of socialism changed to that of state-centric nationalisation in a mixed economy, social welfare, and full employment. 

In the 1970s, Tony Benn advocated for the democratisation of industry, as well as for democracy within the Labour Party itself, in the midst of unprecedented strike struggles against anti-union laws, industrial rationalisation and factory closures. Benn’s recognition of the importance of extra-parliamentary movements was taken up by Jeremy Corbyn, who attracted anti-austerity social movements into the Labour Party. Corbyn’s leadership created a political space for envisaging a turn away from top-down government reform towards decentralising economic power in order to rebuild and stabilise regions and localities. This vision transforms  the centralised state into an overall framework for bottom-up participatory democracy. 

Readers and activists will recognise many parallels between the struggles within the Labour Party today and past tensions between the grassroots and the actions of the trade union and party bureaucracies. They will also discover the nearly-forgotten ruthlessness of the Labour right wing in suppressing the oppositional Bevanite movement in the 1950s. Moreover, a history of the beliefs that motivated earlier generations to fight for socialism throws into sharper relief the originality of the ‘new politics’ devised by socialist thinkers supporting the Corbyn left.

Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper and author of A New Politics from the Left, writes: ‘This is an important study of the strength of bedrock socialist values in the labour movement across the UK; but also of their vulnerability in the Labour Party to factional struggles for power. Based on original historical study and in depth contemporary interviews while Jeremy Corbyn was leader, it is a resource for hope in grim times. And for socialists outside the Labour Party as well as struggling against the odds within.’  

Stop the War – there is no military solution to the Russian invasion of Ukraine


Like many on the left, I held the view that Vladimir Putin was massing troops on the borders of Ukraine in order to put pressure on the western powers to pull back from integrating the country into the EU and NATO. I discounted intelligence reports of an imminent invasion because of the false intelligence retailed about Iraq. But I was wrong: it’s clear from the invasion and the prosecution of the war that Putin’s complaints about NATO encirclement were a red herring, used to propagandize the Russian people into support for military action. Considerations of economics or realpolitik were secondary to ideological issues.

Putin’s motives, it appears, are to establish a re-imagined pan-Slavic empire. Ilya Matveev, a researcher based in St. Petersburg, has wrestled with the problem of divisions among the left and concludes that “we did not anticipate genuine nationalist imperial views among the Russian elite and we did not think that Putin and parts of his ruling circle are truly Russian nationalists that are willing to sacrifice everything and to stake everything on their imperial delusions.” Beyond the geopolitical confrontation with the West, he says, “it’s about reconquering Ukraine as part of historic Russia, as Putin said in his speech. So now it’s about the desire to rebuild the empire, in fact, the Russian Empire. This is what Putin referred to. He did not refer to the Soviet Union, which was, according to him, a mistake because it was a confederation, officially.”

Matveev cites an editorial from an official Russian news agency, RIA Novisti, which seems to have been published accidentally and anticipated the early conquest of Ukraine. He reports that it considered the most important result of the invasion would be “that Russia is reunited with Ukraine. Ukraine is now part of this Russian world, and finally Velikaya Rossiya, as they were called during the Russian Empire. They are now united with Malorossiya, which was the name for Ukrainians during the times of the Russian Empire. They explicitly say that it’s even more important than stopping NATO. So restoring the Russian empire, basically, restoring this unity of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.”

Although there are justified concerns on the left about NATO’s enlargement, it was not driven by western Europe or the US, according to Yale historian Timothy Snyder. “It was the East Europeans themselves who pushed the process forward. I mean, we can decide that they didn’t understand their own national interests, but that’s how the process unfolded. It came from the East Europeans. … In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia and NATO cooperated, not least in Afghanistan, where the Russians tended to insist that the Americans and NATO had to take a harder line than they were taking. Mr. Putin himself referred to NATO, well into the 21st century, as a defensive alliance. He himself has changed drastically the way that he speaks about NATO. He uses it essentially as a way to try to rally the Russian population.”

