Back in August 2019 the journalist Patrick Cockburn warned that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was the start of a slow-moving coup, aiming to progressively marginalize opposition to hard-right Tory rule. He called it “a very modern coup in which a demagogic nationalist populist authoritarian leader vaults into power through quasi-democratic means and makes sure that he cannot be removed.”
What is less well known, but now revealed in an unauthorized biography of Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft, is that Johnson was only able to force out Theresa May and become Tory leader because Starmer blocked a deal with May’s government that could have resulted in a soft Brexit.
Ashcroft’s book notes that May had invited Jeremy Corbyn to take part in cross-party talks in an attempt to agree a unified approach to Brexit. Starmer led the Labour delegation. According to an extract published in the Daily Mail, “The meetings opened with some optimism. The Government team quickly discerned, however, that some of those in the Labour camp were more willing to compromise than others. While those in Corbyn’s close team ‘were sending out signals that they wanted a deal’, Starmer was insistent that an agreement had to include a second referendum.”
While on the surface conducting himself professionally, behind the scenes it appeared that Starmer himself was giving negative briefings to the media that undermined the talks. May’s former director of communications, Sir Robbie Gibb, believes that Starmer was responsible for leaks that contradicted the joint reports agreed with Seumas Milne, Gibb’s Labour counterpart.
Gibb told Ashcroft: “there were briefings to the BBC’s Today programme saying that the cross-party talks are going nowhere. I’d get a call from the BBC saying, ‘I believe the talks are on the verge of collapse.’ ‘Well, who have you spoken to?’, I’d say. ‘Can’t say. It’s official sources’. He is convinced the negative briefings came from Starmer or his team, and that the mixed messages highlighted conflicting attitudes within the Labour delegation.”
According to Labour sources quoted by Ashcroft, Starmer was the most deal-resistant of the Labour negotiators, and worked to undermine those in Corbyn’s team who were in favour of a deal. He prioritized the possibility of reversing Brexit through a second referendum over the chance to achieve a negotiated soft Brexit. One former Labour MP said: “Starmer got into bed with the People’s Vote people, so as to get votes for the leadership among members of the London Labour party. And he wouldn’t do a deal with Theresa May, which was there to be done, and would have meant a soft Brexit. So what happens? May has to resign, and we get a hard Brexit. All because he wanted to get himself elected Labour leader.”
These revelations cast a new light on Starmer’s intervention at the Labour conference the year earlier, in 2018. He responded to the clear anti-Brexit sentiment among delegates by unilaterally introducing the idea that there would be a Remain option in a second referendum. His conference speech succeeded in shifting the emphasis of Labour’s policy in such a way as to accentuate the divisions between remain supporters and MPs from leave-voting Labour constituencies in the north who warned at the time that the policy would lose the party votes in a new election – which is in fact what happened. Corbyn had to accommodate both positions in his closing speech, but he reiterated that he would support Theresa May if she could strike a deal that included a customs union, and protection for environmental and labour standards. Starmer closed off that possibility in the negotiations with May’s government for the sake of his personal ambition and to undermine Corbyn’s support.
Labour’s confused Brexit policy in the 2019 election, for which Starmer was very much responsible, enabled Johnson to steamroller Labour with his “Get Brexit Done” slogan, even after his prorogation attempt had been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. Since then we have seen the consolidation of a de facto elective dictatorship of the Tory party. It has ridden roughshod over the most long-standing constitutional principles through partisan legislation. The blatant transfer of public wealth to Tory supporters through no-bid contracts is a clear symptom of a one-party state, which has even managed to capture senior civil servants in financial corruption.
What then is the purpose of the Labour opposition? Starmer’s strategy of refusing to challenge the government’s handling of the Covid crisis assumes that the rules of parliamentary procedure still apply, when the government has shown its determination to manipulate and misuse these rules to gain and keep political power. He is helping to maintain the illusion of a functioning parliamentary democracy while the government has used the excuse of the pandemic to pass draconian legislation that curbs the rights of immigrants and protesters.
A former Labour staffer, Phil Bevin, argues that while at first sight it appears that Starmer has no policies, there is a discernible logic underlying his policy equivocations. He frames an acceptance of government cuts in “progressive” rhetoric and vague language; for example, “In response to the Government’s unpopular plan to raise National Insurance, Starmer hinted that Labour would consider the idea of a wealth tax – specifically targeting landlords with multiple properties and people who trade large numbers of stocks and shares – alongside a range of options. Notably, when pressed to commit to one of these options, such as a wealth tax, in an excruciating interview with Sky News’ Beth Rigby, he was unable or unwilling to do so.”
The coherence of this pattern lies in first offering only token resistance to the anti-democratic measures of Johnson’s government, while offering weak alternatives that repackage neo-Thatcherite policies as “progressive”. Bevin warns that this framing may allow Starmer “to hoodwink elements of the soft left into letting him off the hook until it’s too late to change the Party’s rightward trajectory.”
There is a last-ditch opportunity for the party membership to push back on this trajectory by refusing to confirm Starmer’s sidekick David Evans as general secretary at the upcoming party conference. The right has pulled out all the stops to swing the vote by a frantic campaign of suspending left delegates. What will result at conference is unclear, but there is now an irrevocable split between right-leaning party officials and the rank and file. This is cemented in proposed rule changes that include a probationary period for new members, during which time an application for membership can be “rejected for any reason which the general secretary sees fit”, except for those who the NEC has decided can be fast-tracked as parliamentary candidates.
There will be some sort of showdown at the conference, even if the confirmation vote is not held, but the right’s determination to drive the left out of the party will result in the eventual consolidation of opposition movements outside the party with that from within the unions. For example, to reaffirm the need for a socialist platform to fight both the Tory government and the Labour right wing, the “Labour Left 4 Socialism” coalition has launched a manifesto setting out an agenda of “unified defiance on major issues affecting all sectors of the Labour movement.” It links the fight for workers’ rights with the fight against racism and with action on the climate crisis. It also backs calls for constituency delegates to reject the confirmation of Evans, urging unions to follow the lead of Unite the union and use their votes to veto his appointment.