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Keir Starmer’s bad history

With his insights as a historian of the modern UK, David Edgerton looks at Labour’s new affinity with the Tories

7 to 8 minute read

An illustration of Kier Starmer watering a plant that resembles the tree from the Conservative Party logo. A pot with a rose is knocked over and some people hold an RMT banner.

In December, in an article in the Sunday Telegraph, Keir Starmer made a supportive comment about Margaret Thatcher. It attracted derision from the left. His supporters responded that he was stating the obvious. But he was not. Keir Starmer made a general historical argument, here in its entirety:

‘Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism. Tony Blair reimagined a stale, outdated Labour Party into one that could seize the optimism of the late 1990s. A century ago, Clement Attlee wrote that Labour must be a party of duty and patriotism, not abstract theory. To build a “New Jerusalem” meant first casting off the mind-forged manacles.’ – The Sunday Telegraph, 2 December 2023

It is a remarkable and revealing passage. For it seems to be saying that only Thatcher and (partially) Attlee made a difference to the status quo. This runs counter to the traditional social democratic story – that Labour created something good, which Thatcher destroyed. To have this analysis from a Labour leader is astonishing (even if it was probably shared by Blair and Brown).

Starmer suggests Attlee and Blair’s strengths were their submission to duty and patriotism, and the fact that they both changed Labour. Attlee rejected abstract theory (presumably meaning socialism), and Blair a stale, outdated Labour Party (presumably meaning Attlee’s).

Many on the left will agree with this, if only to decry the reality it represents. As well they might, since there is a strong case to be made for the Conservatives being the key reforming force in modern British history, not least with respect to the welfare state, with Labour merely accommodating to them, and keeping down more radical options.

What is striking, however, is that far from offering a new analysis for new times, Starmer’s Labour sees the Tory Party as the creative force in British history, as a party to be followed rather than opposed. Labour has become a party conserving not Attlee’s world, but the one created by Margaret Thatcher and her successors.

Telling tales

Starmer’s Labour sees itself as the Tories have criticised it. It is telling that Starmer refuses to see anything good – beyond the NHS – in what Labour did in its heyday from 1945 to 1979. Indeed, he presents the history as one of (bad) welfarist ‘tax-and-spend’. Actually, the central programme of Labour in 1945 was not the new Jerusalem of the welfare state but rather putting nation and majority before private interests, a policy with teeth – the nationalisation of core infrastructures, full employment under good working conditions, and a full blooded productivism (rather than rentierism).

It is telling too that Harold Wilson is missing from Starmer’s roster. By far the most intellectual and radical of all Labour prime ministers, he certainly had a plan for a New Britain. It was based on a critique of British capitalism. It argued British business invested too little, was too financial, and had the wrong people in charge. It was critical of free enterprise, the free market, and of poor public services.

Labour promised modernisation, growth, rising public spending and a radically transformed welfare state shorn of Beveridgean (and Attleean) austerity. It promised growth of four per cent per annum, a partially planned economy, a new dispensation that reasserted the ‘value of service above private profit and private gain’, as the manifesto of 1964 put it. Wilson is disliked, and Attlee misunderstood, because they won on radical programmes.

Starmer’s history is also wrong about the Tories. Starmer’s suggestion that Thatcherism broke a historical stupor and unleashed a natural entrepreneurialism is doubly false. The post-war years, the 1970s included, were not years of stupor, but radical transformation and fast economic growth. The years since 1979 have seen slower growth, and, for most of the time, lower rates of structural change too. 

Far from unleashing natural British entrepreneurialism, this has been a period characterised by historically slow emergence of significant British firms, and of a historically unprecedented entry of foreign capital (and entrepreneurialism) into nearly all parts of the British economy. Since Thatcher, there has been a high negative balance of payments paid for by capital flows into the country, and much higher inequalities in income and wealth and between regions than in the 1970s. The past 40 years have seen a politics of redistribution to the top, to London and to wealth.