Armed and unarmed Ukrainians are resisting an overwhelming military force in what threatens to be a protracted and bloody conflict. But it is the courage of people protesting the invasion within Russia itself, despite the certainty of arrest and brutal treatment by the police, that gives grounds for hope. Despite an absence of information on social media, news of arrests became a source of information about the time and place of protests, as people found creative ways to communicate opposition. The Washington Post reported: “Some mounted individual pickets, holding antiwar posters while standing alone on a street outside Russia’s lower house of parliament in Moscow and in city squares around Russia … Others adopted the strength-in-numbers philosophy: Hundreds marched in Yekaterinburg chanting “No to war!” according to the Telegram channel Avtozak Live. And others played a game of cat and mouse with police. Instead of massing in one place — difficult in Moscow or St. Petersburg, given the massive deployments of riot police — many protests were smaller, some just a few dozen people, moving from place to place to avoid arrest.”

At the beginning of last week, as People & Nature summed it up: “Demonstrations in every major Russian city have been broken up by the police, with more than 4000 arrests, but people have returned to the streets again and again. There were anti-war demonstrations in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, yesterday, the first street actions since the 2020 crackdown.” The post focuses on the letters written by professional and civic associations against the war that have been signed by tens of thousands of Russians. 

An eyewitness account by Valentina Pavlova, a participant in the St. Petersburg protests on the first day of the declaration of war, describes how the movement grew in sophistication. “After twenty minutes of being there [in front of the Metro station] — and after the police broadcast to disperse the crowd — the timid cries of ‘No war’ and ‘Putin is a killer’ finally began. They began to arrest people almost immediately; right in front of me they detained an elderly woman with a ‘No war’ poster. Gradually, there were more and more people, and the demands to stop the war became more confident and loud, then the OMON (Otryad Mobil’nyy Osobogo Naznacheniya, Special Purpose Mobile Unit; the Russian equivalent of SWAT) and police units actively began an operation to detain people and clear the area.”

From the second day, people began to self-organise on Telegram and Facebook, and on the third day “protesters marched in a column of many thousands through the center of Saint Petersburg until, around the middle of the rally, law enforcement agencies began to divide the main column into parts and detain the protesters. On this day, the detentions were already quite tough: the police were especially ruthless, not refraining from breaking limbs … Among my acquaintances, friends and relatives, virtually everyone is aware of the war that is going on in Ukraine. Much to my dismay, most people who lived in Soviet times are apolitical or inclined to legitimize Putin’s actions toward Ukraine in some way.”

The generational gap in attitudes to the war can be attributed in part to ceaseless media propaganda leveraging cold-war fears. An anonymous Russian woman told the Guardian that her father, an educated man, believed strongly that Ukraine belongs to Russia and that the country should display its strength and power. She said that for months the Russian media “have been saying the west had insidious plans that would end with war. The enemy at the gate is the United States, Nato, or Europe. They said that the west had plans to deploy nuclear weapons to Ukraine and take away our nuclear arsenal. Ultimately to take over Russia: divide it, destroy it and take it apart. … Still, I think that like me, many younger people don’t believe the superficial propaganda about Ukraine. We condemn all forms of aggression. We believe the attack on Ukraine was clearly planned in advance – all my friends share this belief.”

The best way to support these courageous Russians is clearly to build the anti-war movement in the west. They have rejected the binary discourse of support for either Putin or NATO. But leading lights in Starmer’s Labour party are painting the Stop the War coalition as a mouthpiece for Putin, leading to threats against at least one left MP. The Labour right is acting partly from electoral advantage, since it targets ex-Labour voters in “red wall” seats who are sympathetic to the military; partly from factional reasons, to isolate what remains of the Corbynite left; and partly because Starmer wants to align himself with the outlook of the political and military establishment to get their tacit endorsement in a future election. As the Tories slump in the opinion polls, he is responding to the requirement of the British state to project a vision of political unity. “Putin wants to see political parties in the UK and elsewhere divided, and we are not going to be divided,” he declared, foregrounding unity with the Tories while the government prepares legislation to control and suppress any and all protest movements.

