Cheap shots, great and small

Controversy over Starmer’s attack ads shows up the increasing emptiness of bourgeois political debate, argues Paul Demarty

Say what you like about Keir Starmer - he is not one to rest complacently on a fat polling lead. His party may be in the region of 20 points ahead of the Conservatives, but the Labour leader has clearly been looking up ‘ratfucking’ on Wikipedia. The only way to keep Rishi Sunak down is to keep kicking him.

Thus Sir Keir’s now-notorious attack adverts, in which the Sunak house style - the man himself smiling on a pastel background - was superimposed with ‘law and order’ harangues against the PM. “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t,” read one. Likewise: “Do you think an adult convicted of possessing a gun with intent to harm should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

Aside from their amateurish inelegance - a true master of ratfuckery would not come up with a legalese gobstopper like “adults convicted of sexually assaulting children”, and go instead with “convicted paedophiles” - the most notable thing about Starmer’s attack ads is their hypocrisy. Or perhaps, rather, how easily he gets away with his hypocrisy, since it is so blatant one can hardly really raise a stink about it, because everyone already knows. In this respect, if few others, Brave Sir Keir reminds us of Donald J Trump. When Starmer failed to keep his promise of fealty to Corbynism in 2020, some lefties complained, but even they cannot have truly believed a word of it. So it is with his ‘honest public servant’ act - a pantomime probity that only looks good compared to a chaos agent like Boris Johnson (not so much the ex-Goldman grey man, Sunak).

Indeed, the whole move might be compared to ‘Call me Dave’ Cameron’s series of attack ads against Gordon Brown’s government, which it repeats almost word for word. Cameron liked to decry ‘yah-boo’ politics and play-acted at being above all that, but when the rubber hit the road, we got billboards with Gordon Brown’s face, declaring: “I let thousands of violent prisoners out early - let me do it again!” Of course, to avoid such early-release schemes, it would be necessary to massively increase the size of the prison estate or else reduce sentences in the first place - the latter not exactly being red meat for the Tory mob, but it was exactly what they did, it being the age of austerity and all.

This precedent has in fact rebounded on Starmer, since he was director of public prosecutions under both Brown and Cameron, and therefore had a hand in the same policies his attack ads decry. Whether or not a politician gets away with such brazenness is a complicated matter. Starmer is at more risk than many, merely because he is a Labour politician, and so not covered by the rightwing press’s effective code of omertà. Labour is always more vulnerable to being clobbered by slabs of red meat, because that is definitionally a media-centric strategy. It does, however, somewhat defang the attacks of the yellow press, merely because of the inevitable backlash from the left: if the Daily Mail accuses Starmer of being a member of the woke mafia, he can now point out that Owen Jones and Socialist Worker denounced him for peddling ‘racist’ tropes. Anonymous Starmer people have briefed that they are very happy with the resulting controversy.

It may or not be enough. After all, the younger generation of Labour MPs - never mind their various staff - all came of age in student politics in its most deranged phase of identity politics, all of which will be recorded for posterity on Twitter, Tumblr and so forth, just waiting for a Mail hack to lazily lump together. At this point we can only speculate. What jumps out, rather, is how it will be decided - merely by force, as it were: the Tories’ mock-horror at being accused of such things, as if they were somehow above these dirty tricks; the relentless dishonesty of their culture-warfare, as documented by Mike Macnair last week1; and the vacuous nastiness of Starmer’s ads for the sake of looking ‘hard’.


Whence this pervasive dishonesty - the unconscious Schmittian nihilism of British politics? Partly it is a matter of world history - after all, the innermost mechanisms of capitalist society generate their own corresponding forms of misrecognition, the best known being the fetish character of the commodity. But there are more local matters too. The last year, in particular, has come as a wake-up call for how little power Britain actually has over its own affairs. As we argued last year, the financial coup against Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng threw into sharp relief the constraints on government stimulus,2 even in the ‘business-friendly’ form of tax relief for the wealthy and corporations.

In a few weeks, every account of the post-Brexit ‘sunlit uplands’ was reduced to ashes - be it the ‘Britannia unchained’ libertarian swashbucklers or the Lexiteer die-hards demanding we use our new ‘freedom’ from the European Union’s state aid rules. Here, friends, is your freedom - the freedom to have your fiscal policy dictated directly by Washington, rather than indirectly by Washington through Brussels. The simple-hearted patriots in the provinces may not have noticed, but the entire political class certainly has.

Starmer’s appeal - especially throughout 2022, when a new Tory fiasco of idiotic misgovernment landed, it seemed, every other month - was rooted in appearing as the adult in the room: a pose which ideally suits his total lack of charisma and David-Brent-level cringe-inducing weirdness. We had had quite enough of government by lovable cad. It also suits the moment of, let us say, managed expectations; Starmer merely has to promise not to screw everything up, and it is up to the party of government - now almost four years into a period of relentless internal strife and policy disaster - to prove it can match the bid or else find something else to fight on. But it cannot fight on substantive policy, since the United States is intent on wrecking Europe’s economy to shore up its dependence on the dollar by imposing a global Volcker shock, while retaining - as imperial hegemons tend to - its own right to protectionism and internal stimulus.

