Sir Keir’s sinister past

Rightwing pundits have finally begun bringing up deep entryism and long-gone political affiliations to Pabloism. But Trot-baiting is unlikely to save Rishi Sunak, says Paul Demarty, he is a loser

If, in 1986, you had asked a politically aware person to name the Trotskyist groups active in the Labour Party, you would get back a fairly consistent answer.

All would be able to name Militant, which had already been the object of witch-hunting and had its flagship Liverpool organisation put to the sword. The well-informed could perhaps have also named the Socialist Organiser Alliance (today known as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) and Socialist Action, which still exists as a Stalinist grouplet and also gave us, via a long and circuitous route, today’s ‘idpol’-poisoned, pro-imperialist outfit, Anticapitalist Resistance.

Few would have known much of Socialist Alternatives. It was a rare enough bird - an example of the Pabloite political tendency, which had preached deep entry in the ‘official communist’ parties and, in Britain, the Labour Party since its heyday in the eight years after World War II. Michel Pablo - pen name of Michalis Raptis, a Greek Trotskyist - had been the effective leader of the Fourth International during this period, and held to the theory that the war was not really yet over, and would resume imminently between the western and the eastern bloc countries. There was no time to build new parties; instead Trotskyists, where they remained marginal, should embed themselves in the communist parties, and expect the contradictions in the “deformed workers’ states” to perhaps work themselves out over centuries.

By the end of the decade, the FI had split, and neither half had much use for ‘Pabloism’, which in particular became the catch-all name for all that was wrong with the world for the ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ International Committee for the Fourth International, and others who followed in its wake. Pablo was expelled from the reunified international in 1963. However, he went on to live a good, long life, and never retired from politics. He even got a state funeral in Greece (he had been close friends with the then-outgoing Greek president, Andreas Papandreou). In 1986, he had his own oil-slick international on the boil, the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency; and he found some promising young British comrades to fly the flag that year. Comrades like a certain Keir Starmer.

Then and now

It has become a matter, we admit, of some puzzlement here at the Weekly Worker that more has not been made of this history. It is hardly some obscure secret. Nothing I have said so far is more than three clicks from Starmer’s own Wikipedia page. It seems that, finally, the media omertà on this has been breached by The Telegraph, which offers us an amusing point-by-point comparison of “what he says now” and “what he said then”.1

It is such great sport, and we really do wonder at its appearance at such a late hour. In those days, he denounced the policing of the Wapping strike, while now he says that we must “put 13,000 extra police … on the beat”. Today he states that “the left has to start caring a lot more about growth, about creating wealth, attracting inward investment and kick-starting a spirit of enterprise”. Back then he criticised Neil Kinnock for “showing little regard for the freedom of the workforce and community to extend their political control”. So it goes on.

On closer reading, the Torygraph piece cannot even make enough hay out of the Socialist Alternatives material, and it is amply bulked out by snippets from 2020, where Starmer is still plainly trying to gull the Labour left into accepting him - something he achieved with laughable ease (and repaid the favour with witch-hunting and humiliation).

Indeed, it is really rather embarrassing for the Socialist Alternatives crowd, such as they still exist, that there is not even enough scandalous Trottery to fill out a single hit-piece. Were they so timid, so unambitious? Was the opportunism of the Pabloites (and, however hypocritical and overblown the attacks of the anti-Pabloites, opportunist they certainly were) so ingrained that nobody would even really notice they were entryists at all?

That we can ask this question somewhat frames our view of what the likely effect of this line of attack will be - in short, not terribly impressive. It is hardly atypical for a Labour politician of that general vintage to have a past in some left organisation. There was a lot of it about at the time; many served a couple of years in service to the cause and then got on with their careers.

Indeed, the various governments of Tony Blair were positively stacked with such people. A few had been Trotskyists - we can think of Alastair Darling and Alan Milburn. Many more were former Communist Party people - Peter Mandelson was one; so were Charles Leadbeater and John Reid. Jack Straw was never a CPGB member, but a fellow traveller, and apparently felt so strongly about the matter that, when in the 2000s he was incorrectly labelled in The Independent as an “old Trot”, he angrily took to their letters page to pay homage to the CPGB’s Bert Ramelson - the man who taught him to “spot a Trot at fifty paces” - and urged his critics to read Lenin’s ‘Left’ wing communism: an infantile disorder.

Indeed, we need not even end our survey in the Labour Party, or even the right wing of social democracy as a whole. Christopher and Peter Hitchens both began their political careers as Trotskyists, but Christopher was, for practical purposes, a neo-conservative by the time of his death, while Peter rapidly found himself among the traditionalist religious right, where he remains (albeit an eccentric and unusually honest example of the species). The American conservative movement may have found its great leader in the lifelong Catholic reactionary, William F Buckley, but ex-communists formed its intellectual striking force, from Whittaker Chambers to James Burnham. The first generation of neo-conservatives was notoriously staffed by many erstwhile Trotskyists, whose anti-Stalinist leftism mutated into a ferocious, messianic anti-communism per se.

Yet it does not seem to have done any of them any harm. The right has always had a place for a sincere turncoat. Communism was simply alien to Buckley, but not to Burnham and Chambers, who were therefore better placed to theorise it. Neither did the ex-communist (in reality, mostly ex-Eurocommunist) Blairites really suffer for it, though in their case the rightwing press did sometimes bring this history up. Pressed on his former affiliations once, John Reid replied: “I used to be a communist. I used to believe in Santa Claus.” Nobody could really confuse these people with communists. And of course nobody, today (and perhaps not even in 1986), could confuse Sir Keir Starmer with a Trotskyist.

Red Ed

It remains to be explained why the likes of the Telegraph have kept their powder dry for so long, when it comes to Starmer’s former Pabloism. It was just as much a matter of public record back in 2019, when he succeeded in pinning Jeremy Corbyn to a remainer position that proved suicidal in that year’s election. Why not then? And why not beat him with it in his early period in the leadership? For comparison, you could look at Ed Miliband, the son of new left celebrity, Ralph, whose outlook was constantly held over his son, and who was even denounced in the Daily Mail as “the man who hated Britain”.

It is difficult to do more than speculate at this point, but we may advance a hypothesis. The 2015 election looked competitive; and the preference in the capitalist class was clearly for its first eleven under those circumstances. The rightwing press found no very great difficulty in backing the Tories. The trouble with Sunak, however, is that he is a loser. Though Starmer has recently had a rough ride, between the Diane Abbott fiasco and a dreadful debate performance and all the rest, his polling lead is intact. Tory victory was already a long shot, but now Nigel Farage is back in the fray and so Reform is likely to present a renewed challenge to Sunak’s right flank.

For the most part, the press hates a loser, because it likes to maintain the glamour of power. “It’s The Sun wot won it!”, the tabloid’s front page famously crowed when Neil Kinnock went down to a surprise defeat in 1992. In order to look like an important influence, it is necessary to “win it” every time. Thus Murdoch’s papers backed Blair against John Major’s disintegrating government in 1997, after proper assurances had been obtained. The Telegraph is simply a Tory paper; it plays a different role in the bourgeois media than the Murdoch papers, and so is free to scaremonger. The Times and Sun are not. They must reconcile themselves to the change of guard that looks all but inevitable at this point.

How fortunate for them that the new boss looks so very like the old boss.


  1. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2024/06/09/keir-starmer-political-views.↩︎