Eleven left Labour MPs were pressured with the threat of expulsion from the parliamentary party into removing their signatures from a Stop the War statement that urged a diplomatic resolution to the conflict and called on NATO to halt its eastward expansion. A Labour spokesperson said the MPs removing their signatures showed the world “With Keir Starmer’s leadership there will never be any confusion about whose side Labour is on – Britain, NATO, freedom and democracy – and every Labour MP now understands that.” In the name of democracy and freedom, the party also restricted access to Young Labour’s Twitter account after the group criticised Starmer for celebrating closer cooperation by NATO countries while attacking Stop The War and other pro-peace activists.

The urgent need is to stop the Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities. There is no possibility of a military solution that does not risk a nuclear confrontation. Instead of joining with the Tory government’s plan to supply weapons to Ukraine, Labour should be insisting that the west back a peace agreement along the lines proposed by Anatol Lieven, a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. After offering Russia the lifting of all new sanctions in exchange for withdrawal of its troops, as well as concessions on territory, he says Ukraine should be offered “a massive reconstruction package that will also help Ukraine to move towards the West economically and politically rather than militarily – just as Finland and Austria were able to do during the Cold War despite their neutral status. … The West is morally right to oppose the monstrous and illegal Russian war and to have imposed exceptionally severe sanctions on Russia in response, but would be morally wrong to oppose a reasonable agreement to end the invasion and spare the people of Ukraine terrible suffering. America’s own record over the past generation gives no basis for such self-righteous hyper-legalism.”

Starmer plans Nato unity with Johnson but ditches bin workers


Just who is Keir Starmer trying to impress with his outspoken attack on the Stop the War coalition? He alleges the coalition members were “not benign voices for peace,” but would “actively give succour to authoritarian leaders.” The left in Britain is reading it as another blow in his campaign to isolate the Corbynite left. Andrew Murray, one of the founders of the coalition, writes that the attack only makes sense “as a further demarcation from the Corbynite past and a fresh front in his unceasing war on the Left in his party and outside it.”

But a second look at Starmer’s accompanying statements reveals another theme, that of national unity. In order to create a semblance of unity, he is pre-emptively identifying expressions of dissent as traitorous. He told the Times “The message is that we are firm and united in our support for Nato.” Visiting the Brussels headquarters of Nato, he took the opportunity to deliver “a very important message for our party and for our country, which is that the Labour party support for Nato is unshakable.” Shadow foreign secretary John Healey, on the same visit, underlined “the united UK support for Ukraine and stance against Russian aggression. The government has Labour’s full backing to help Ukraine defend itself.”

Starmer’s insistence on total support for Johnson’s foolish grandstanding over the Ukraine comes at just the moment that the political class is reeling under the multiple scandals of monarchy, government and police. The stability of the system is threatened because the government is floundering over its mishandling of the Covid pandemic and climate change, which has created a political requirement for Labour to neuter any kind of mass peace movement, since there is the possibility that these kinds of protests may attract wider support from popular opposition to the leap in the cost of living and escalating poverty.

In order to signal the reliability of Labour’s support for the British political and military establishment, Starmer rewrites the party’s history to airbrush out opposition to the western alliance from the Bevanite movement, Michael Foot, CND, and the Bennite left. Instead he tries to place himself in a line with Attlee, Denis Healey, and Ernest Bevin whose acceptance of a cold war alignment with the US came from a misplaced fear of a Soviet invasion of Europe after the Second World War. In the geopolitical present, when the US has lost its world economic and military hegemony, he claims that “our allies need our solidarity and – crucially – our practical assistance now more than ever.” What is “our practical assistance” in this context? Starmer is speaking for the British state, not Labour – unless he intends to send Paul Mason over on a delegation to the Ukraine … oh, wait … 

