Will Labour under Keir Starmer Become a Hostile Environment for Green Socialists?

By Mike Davies

The Alliance for Green Socialism rejoiced when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party because we shared his vision of a better, fairer society. For five years we campaigned alongside Corbyn’s Labour to build a nationwide political movement.

But a political movement is different from a political party. A political party is a grouping of people who have enough politics in common that it makes sense for them to work together rather than separately. To belong or not to belong is a choice for each member of a party to make. Often, as with Tory or Labour membership, the shared politics is a largely a matter of class. Sometimes, as with LibDems and Greens, it is not.

Some AGS supporters switched their primary allegiance to Labour under Corbyn – and others even left the AGS altogether. Doing so was not unreasonable. Certainly I wouldn’t criticise anyone for following his or her own judgment in such a matter.

Between 2015 and now, the attitude of the AGS as an organisation was that we would continue to campaign for eco-socialist policies and continue to stand in elections. However, we would not stand in any seat where we judged that doing so would adversely affect the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party.

I suggest to those who left the AGS to support Corbyn that you may now wish to reconsider, given Corbyn’s exit. Remember that the AGS has no problem with dual membership.

In most British political parties, the leader has a considerable – and unhealthy – influence on party policy and practice. I remember, under Tony Blair, complaining in a conference speech that Labour members were tired of waking up in the morning and reading in the newspapers what new policy the party (i.e. Blair) had adopted. For some reason this did not improve my popularity with Labour Party apparatchiks.

Of course Jeremy Corbyn as leader was quite different from Blair. I had worked with him in the late seventies in London and knew him to be honest and sincere. His politics were radical social democratic. He was not aiming to bring down capitalism but to get a much bigger share of the fruits of capitalism for working people. The AGS, of course, aims to replace capitalism with socialism. Nonetheless, Corbyn was an unimaginable improvement on Blair, who was really a closet Tory.

On the crucial question of the environment, Corbyn had much the same actual position as other parties. It was acknowledged as an important issue but never really made it into the mainstream of Labour policies. In Corbyn’s first conference speech, which was praised in the media for highlighting environmental issues, less than 5% of what he said was actually about the environment. The rest was what one might call ‘traditional’ Labour issues, traditional social democracy. The AGS view is that the environment must have parity with social issues, and that we must recognise the interlinked nature of the two areas.

In the 2017 general election Corbyn did unexpectedly well but his performance in 2019 was lacking –and the party paid a price at the polls. Following Corbyn’s resignation, Sir Keir Starmer was elected as Labour leader, with around twice as many votes as Corbyn’s preferred successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey. So where will Sir Keir take Labour?

The make-up of his shadow cabinet is a big clue. Sir Keir has cleared out every last Corbynite – except for Long-Bailey, whom he committed to keep during the leadership contest. While one would expect some significant change, this clean sweep is surely an indicator of a massive change of direction. The party machine has also been purged of Corbyn supporters. While it took two years for Corbyn to get rid of the appalling Iain McNicol as General Secretary, his (supposedly) Corbynite replacement, Jenny Formby, has already been pushed out.

Assessing Sir Keir’s parliamentary performance is difficult in the present circumstances, with the House of Commons largely empty of MPs. Even so, his record so far seems to be that of a competent critic rather than a leader with great ideas. As for policies, nothing much has emerged, but Sir Keir has been very slow to call out the Tories over their shocking – and arguably criminal – mishandling of Covid-19.

On the environment there has been only silence. A clue may be that Long-Bailey has been moved from a post she filled well, with responsibility for Labour’s Green New Deal, to one with no significant impact on environmental matters.

A final straw in the wind is Sir Keir’s position on ‘anti-semitism’. One of the cleverest moves by Corbyn’s right-wing opponents was to fabricate, out of nothing, false allegations about anti-semitism within the Labour Party, and to give them currency in the media. His accusers even claimed that Corbyn himself was anti-semitic – a ludicrous suggestion given his lifelong fight against all forms of racism. It is unfortunate that Corbyn failed simply to dismiss these made-up slurs out of hand, instead bending to accommodate the idea that any opposition to Zionism was somehow anti-semitic.

Sir Keir, on the contrary, has been lionised by those who attacked Corbyn. He declared that ‘anti-semitism ha[d] been a stain on our party’ during Corbyn’s five-year term. After a video call to Jewish leaders following his election, they claimed he had ‘done more in four days than Corbyn did in four years.’ But in fact Sir Keir had merely fallen into line with the questionable interference in the general election campaign by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

I am suspicious of the new Labour leader. Admittedly we may need more evidence before we can draw a definitive conclusion on Sir Keir.

Meanwhile, those who moved quite honourably from the Alliance for Green Socialism to Corbyn’s Labour Party may wish to reassess their position in the light of having Sir Keir as Labour leader. A factor to bear in mind is that unless social democracy is to become the outer limit of left-wing politics in this country, we need socialist outriders to the left of Labour who are prepared to challenge the party’s new leadership as it returns to the Blairite centre.

Mike Davies is the Chair of the AGS

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