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The Starmer Project. A Journey to the Right. Oliver Eagleton. A Critical Left Review.

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“a whole tonne of muck to sling, not only at Starmer but at a variety of Labour figures, including the former Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell.”

Michael Ashcroft published the first, “unauthorised” biography of the leader of the Labour Party, Red Knight, earlier this year. The Conservative Peer gave an exhaustive account of Starmer’s life and character, ” “intensely ambitious.” “willing to charm anybody and everybody who might be of use to him.” Yet he was at a loss to uncover the meaning of the ‘ethical socialism’ of the MP for Holborn and St Pancras. The Telegraph observed that the book, ” tries to find dirt on Starmer, but all he unearths is decent, hardworking man and a bit of a bore”.

The Starmer Project promises much more: a critical forensic examination of the leader of the Labour Party, political formation, his legal career, his “vision, of sorts”, an analysis of the “more durable aspects of his thought-world” and an assessment of “their relevance to the present conjuncture”. Oliver Eagleton also presents a whole tonne of muck to sling, not only at Starmer but at a variety of Labour figures, including the former Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell and the obligatory swipe at Paul Mason’s criticisms of Brexit voters and Owen Jones’ unfavourable opinion of Seumas Milne’s media strategies. (1)

Starmer is, we learn, a “bureaucrat by training and disposition”, “Temperamentally ill-suited to making difficult judgement calls, in fact often cripplingly indecisive” he has still managed to revive one of the most contentious policy axis possible, “Blair-era Atlanticism”, siding with the US in “the New Cold War”. ‘Starmerism’ Oliver Eagleton writes, “is outwardly more reminiscent of the Miliband era, when the Conservatives would set the ideological tempo and Labour would promise to administer the state more humanely or efficiently within that framework” (Page 183) Elected as Labour Leader in 2020 the chief of the Shadow Cabinet has brought together “previously distinct factions of the Labour Right, from social conservatives to liberal globalists.”(Page 186)

As somebody who campaigned in the leadership election as a “unity candidate” adopting left anti-austerity policies and backing common ownership only to tumble backwards into “neoliberal economics” this looks like gross deception. For the present we have a “popular programme” of which few have heard – the Blue Labour revival of Labour Together, “values of family, work and community, to build a new coalition of voters around a story of national renewal.” This alliance of ” all traditions of the Labour movement” was to be without the left who have faced an “unsparing crackdown”.

This is a damming picture, and most of it, a political critique, could be written without engaging in any effort to present a biography. The present account of Starmer’s life has met with a mixed reception. Some of the reasons lie in the details offered by Eagleton of that career-span, but the the most serious come from where The Starmer Project presents account of recent history. These range from the assertion that he went “about ousting any Jewish members who deviated from the party line” (Page 158) to claims about a number of Labour political players, not only Starmer, but Jeremy Corbyn (hero) John McDonnell (villain) and party advisers and workers. Attacked on this Eagleton is frank about his principal political angle “a retrospective critique of Labour’s pro-Remain faction” that extends beyond the person said to be the architect of Labour’s second-referendum Brexit policy,

The Starmer Project begins with a young leftist, whose political interests began in something Eagleton calls a ‘chapter’ (branch) of the Labour Party Young Socialists in his Surrey homeland. Fast forward to Oxford Labour Club, where Starmer did a post-graduate degree, and then to Socialist Alternatives (SA), “affiliated to the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency” and “Socialist Self-management, a tiny post-Trotskyist grouplet with links to the Pabloite factions of Labour and the Green Party, which sought to build a coalition rooted in new social movements, queer politics and ecologism.” (Page 11) The journal, Eagleton claims, folded after 5 issues, although as a Pabliste, after many decades of deep entryism, with the rest of our well-hidden ‘faction’, I have a copy of Volume 4 Number 1 (1989). That makes at least 6 (I think there are more…. ).

SA is better described as aligned to the European ‘alternative’ movements of the time which stood for ecology, feminism and self-management. These were forerunners of later radical green-left groups, Los Indignados, Podemos, the left of Labour and similar currents within social democratic parties. One descendant Les Alternatifs formed part of a larger bloc created in 2013, the French left grouping, Ensemble! which at present has 3 MPs in the Assemblée Nationale.