As Ed McNally pointed out in Jacobin, “For Labour’s Atlanticists, at least, foreign policy has long been comfortingly simple. Their maxim is one of unthinking deference to the United States, premised on a recognition that Britain’s ability to exercise imperial power rests on its status as a supporting pillar of the American empire. … [they] are wedded to an idea of the United States frozen in the unipolar past, and they are impervious to the catastrophic failure of the ‘project for a new American century.’ This has begun to result in significant disorientation, as the shifting geostrategic tectonics of the twenty-first century and cracks in the foreign policy consensus in Washington itself render the real world less intelligible to Labour’s aspiring hawks.”

It’s not just over foreign policy that the Labour right is living in the past: its dominance in the party is premised on the maintenance of the status quo, and any threat to it from protests or strike struggles needs to be quashed. This means resuscitating its Blairite campaign to marginalize the trade unions. Starmer’s pretensions of a national role may cause him to sneer at the idea that a strike in Coventry might cause difficulties for the relationship between the party and the unions, but this is the face of Labour that voters and union members are seeing. The strike in question involves about 75 refuse workers, who started a two-month strike over pay after talks with Coventry’s Labour-run city council fell through. The council opened several temporary waste collection sites, which led Sharon Graham of Unite to point out: “We have a so-called Labour council prepared to pay agency drivers to drive its bin lorries on more money than the union is asking for.” The council has already spent more than £3 million in just seven weeks trying to break the strike, according to Dave Nellist, a former Coventry MP who is now standing against the Labour party in the Birmingham Erdington by-election. This is far more than it would have cost to settle the dispute, he pointed out.

A Labour spokesperson said: “We’re not going to get into the specifics of this dispute. Keir Starmer’s Labour party will always act in the public interest. These sort of threats [of cutting union funding] won’t work in Keir Starmer’s Labour party. We would have hoped that Unite would have got the message that the Labour party is under new management.” Counterposing the “public interest” to the rights of workers in struggle is straight from the playbook of the moribund New Labour leadership. As if on cue, Peter Mandelson dragged himself out of the grave long enough to tell an event in Scotland that the party leadership “have got to show themselves to be in control, that we are no longer a party of the far left or trade union activists – that we are genuinely the political arm of the British people.” 

Starmer’s accelerating transmutation to a rewarmed Blairism is paralleled in the US with the reemergence of Hilary Clinton within the Democratic party. She is floating the idea of a presidential run in 2024, after a potential loss of Democratic control of Congress this year. Whatever her chances of gaining the nomination, her intervention is aimed at defining the party’s message as an attack on Trump’s legacy and turning away from the orientation of the Democratic party left to welfare programmes and extending Medicare. Translated, that means a rerun of her disastrous election campaign of 2016.

Reportedly, Starmer is ready to repudiate Labour’s 2019 election manifesto in a series of key speeches, joined by other members of the shadow cabinet, such as Rachel Reeves, who now say Labour is a “pro-business party”. A senior Labour party source told City A.M. that Starmer is expected to “slaughter the sacred cows of Corbynism” in the lead-up to summer, which is projected to include ditching any talk of energy or water nationalization. Since he has no ideas for addressing the crisis, like Clinton he will return to the failed politics of neoliberalism.

So how will Labour solve the problems of those on the poverty line, jobless, homeless, or struggling with the cost of living? The 2019 manifesto advocated fairer taxation to fund upgrades to schools, hospitals, care homes and council houses, and to train more doctors and nurses. Taking essential utilities like water or energy supply into public ownership would make them responsive to public needs – such as not swimming through raw sewage on the beaches or being faced with sky-high energy bills. These are some of the policies that Starmer is planning to abandon. 

UPDATE: 11 left Labour MPs withdrew their names from a Stop the War statement which criticized NATO’s eastward expansion. They were threatened with losing the Labour whip unless they did so. In this way, the right in the party are policing ideological dissent as effectively as the Russian police are arresting protesters in Russia itself.