That leaves one option - exploiting bigotry, sectionalism, ‘culture wars’ and all the rest. These have two useful characteristics. The first is that they can bring forth results cheaply - one can merely draft legislation with a lot of stirring rhetoric that barely changes anything and get a 12-gun salute from the yellow press for fighting back against the woke mob. The second is that nobody’s life ever gets better as a result of such Kabuki policy, or even genuinely tyrannical impositions on the scapegoat of the month, so the underlying status anxieties can be exploited again and again and again. Not for nothing has this been a part of Tory practice for the party’s whole history, back to the days when it organised violent mobs against Catholics in the 17th century.

Insofar as such tactics are successful, they inflame the anxieties they feed on, and therefore will tend to drag other parties onto that terrain. Starmer’s cynical attack ads are a perfectly exemplary case. They are also utterly hollow: he promises to ‘properly’ fund the police, but also promises exemplary fiscal parsimony, so what exactly is to be defunded in the name of flooding the country with men like David Carrick and Wayne Couzens? He is coy - so either he is lying about the one thing, or the other.


This cynical and manipulative method, alas, has long spread to the left - we are just worse at it. As always, Socialist Worker set the pace on this front, with an article by Nick Clark declaring: “The Labour Party has dived twofooted into a rightwing, racist, ‘tough on crime’ campaign - and its leaders are delighted at causing outrage.”3 Most of this is fairly straightforwardly true: into that frame, however, slides unnoticed the word “racist”. None of Starmer’s ads mention race at all. They do not even mention any of the usual nod-wink proxies for race - inner-cities, gangs, and so on.

This is not enough to fool the expert racism detective, Nick Clark, however! His argument seems to run: a few days before the ads launched, Suella Braverman announced a clampdown on child abuse by ‘grooming gangs’, and pointedly asserted that the “majority” of such abuse was by “Pakistani men”. Comrade Clark writes:

Rather than joining those - debunking [this] racist myth, Labour tried to play catch-up with the Tories by highlighting Starmer’s record as a previous director of public prosecutions. Now it’s tried to outdo them by … a suggestion that [Sunak] tacitly tolerates child sexual abuse.

No other reason is given - indeed, it is not really a reason itself - to call Starmer racist on this point. (In fact, Starmer did criticise Braverman for this statement, calling it factually dubious - but who’s counting?) But by Clark’s logic, it would essentially never be acceptable to talk about child sexual abuse at all, in case it functioned as an accidental dog-whistle about British Pakistanis. Why deploy such absurd reasoning? Because calling someone a racist, in this day and age, is not merely a matter of accurate categorisation, in the way that one might call someone green-eyed or introverted. It is far more importantly a pragmatic move, a speech-act - it rhetorically places such a person beyond the pale. (That is why racists nowadays always have so many black friends, and don’t get them wrong, they’re not racist, but …)

We casually namedropped Carl Schmitt above, and in a certain sense the Socialist Workers Party approach to hurling accusations of racism around is even more acutely Schmittian than the bourgeois parties’ dirty tricks - the word “racist”, in the pages of Socialist Worker, is perilously close to having no meaning at all, but serving merely as a bright line between friend and enemy. Its purpose is to shut down reflection immediately. The SWP’s purpose is to build a culture of obedience to the latest diktat of the central committee: the farcical inconsistencies in its accumulated political record must always be covered over by reference to some emergency.

That is not, of course, to say that there is no racism, or even that racism is not on the march in important respects. Braverman’s assertions, in particular, straightforwardly scapegoat a particular ethnic group for an endemic problem. So far as I am concerned, she is a racist - quite as racist as the golliwog-touting Essex pub landlord she took time out of her day to defend a few days ago. There is little doubt that a large section of the Tory membership are unreconstructed ‘Enoch was right’ types, furthermore. The concept of dog-whistle racism is overused, SWP-style, as a lazy way of dismissing any opposing viewpoint tangentially connected to racial justice, but there are certainly genuine, as well as spurious, examples. And in the recent past, with the rise of the alt-right, utterly unashamed assertions of racial hierarchy have wider acceptance than they have done at any time since the 1970s at the latest.

This sort of response, however, is utterly fruitless. By refusing any conceptual coherence or consistency in our analysis of racism, we remove it from our understanding, and make it impossible to fight. But even at the level of low politics, it is stupid. How did Sunak defend Braverman? By asserting that the grooming problem was “ignored … due to cultural sensitivity and political correctness”. Socialist Worker is more or less explicitly saying that the problem should be ignored because of ‘anti-racism’.

The paper and its parent organisation has, over the years, slowly taken the mythical PC prig of rightwing imagination and given it flesh.

  1. . ‘Yet more lies’ Weekly Worker April 13: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1438/yet-more-lies.↩︎

  2. . ‘For whom the bell tolls’ Weekly Worker October 6 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1413/for-whom-the-bell-tolls.↩︎

  3. . socialistworker.co.uk/news/labour-revels-in-racist-tough-on-crime-ad-campaign.↩︎