There are no doubt those who have waded into the chapter on the Lawyer, a lengthy excursion into Starmer’s professional career as an advocate ,and his term as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). At times the 54 pages of, no doubt commendable detail, become as unintelligible as a QR code. Yet Eagleton drums one message clearly enough, from “radical lawyer” once with the reins of legal power in his hands he issued, “notorious rulings” on the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, to cite two of a very long list of misdeeds, to add to his role in harsh sentencing following the 2011 riots, and failing to take on Murdoch for phone-hacking . Starmer is not just a very bad, meticulously bad, person, he indulged in the use of self-aggrandising press conferences that showed an “appetite for self-fashioning” which “aided his political elevation”.

In describing Starmer’s rise as a politician it is not his lukewarm, sceptical, if not hostile, approach to the elected (2015) new leader Jeremy Corbyn. The biggest, though by no means the only, gripe that Eagleton has centres on his role as Shadow Brexit Secretary (2016 – 2019). Following the 2016 referendum vote for Leave, and the whirlpool of Labour negotiations on the shape of Brexit, the momentum for a second referendum grew. There was, he claims, despite the existence of a “left populist approach” favoured by Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray and others, an absence of a left-wing Leave platform – based on expanded state aid, radical trade union reforms, and pro-migrant policy” and the “leadership simply defaulted to mimicking the government’s Brexit plan in an attempt to neutralise the issue. ” (Pages 75 – 6)

Starmer, despite, The Starmer Project alleges, having no gut pro-EU feelings, became a standard bearer for those who opposed Brexit root-and-branch. As the anti-Brexit People’s Vote supporters demonstrated in large numbers across the country, between 500,000 and a million (hardly noticed, if at all, by Eagleton), Labour policy shifted. The result was that the party went into the 2019 General Election with this promise, “Labour will give the people the final say on Brexit. Within three months of coming to power, a Labour government will secure a sensible deal. And within six months, we will put that deal to a public vote alongside the option to remain. A Labour government will implement whatever the people decide.”

“Labour no longer had a positive message” Eagleton comments, and cites a critic of ““Brexit Derangement Syndrome” “rancid identity politics,” and “the more poisonous seeds of the politics of personal identity and human rights.” (Corbyn Adviser, Andrew Murray. The Fall and Rise of the British Left  2019) as saying “We’d said no to May’s deal, no to a joint deal no to Johnson’s deal and no to an election. What were we saying yes to?” (Page 125) To those campaigning during the 2019 election this confusion was indeed tangible, even if it was overshadowed by the personal dislike for Jeremy Corbyn that many voters volubly expressed…

One of the problems with writing recent partisan history is that rival partisans are still around. Andrew Fisher has replied in detail to this aspect of the account.

Don’t Play the Blame Game Labour Hub.

Was Jeremy Corbyn betrayed by his closest political allies over Brexit?  Former Corbyn advisor Andrew Fisher sets the record straight

In his desire to pin Brexit on Keir Starmer alone, Eagleton constructs – with the help of some fantastical accounts – a conspiracy in which Jeremy’s lifelong friends and allies, including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, are alleged to have betrayed their forty-year friendship with Jeremy Corbyn to side with Keir Starmer. This would no doubt come as news to both Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell, and probably to Starmer – who only recently threatened to remove the whip from Abbott and McDonnell too!

The main thing missing from Eagleton’s narrative is that Labour policy changed on Brexit because it was democratically changed by Party Conference. Even this is mistakenly individualised: “[Tom] Baldwin, with Starmer’s knowledge, had got hundreds of CLPs to submit motions calling for a public vote with Remain on the ballot.” Most of the motions that had come into Conference that year had been organised by the pro-Corbyn, pro-Remain Another Europe is Possible group, not by the People’s Vote campaign of which Baldwin was a part.