The left must recognize non-parliamentary sources of social power


The right wing of the Labour party likes to present itself as an authority on how to win elections. Luke Akehurst, secretary of the rightwing faction Labour First, obsessively cultivates this myth. Although he admittedly displays a comprehensive knowledge of opinion polls and electoral statistics in many constituencies and council wards, this didn’t help him predict the result of the Shropshire North by-election, when he maintained that the Liberal Democrats had no chance of winning. They won by a majority of 5,925, while the Labour vote collapsed. He was so spectacularly wrong because his narrow conception of politics made him tone-deaf to the political moment.

In the bigger picture, it is apparent that many voters today are distrustful of parliamentary parties in general. But there is plenty of politics going on in the country, if we expand our conception of politics to include the movements against racism, football fans’ support for food banks, campaigns for renters’ rights against unscrupulous landlords, climate change activism, resistance to the exclusion of asylum-seekers, and protests against the running-down of the NHS. Only in particular circumstances is this condensed into electoral terms, so it doesn’t enter into the thinking of the Labour bureaucracy.

Akehurst’s regular articles in LabourList  construct an ideological narrative based on a restricted understanding of politics that routinely blames the left of the party for electoral failure, while never acknowledging the strategic mistakes of the right. In his latest piece, he writes that the party has to “rebuild an election-winning organisation that was hollowed out during the Jeremy Corbyn years, both through the removal of key experienced party staff and the political purging of experienced local activists and CLP officers.” Is he referring to the “experienced party staff” who actively campaigned against a Labour victory in 2017? And the only local activists and CLP officers who have been purged are those on the left – anyone to the right has got away with multiple complaints of discrimination and bullying.

He attacks MPs “who have caused the party huge reputational damage,” presumably referring to MPs like Claudia Webbe who the party abandoned after she was found guilty in an extremely contentious accusation of harassment. It’s unlikely he means MPs like Chris Leslie or Gavin Shuker, who defected to form the “Change UK” party. He also targets NEC and Young Labour candidates, hoping they will have a “positive attitude to getting the party electable again”, implying that the incumbents’ scepticism about the leadership means that they don’t. The key point of his piece is a preemptive warning on the election of constituency conference delegates, “where we need a pro-leadership majority so that this vital pre-election conference is a real showcase for Labour’s next government.” Party conference in Akehurst’s conception should not be a policy-making body, but instead an orchestrated display of support for the leadership.

Unfortunately for Akehurst, the electoral incompetence of the party administration has been made transparently clear by the fiasco over candidate selection for  local elections in May. Nearly all London boroughs have elections coming up, but the selection process has been badly delayed, including in key Labour-controlled councils Lewisham, Barking and Dagenham, Waltham Forest, Haringey, Brent and Southwark. LabourList quoted one organizer saying: “Our opposition are out campaigning with candidates already in place for months – we don’t even know when our selections will begin. We are having to plan out literature to be sent out without knowing when we will have candidates to put in them.” Blame has been placed on poor communication from Labour’s regional office. One Southwark member said the local campaign forum “received no answer for weeks from region when it asked them to approve the timetable proposed by the local party.”

The reticence of the London regional office can be explained by a complete funk over the loss of membership data. Labour no longer has an accurate list of members in arrears, beyond the start of December 2021. Labour informed members in November of a “cyber incident” on an outsourced third party handling members’ data which resulted in a “significant quantity of party data being rendered inaccessible on their systems”. According to LabourList, that third party is the digital marketing agency Tangent, and the “cyber incident” was a ransomware attackSources say Tangent refused to pay the sum demanded by the hackers, which prompted the attackers to corrupt the data and to permanently remove Labour’s ability to access it.” The party’s database will now need to be rebuilt, involving a huge amount of work – but the cash-strapped administration is laying off employees and cutting wages for the rest. 

