In a very precise manner the Labour leader is, rather effectively, doing his job. That is to say, he has transformed Corbyn’s Labour once more into a rehabilitated pillar of the British state, its financial centres and foreign policy imperatives. He has set about purging the radical left, and indeed the not so radical left, as part of the process of stabilising the second party of capital. The Labour leadership team are deploying what they view to be the appropriate tactics to win the general election next year. But that is not the totality of their project. Far broader in scope, they seek to reassemble the component parts of British capitalism after a period of sustained and severe disruption. It is through Keir Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, and Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, that order is to be imposed.
Because of the pace of events, it is easy to adapt without addressing their overlapping, and lasting, impact. The the multifaceted crisis that has afflicted the British polity calls for realignment at the top of the system, while the carnage at the heart of the political institutions in recent years cannot be understated. This is most potently distilled through Brexit and the consequences of the Leave vote in 2016. To get a handle on why the Brexit era is so pivotal, and so distorting, we should seek to understand the real dynamics behind it. The folklore of both the New European and The Telegraph tells us little.
First and foremost, Brexit has been wrongly interpreted by many as a project “of the establishment.” Pantomime elitists like Jacob Rees-Mogg certainly lend themselves to such a conclusion. But this is a misreading of the reality, both historically and since the referendum. It is long forgotten, but important to state, that opposition to European integration came largely from the left in the 1970s and 80s. Tony Benn, Michael Footand the trade unions all argued that such a move would be to the detriment of popular sovereignty and result in the primacy of the market economy over all else. Thatcher, on the other hand, understood integration as an opportunity to extend her revolution from Britain across the European continent.
In a speech launching the Single Market Campaign in 1988, she told of the opportunities such an entity would bring about for multinational and domestic corporations: “Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.” This position was supported by the vast majority of leading Conservative cadres, and can now be heard most eloquently articulated by party grandees like Michael Heseltine and John Major. It is worth dwelling on how hegemonic this approach became, so much so that three decades later many of those who claim to despise Thatcherism are in full alignment with her European strategy.
That is not to say many Tories did not feel a great deal of agitation in the process. Indeed, globalisation in general, despite it representing the triumph of the free market, was also cast with some suspicion because of the attendant social, political and cultural questions it raised. The idea of a “global village” which embraced multiculturalism and subordinated the nation state to supranational structures presented a threat to important parts of the Conservative tradition.
Intellectuals on the right, like Roger Scruton, thus retained a critique of Thatcher for her attachment to the supremacy of market forces. A market, he and others claimed, did not itself make a society. For that you needed instruments and ideas which could withstand and transcend consumer capitalism: religion, national identification, associational life, tradition and monarchic ritual. These could only be undermined by the hyper-marketisation of the social realm and the aggregation of national democracies into transnational bodies. “In the years since its creation,” argued Scruton, “the European Union has become increasingly hostile to national identity and cultural uniqueness.”
But these ideas were marginal as far as the development of the architecture of the British state, industry and finance in the modern era. The left – broadly defined – also came to abandon its erstwhile opposition to the European Union. It could play to internationalist values and come to enshrine a variety of social causes as part of the long march through the institutions. The largest free-trade experiment in human history not only became all encompassing ideologically, but deeply embedded into the daily operations and transactions of British and European capitalism.
In 2016, leaving the EU found popular appeal. In England especially, it became a lightening rod for various issues, not least immigration. But this question interlocked with declining access to high quality public services as a result of austerity, a broad distrust of the political class and alienation from the organs of government. The referendum result threw an almighty spanner into the works, which set off a chain reaction deep into an unprepared political and economic infrastructure. And, as Robert Shrimsley explains, it plummeted Britain’s most successful political party into disarray: “For decades, Tories were unified behind Thatcherite economics that preached free markets, private enterprise, lower taxes, fiscal prudence, deregulation and globalisation. Free trade was an unquestioned good. Oligarch money was welcome in London, China was a growth opportunity. This was the model that facilitated their aspiration society. Then came the financial crisis and Brexit.”
The events this unleashed don’t need rehearsed here. But the point is to say that Brexit is best characterised as a crisis for the British establishment in its majority, rather than an objective of it. Critically, Brexit represented just one half of a twin dilemma. The other came in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The increasingly chaotic Tory party became less reliable as the political arm of the City, the Confederation of British Industry and so forth as the struggle over Brexit across all politics unravelled. Yet at the same time, Labour were off limits as a potential substitute that could auger towards replenishing economic and political stability for the status-quo.
If Johnson, who played a distinctively opportunist role in Brexit, had to be the wrecking ball to dispatch Corbyn: so be it. But his government, despite its large majority, was never going to draw a strong enough line under the preceding years, nor the handling of the pandemic. The events leading up to his resignation, involving all manner of internal leaks, exposed not only his personal failings and misdemeanours but a party riven with splits and divisions resulting in the disastrous leadership of Liz Truss.
Her brief but cataclysmic time in office once again brought the system into a renewed period of extreme and self-inflicted volatility, this time impinging on the living standards of substantial parts of the middle class. Forced to resign, Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister. As the Financial Times columnist Stephen Bush put it at the time: “Her replacement will be the UK’s fifth prime minister since the Conservative party returned to power 12 years ago, and the fourth since the Brexit referendum a little over six years ago. That reflects the deep and enduring instability and perhaps ungovernability within the Conservative party.”
It is in this context that Starmer’s Labour is steeled. By its nature, it is a project of elite restoration. It seeks to combine latent opposition to the Tories in the population at large, with support from exhausted ruling quarters who crave renewal and stability. A calling to order, if you like, and an embrace around the institutions of both state and finance with the reassurance that “normality” might return. Not because they “fear” big business, or because they are concerned about “spooking” the markets. But because that is, plainly, whose interests they represent. This is the counter-revolution of the radical centre whose purpose is to discipline the populist nationalism and economic protectionism of the radical right, and to extinguish the political representation and influence of the “Corbynite” left.
Keir Starmer in 2024 does not enjoy the popularity of Tony Blair in 1997. But be under no illusions about the scale of his ambition. As the ailing European core and periphery faces up to the stubborn rise of far-right parties, as the United States prepares for the potential of a Trump re-run in 2024 and as street rioting grips France, Starmer aims to present Britain as a beacon of revival for the West. To this project he is utterly committed and convinced.
But since the function of Starmer’s Labour is to manage rather than redistribute, it is full of contradictions. Through its inability and unwillingness to institute working class reforms, it will prefigure new insurgent waves. The Labour left thinker Jeremy Gilbert forecasts a plausible future: “The path they (Labour) are currently charting leads to a 2028/9 contest between some kind of anti-democratic ‘centrist’ technocracy and an even more authoritarian, violent, National Conservatism.”
Regardless, the Labour leader and his team have shown they are willing to be ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Externally and internally. Understanding what they are is crucial, just as “Sir Kid Starver” memes and gimmicks in Westminster are not remotely adequate to the task of building an urgently needed working class and democratic politics.
This originally appeared on Jonathon’s Substack Independence Captured – sign up here.