      

Fisher adds,

One particularly nasty smear is reported: “Aware that [Corbyn’s Chief of Staff Karie]Murphy went to visit her ill mother in Glasgow every Friday, McDonnell rescheduled the next meeting between the delegations for a Friday afternoon.”  This would be awful, if true. But it’s not: it was me, not McDonnell, who was co-ordinating the meetings for Labour in agreement with Theresa May’a Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell for the Tories.

For those so inclined they can read Eagleton’s reply, which says, basically, I know better than you what happened inside the Labour Party: A reply to Andrew Fisher.

The impact of the book’s account has already been made. For a contributor to the anti-Labour Skwawkbox blog, former Corbyn ‘LOTO’ staffer Phil Bevin. “Eagleton’s work essentially validates the Karie Murphy/Seumas Milne position regarding Brexit.”

The Starmer Project ends with reflections on the Corbyn moment and the future of the left under Starmer, with no prospect of finding another Corbyn. The North Islington MP rose, he asserts, with support from “disparate sections of the extra-parliamentary left” – some no doubt voting in the Labour leadership contests by ideological osmosis rather than by membership ballot. Despite their existence the party became the centre of attention, “This gave rise to a radical leadership without a robust movement, focus on winning executive power not through mass mobilisation or worker militancy, but through a policy programme that aimed to generate sufficient electoral backing amongst disenfranchised voters.” (Page 190).

This “populist short cut” failed. The reason? “The experiment could have succeeded if Corbyn had steadfastly resisted the People’s Vote campaign. But he did not.” No doubt the populist long cut, a “Left wing Leave” platform would have. In the absence of successful efforts to override the anti-Brexit views of the majority of Labour Party members, from internationalist pro-European Another Europe is Possible (AEIP) to the centrist People’s Vote campaigners, and now with Starmer’s wheel-clamp on the left, the prospects for the left staying and fighting, rebooting Corbynism – including the ‘refoundation’ of Momentum, are unclear. Eagleton does not examine the way a ‘wave’ of support for what was sometimes called (by no means by the long-standing Labour left, soft and hard) a ‘charismatic’ left populist can be so easily dispersed. Or the spiral into irrelevance of one of the Corbynista movement’s supports, the alt-left on-line media.

What is the future for Eagleton’s left?”Heterogenous initiatives” “political campaigning” “marginal, protean” might “create something resembling an anti-capitalist civil society by incremental steps.” (Afterword). A bit like some of the ideas of the European alternative groups, like the Fédération pour une Gauche Alternative, who inspired Socialist Alternatives? In short, something, outside of Labour, anything, anything at all.

****

Not the first time Eagleton has attacked Owen Jones:

A review of Owen Jones, This Land: The Story of a Movement

Olivier Eagleton.

Eagleton follows the NLR line that Labour should not have opposed Brexit. He fails to mention that his journal actively backed the vote to Leave, with Editorial Board member Tariq Ali appearing on public platforms to cast the ballot on the same side as the European Reform Group, the Tory hard right, and Nigel Farage. As he himself wrote in 2020, “Labour will never be the Party of Remain. It’s time it stopped trying.”

Eagleton focuses on the movement for a second referendum, widely backed by the Labour grassroots, and the force behind million strong marches protesting against Brexit.

While autopsies of Corbynism invariably identify the Brexit polarization as a fatal turning-point, This Land is unique in detailing how Corbyn’s ambiguous position was partially responsible for creating that chasm in the first place. His protracted indecision generated a political vacuum that enabled the arch-centrist Remain movement to grow throughout 2018, winning over previously sceptical figures like Starmer and McDonnell.

……

McDonnell thus formed a second referendum pressure group inside the shadow cabinet, swaying the perennially indecisive Corbyn after purging the Leave faction from his office. Jones acknowledges the disastrous electoral fallout of this policy, but he concludes that ‘Labour had no real choice’. ‘Whatever decisions the party made’, he writes, ‘it would not have ended well’.