Since CLPs are required to check whether members are up-to-date with their subscriptions before allowing them to vote on candidates, selection meetings are in chaos. In one constituency, a member tasked with performing eligibility checks said that they were forced to ask for screenshots showing payments to the party as proof that members were not in arrears. Moreover, the funds due to be returned to constituencies from the central collection of membership dues, intended to finance local activities, are not being paid in full.

The data breach has had such a debilitating effect on the party’s campaigning potential, the general secretary has a lot to answer for. Who decided to play fast and loose with members’ data and not pay the ransom demand? Was it an executive of Tangent, or was is a Labour official? The Labour right itself is dependent for its social base on its presence in local government, ever since the party loosened its ties to the trade unions. The upcoming elections may see many constituencies without campaign literature, let alone enough volunteers from the disaffected membership, to achieve any chance of success. A series of local government defeats would be a setback for Labour and would certainly undermine the ideological grip of the right.

The Labour right thought it had won a great victory by stitching up the Brighton conference so as to confirm David Evans as general secretary and pass rule changes that strengthen the PLP and bureaucracy against the membership. But can anyone seriously believe that Starmer can offer political, moral, and intellectual leadership to the groundswell of opposition to the ruling Tories? Starmer’s offerings to the public – already ruling out a rational solution to energy price hikes through nationalisation of energy companies – are based on an appeal to the ideological construct of the “traditional” Labour voter who voted Tory in the last election.

The job of the left is to participate in and spread extra-parliamentary political struggles and local campaigns, helping to generalise their political implications. Strikes and protests are multiplying and becoming more successful, as the cost of living is set to skyrocket. It also needs to break from the mindset of an exclusively parliamentary orientation to social change and recognize other sources of social power. It will be aided in this process by building on the gains of the Corbyn era that are embodied in the 2017 and 2019 party manifestos.

Johnson is a clown – but a necessary one for the Tories


The Tory party is unlikely to resolve their current leadership crisis by ditching Boris Johnson. He is the leader they need to hold together their electoral coalition, whose buffoonery is an attention-grabbing distraction from the government’s failures over Covid precautions and its systematic attacks on protests and asylum-seekers. He clowns in order to survive, but also for the government to survive.

The Institute for Government think-tank pointed out that the 2019 Tory manifesto contained pledges not to raise taxes or borrow to fund day-to-day expenditure, “while simultaneously committing to spend to address ‘substantial’ and ‘very expensive policy’ problems.” These contradictory promises were “highly unlikely” to be delivered at the same time, said their report, and the contradictions are what lies behind the resignation of Johnson’s ally, chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, from the cabinet – not any point of principle.

Patrick Cockburn commented that the gap between the promises and actual performance of populist nationalists like Johnson can only be bridged by lies. At the core of Johnson’s electoral coalition “is a party reshaped by the Brexit campaign which created an alliance of prosperous shires and suburbs with deprived, de-industrialised voters … This unstable grouping can only be kept together by a stream of contradictory promises from Johnson which means that somebody will end up being betrayed – the winners usually being the plutocrats. Great infrastructural projects – such as HS2 – billed as the cutting edge of ‘levelling-up’ are squeezed by born-again Thatcherites, and genuine plutocrats, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.”

Johnson’s language when talking to Sky News’ Sam Coates is revealing. He rebuffed Coates’ insistent questioning about his personal responsibility for the North Shropshire by-election defeat by blaming the media for reporting “political” news, and not “stuff that is about them” – the electorate – citing the booster rollout, skills, housing, and “saving” the NHS. This distinction enabled him to deflect questions about his own accountability by citing the national interest, and rhetorically enables him to survive any leadership challenges. 

What is more important is how the hard-liners in parliament are changing the law to make dissent and protest a criminal act. Britain has no written constitution, and the Tories are taking advantage of that to gain public acceptance of dictatorial powers through a torrent of reactionary legislation. While the legitimacy of the government is wearing thin, Labour does little to challenge and expose these dangerous shifts. When Keir Starmer positions Labour to support the government’s Covid measures “in the national interest” he is essentially repeating Johnson’s alibis, instead of demanding more furloughs or adequate sick pay for the people who actually make up the nation so as they can survive isolation or another lockdown.

