Hollow man for hollow times
Much hyped though it was, the ‘new chapter’ speech was a ‘painting by numbers’ exercise in political platitudes, writes James Harvey
Keir Starmer’s February 18 speech tells us a great deal - both about the nature of the Labour leadership and the current state of politics in Britain more generally.1 The widely trailed ‘A new chapter for Britain’ speech was billed as a “reset” for his leadership and a much-needed opportunity for “the sensible radical” to make up the ground recently lost to the Tories.2 The success of the Johnson government’s vaccine strategy, the continuing Tory lead in the opinion polls and media mutterings about Starmer’s ineffective opposition added to the pressure on him to come up with something to turn the tide.3
For the connoisseur of political cliché, Starmer’s speech did not disappoint. From the title of the speech - a ‘new chapter’ - through to the obligatory references to the “mood of 1945” and the need for a “new partnership between government and business”, these were painting by numbers political platitudes of the worst kind.4 It was a triumph of bad style over even worse substance. Despite the hopes of his supporters that we would, at last, hear Sir Keir’s ‘big idea’ to tackle Britain’s social and economic problems, all we got were limited suggestions about “backing a new generation of entrepreneurs” through business start-up loans, together with a proposal for a recovery bond and national infrastructure bank.5 Both in the context of the serious crisis facing British capitalism and the public finances, and in comparison with the radical way that the Johnson government has abandoned neo-liberal economic orthodoxy to deal with the pandemic, this is pretty weak stuff - even compared to the very low bar set by previous Labour leaders.6
So do we just dismiss the speech as a timid and rather tired Keynesianism, simply continuing Starmer’s policy of trailing behind Boris Johnson, and echoing the Tories ‘in the national interest’? For Starmer the speech is an important part of his electoral strategy to establish his position as a safe pair of hands, who can “secure, protect and rebuild” and demonstrate to the capitalist class that the nightmare of Corbynism has truly passed.7 Under Starmer, he is saying, Labour can be trusted once more not to upset the status quo. Thus, in the context of those specific electoral aims, this ‘reset’ speech makes some sense, even if it is exceptionally pedestrian in style and content.
For many on the left, Starmer is simply a Tony Blair mark two.8 A close examination of the speech does indeed show many textual and stylistic similarities between the ‘Third way’ and Starmer’s ‘New chapter’. While there are quite significant and clearly recognisable differences in the political and social context of the 1990s compared to today, both Blair and Starmer perform a similar historical function - as Labour leader in bourgeois politics.
This points up a basic contradiction that has existed since the working class developed mass political organisations and was able to secure democratic rights from the late 19th century in the major capitalist societies. Capitalism needed to variously mobilise and manage the proletariat as a mass electorate. Manufacturing consent and developing legitimacy were essential methods of bourgeois rule, and helped to construct the outer ramparts of the capitalist state. These processes might take the form of material concessions and reforms, such as pensions and unemployment benefit, but mass politics also required ideological mobilisation that went beyond mere ‘pork barrel’ politics and meeting the immediate demands of the working class.9
Historically, the organisations of the working class played an important role in this process of mobilisation and legitimation. Through incorporation and accommodation, the leadership and the organisations of the working class were drawn into this system for defending capitalist power. In Britain, the history of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party and a party of government since May 1915 shows how this process occurred and the ways in which its leaders acted as the “labour lieutenants of capital”, to use De Leon’s memorable phrase, within the working class movement.10 The Labour government of 1945-51 is the locus classicus both of this process and in the way it continues to act as a model for the politics of both the Labour right and the Labour left.
World War II - the ‘People’s War’ - has become a major element in the official ideology of British capitalism. Labour has drawn on that mythology and used the post-war Attlee government and the development of the welfare state to place the party centre-stage in the heroic national story. This has become a potent narrative, partly because it legitimises Labour as a party of government, but largely because it is an ‘inspiring vision’ of what Labour can achieve, given the chance. The history of capitalism internationally throughout the 20th century shows that bourgeois politics generally requires such convincing and inspiring narratives, which appeal to the masses, in order to function. The result is a seemingly endless cycle of new ‘big ideas’, emphasising stability and tradition on the conservative right or change and progress on the left.
Given these dynamics of bourgeois electoral politics, we can see why Starmer needs to drum up support for his promised ‘new chapter for Britain’ by drawing, like Corbyn and Blair in their various ways before him, on the Labourist mythology of 1945 and its rhetoric of the New Jerusalem. But we have heard it all before. However, when we listened to it first time around, frankly the story seemed much more relevant and more convincing. Now, coming from the mouth of Keir Starmer today, in a period when capitalism is unable to offer the same level of concessions as during the golden age of the post-war boom, it all seems rather dog-eared and out-of-time.
Who can now believe in Starmer’s jaded rhetoric? Certainly not a deeply cynical and disillusioned electorate. Who can blame them when neither the Labour right nor the Labour left can offer the working class anything like a real programme or a strategy to tackle the immediate crisis in Britain, let alone a real transformation of society.
The objective function of social democracy in capitalist politics remains what it has been since the early 20th century: namely, to be a safe ‘second eleven’, which can help maintain the status quo by diverting working class militancy into manageable parliamentary channels. However, in this current period Starmer represents the fag-end of Labourism - reformism without reforms. The ideological and political exhaustion of this form of Labourism is exemplified by the nonentities who make up the current shadow cabinet and the intellectual paucity of the ‘opposition’ they present to the Johnson government.
Despite the serious political and economic crises facing British capitalism and the British state, the ruling class is not threatened by a serious political challenge from the labour movement. It does not need to bother with a developed ideological defence or counter-response to Starmer, because it feels no serious threat to its position.11 Faced with such an opposition, even a charlatan and political lightweight like Boris Johnson can bestride the parliamentary scene and remain unchallenged, save some rightwing grumbling from his own back bench.
Subjectively, members of the shadow cabinet seem to have little real purpose beyond the election of a Labour government and the furthering of their own individual ministerial ambitions. Consequently, their ‘politics’ amount to little more than forgettable soundbites, spin and marketing to ‘sell’ their party electorally. Put simply, this is all there is to Starmer. He is a hollow man for hollow times.
See, for example, Socialist Appeal’s editorial, February 10 2021.↩︎
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime in France in the 1850s and 1860s; Bismarck’s welfare reforms in the 1880s; the political mobilisation of the masses; and the integration of working class organisations into the war effort in Britain and Germany during World War I - these are all examples of the different facets of this process.↩︎
For the classical account of Labour’s development, see Ralph Miliband Parliamentary socialism: a study in the politics of Labour London 2009.↩︎