Less interested in a political analysis of why Labour failed in 2019  – the obvious point being that Corbyn did not connect with the electorate, that there was gulf between the enthusiasm of the Corbynistas and the dislike of the majority of voters – Eagleton spares no words against Owen Jones, “a self-described ‘participant-observer’ in the Corbyn experiment”, marked by “instinctual conformism”, and takes a few side swipes at other highly regarded Labour people, including “Clive Lewis, the chest-thumpingly pro-nato Afghan war veteran..”

This paragraph, discovered in the thickets of ire. follows the main thrust of the book, “less a history of Corbynism than a prolonged apologia for McDonnellism.” One that refuses to challenge the idea that there was a crisis in the Party about antisemitism, and, Eagleton underlines, “.Alongside such incoherent formulations is a summary of Israeli history which ‘could have been written by Shimon Peres’, as one critic has remarked. ” Or that, “‘tough action on antisemitism’ is a proxy for antisocialism…

Over it all there is the dark figure of John McDonnell….

Just as This Land’s timeline is manipulated to indict Milne… , “The same double-standard is evident in Jones’s disinclination to criticize his political mentor. In order to sustain the representation of Milne as obtuse Stalinist and McDonnell as master strategist, the latter’s political misjudgements must either be neglected or downplayed. Like Jones himself, McDonnell warned against Corbyn’s leadership bid; opposed the leader’s anti-imperialist agenda (including his widely popular response to the Manchester bombings); advocated ihra; cosied up to New Labour leftovers like Alastair Campbell; and pushed the party towards Remain out of an irrational fear of Change uk. A serious account of Corbynism would recognize the damaging effect of these climbdowns. “

For Eagleton, “Starmerism is the end-point of McDonnellism, the logical result of Jones’s prescriptions. ”

Written by Andrew Coates

May 27, 2022 at 1:02 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Keir Starmer hasn’t got much charm,
    But he’s not doing any harm,
    And comrades have to learn to live with that.

    He may be dull,
    But he means well,
    And he never wears a beard,
    Or a foolish Russian Hat.

    He hasn’t much Momentum,
    And that’s a good thing too,
    If you want to win an election in the end.

    What Labour can’t afford,
    Is Corbyn and his horde,
    Who send the general public round the bend.

    Random Poet

    May 27, 2022 at 2:47 pm

  2. A Corrupted Body Politic (from an article entitled ‘‘BrexitCovid’ A rotting Corrupted State of Affairs’ by Chris Grey in the May issue of Byline Times:

    Inseparable from this malaise is the parlous state of our political institutions.

    Which brings things back to Boris Johnson’s refusal, aided and abetted by his party, to resign.

    This latest example of moral rot symbolises an entire country going rotten; its entire national strategy now founded on the lies, delusions and fantasies of Brexit.

    The Prime Minister is both the foremost and yet the least important manifestation of this rot. For, while it is a cliché that the ‘fish rots from the head’, his departure would not in itself improve things: the rot has now gone too deeply into the body politic because it doesn’t just come from Johnson’s moral depravity.

    It comes from Nigel Farage’s blokey racism, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s faux-patrician sanctimony, Gisela Stuart’s earnest spitefulness, Michael Gove’s oily sophistry. From the decades of screaming tabloid headlines about immigration, and the lachrymose self-pity of suburban curtain-twitchers who ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’. From the belligerent nationalism of beer-bellied thugs and blue-blazered golf club bores who can’t forget the war they don’t actually remember. From contrarian would-be intellectuals who can’t forgive being ignored by real academics and from free-market think-tankers who have none of the knowledge of real business people. From dead-eyed hedge-fund managers gloating over profits to be made and cold-eyed neo-Marxist ‘Lexiters’ dreaming of utopias to come.

    Those who complain of the rot are denounced as deranged or dismissed as obsessed. They are told that they must ‘move on’ and ‘get behind Brexit’. Yet, ironically, they are told to do this most loudly by those who equally loudly insist that Brexit has been betrayed.

    The rot will only have a chance of being stopped when enough people agree that Brexit has in fact failed to deliver its promises, even if they continue to disagree about why. But, by then, there may not be much left untainted.

    Jim Denham

    May 27, 2022 at 3:20 pm


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