The extent of the Labour right’s distance from political reality is shown graphically by Luke Akehurst’s tweeted conviction that the Liberal Democrats had no chance of winning the North Shropshire by-election. He thought he could predict the result by extrapolating from electoral “evidence” that it was not a good seat for the Lib Dems, but this “handicapping” approach from past elections completely missed the political moment. The public is enraged with the Tories’ cavalier treatment of lockdown rules, but sees no opposition coming from Labour’s parliamentarians. So why vote Labour to protest the Tories?

Starmer’s cheerleaders seem to be highlighting Johnson’s failings in the hope that the Tories will implode and Labour will then have the chance for power. While this may be wishful thinking, there is one particular scandal that seems to have been overlooked by the Labour front bench, even though it involves top Tory politicians. Sajid Javid and George Osborne both put pressure on the City’s financial regulator – which is supposed to be independent of the government – to cap compensation payouts from big banks which mis-sold complex financial products to small businesses from 2001-2011. 

The compensation scheme was launched in 2013, after 30,000 small businesses were left nursing heavy losses from interest rate hedging products sold to them by major banks. That year, the regulator introduced a cap which effectively stopped those with swap deals over £10m from claiming, on the grounds they were “sophisticated” enough to bear the risk. The cap is thought to have excluded a third of potential claimants and saved banks billions.

Javid, then financial secretary to the Treasury, personally lobbied to cut the costs for banks, expressing concerns “about where to ‘draw the line’” as to which customers were eligible, and he and a Treasury official pushed for “flexibility”, said a review by the Financial Conduct Authority. Javid is a former investment banker at Deutsche Bank, which was not involved in the mis-selling scandal. The review “found no explanation” why the cap on payouts was imposed and said there was not a “level playing field” between banks and customers, who were shut out of talks. 

The Guardian reported minutes of a meeting between the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority (FSA) when a Treasury official said: “The Treasury had been lobbied hard by the CEOs of the banks, particularly the two state-owned institutions [Lloyds and RBS]. As a result, the chancellor [at the time Osborne] had come to the opinion that the total redress costs needed to be reduced, and that the purpose of the meeting was for HMT [HM Treasury] to understand the FSA’s proposals in order to find ways to cut the cost.” The Treasury had previously denied that Javid was involved, telling the Times in 2019 that the alteration to the redress scheme was solely the responsibility of the FSA. 

Has the “business-friendly” Labour leadership avoided the financial scandal because it agrees that the interests of the big banks take priority over those of their small-business victims? The contenders for Johnson’s position may have other skeletons in their closets, but they are all ideologically more rigid and so incapable of the kind of political story-telling that has enabled Johnson to hold Tory factions together by promising everything to everybody. Whoever is Tory leader, Labour’s hopes that the government will self-destruct will not put the Starmer-controlled party on the road to power any time soon.

UPDATE: An interesting comment on John Crace’s Guardian sketch: “Indeed he cannot resign without the entire populist adventure collapsing like a house of rotten cards. He is bullshitter supreme in a project which, as Bannon pointed out to Trump, requires the neutralisation of effective opposition by ‘Flooding the zone with shit.’ Johnson’s task is to juggle all the Gold-painted turds that need to be kept in the air simultaneously to achieve this. The Myth of the Benefits of Brexit, the sidestepping of Parliamentary Scrutiny, the syphoning of vast amounts of our money into the pockets of cronies, the Sham Concern about the Climate Crisis, The Sham Support of the NHS (and the risible claims of investment in new infrastructure and staff), The Vaccination Hubris, the Immigration Exaggeration, the Levelling Up Lie and all the manifold pillars of the project. Johnson has no other talent but the one required for this endeavour. He cannot be replaced in this by Truss or Sunak or Raab or Patel.”