After all we’ve been through under Johnson – his general incompetence and shameful handling of the COVID-19 crisis – the Tories are still a few points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.
The youth of today who chanted Corbyn’s name. The disillusioned workers in the northern ‘Red Belt’ who dumped Labour in favour of the Tories over Brexit. The Scots whose support Labour relied on for years. Few if any of them are likely to swayed by the “New Chapter for Britain” that Starmer unveiled in his address to the nation last week. What’s new in it you may well ask?
The answer is, very little. Starmer conjures up the image of the post-war Attlee government that ushered in the Welfare State and built the public sector which, along with progressive taxation, helped to pay for it. But he doesn’t talk about the massive council house programme nor nationalisation of some key industries that Labour pioneered in the Attlee era. Instead, Sir Keir makes a call to arms around the 1940 Beveridge Report that laid the foundations for the ‘safety net’ reforms that underpinned state welfare and the health service during the time of the first post-war Labour government.
But the Beveridge Report, named after the Liberal politician who drew it up at the request of Churchill’s war-time national government, was part of the bourgeois consensus which accepted that reforms would be needed to create social peace to prop up the capitalist system in preparation for the confrontation with the Soviet Union that they believed would inevitably follow the defeat of Nazi Germany.
On the other hand, Starmer rarely, if ever, recalls the later Wilson and Callaghan governments that actually extended the public sector and the state welfare sector that the Attlee government had established.
Although Starmer never talks about Tony Blair, whose lies over the Gulf Wars mean that he can barely show his face in public these days, his policies are essentially Blairite. Nothing for the unions, nothing for the unemployed and those on bread-line wages who queue at foodbanks, apart from the usual platitudes and clichés that right-wing social-democrats churn out in a mistaken belief that will win back the support Labour once had throughout the country. In fact, the only concrete pledges Starmer made were for start-up loans for 100,000 new businesses and a new “recovery bond” to encourage saving.
Behind closed doors even some of the Blairites are saying that Starmer is “unelectable”. They say that Starmer lacks charisma and charm, and that he has little or no street campaigning skills. But the issue isn’t presentation – it’s policy.
Labour is going nowhere unless it can present a clear alternative to the Tories to the electorate. The lifting of the shackles on the trade union movement and the restoration of free collective bargaining would be a start. The total restoration of the Welfare State and the public sector that helped pay for it are the minimum demands that Labour needs to make if it wants to win back the millions in the movement who once backed Labour. Putting socialism back on the working-class agenda is another matter – and that is something the communist movement must work for in the months to come.