Uncritical thinking

Labour seems deeply unwilling to think critically and independently about even this recent history. There is no distinctive analysis, as undertaken in their time and own way by Wilson and indeed Attlee, of what is wrong with the country today, the conditions in which it operates, the unprecedented stagnation in productivity, or indeed the imperatives of decarbonisation and the much-reduced British place in the world.

This may be a little unfair. Rachel Reeves has criticised the over-globalisation of the British economy, austerity and on the focus on only London and the south east in arguments for a more secure, nationally-focused economy, a new social democracy based on a new supply-side economics and a concern for the everyday economy. Starmer claims that the growth that Labour will seek to unleash will be different in that it will be spread around the country. 

The commitment to green investment, even after the £28 billion figure has been ditched, is not nothing; nor is the commitment to partially rebalance industrial relations. Still, we need to recognise that Theresa May and Boris Johnson (rhetorically, but also partially in practice) were both arguing for levelling-up and indeed for a state-supported green transition and related industrial strategy.

Starmer’s Labour sees the Tory Party as the creative force in British history, as a party to be followed rather than opposed

More than that, Labour’s policies for growth are modelled on the failed policies of the past 40 years. They are focused on innovation, on the belief the UK is world-leading in certain sectors, on entrepreneurship, and subsidies for private green industry. We should also be concerned by some of the key technologies chosen, by both the Tories and Labour, which include carbon capture and hydrogen, favourites of big oil, and the insistence of both on using the term ‘world-leading’.

As they stand, such policies do not begin to challenge the particular problems of the present, not least what it will take to decarbonise and to live in a decarbonising world. Indeed, it is striking how little criticism Labour has of Tory policies as opposed to their implementation.

Labour criticises Tory incompetence, their ‘sticking plaster politics’. Yet what is most obvious about the Tories is their commitment to very long term, transformative change, of which Brexit is only the latest example, determinedly away from old Labour positions.

Second Tories

The enthusiasm for all things Tory extends to wanting to remodel the Labour Party on Tory lines. Like New Labour, Starmer wants his party financed not by members and unions, but rich donors, and to have the leadership very much in control. Indeed, Starmer has taken to referring to ‘my Labour Party’. Another indication of turning the party into a second Tory party can be found in Starmer’s claim to ‘put country before party’. This has long been the Tory claim for themselves. 

Historically, Labour’s claim was very different. Labour was nationalist and patriotic and it put party before the existing country. It wanted the party to change the country from one controlled by private and selfish interests. Yet another indication is to be found in the eagerness with which the party has adopted not only the Union Jack, but also the language of the Tories, their historical slogans, like ‘sound money’, ‘opportunity’ and ‘aspiration’, and their aversion to welfare and redistribution, their anti-tax stand, deep Unionism, and more. 

There isn’t even a pretence of charting a ‘third way’, much less endorsing New Labour’s social liberalism and pro-EU internationalism. But it has learnt from New Labour (and the Tories) that a debased political language, where political rhetoric is radically different from reality, works.

Admittedly, all this could be a brilliant strategy of mimicry, one not unknown either in nature or in politics. First, Starmer disguises himself as a supporter of Corbyn’s policies, now as a Tory through and through. But it probably isn’t – Starmer’s words about history, in their very incoherence and ignorance, are the words not of a genius political operator, or follower of focus groups, but of a believer, at least in Tory history, and that fundamentally there is no alternative to the Tories.

Social democracy has always been powerfully constrained by capitalism, as the historical record of the Labour Party clearly shows. But it is quite another thing to be limited by the politics of the Tory Party, especially the current one. Asked what her greatest achievement was, Margaret Thatcher answered: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.’ 

Let us hope that her successors will not be able to say that their greatest achievement was ‘Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. We forced our opponents to accept even our worst mistakes and most ludicrous policies.’

This article first appeared in Issue #243 Palestine. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

David Edgerton is the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a twentieth-century history (Penguin)

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