Starmer’s comments are everything wrong with Labourism

By Simon Hannah

Many of you will be familiar by now with Keir Starmer’s comments on LBC radio (8 June) about the protests in Bristol that tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbour. 

“It shouldn’t have been done in that way, completely wrong to pull a statue down like that” he told the presenter.

Naturally people who are supporting the global anti-racist uprising against police and state violence were shocked. But really all that Starmer said is what any Labour leader would have said. I don’t really blame him, he is speaking for the Labour tradition. 

This is because for too long Labour has been dominated by parliamentary cretinism, electoralism, constitutionalism and gradualism. 

Labour is a party that has spent its political life firmly opposed to extra-parliamentary action. It has a fetish for parliament, a dogmatic obsession. Its parliamentary cretinism means that all true and good things must happen through the hallowed halls of Westminster. It isn’t concerned with empowering people or building up democracy in our communities and workplaces, indeed to do so takes away from the importance of Labour MPs, who are elected to do things on your behalf. 

And in order to win a parliamentary majority it fixates on electoralism – the obsession with focus groups, opinion polls, on neutralising radical politics in case they don’t “play well” with the electorate. Labour is not really a democratic party, it is a machine for elections. You can tell because motions passed at party conference often aren’t worth tuppence compared to what the party’s electoral strategists decided should be in the manifesto. If Starmer thinks that throwing Colston’s lifeless statue into Bristol harbour doesn’t ‘look good’ with his target demographics, he will have to speak out against it. 

Labour is also wrecked by its constitutionalism, the idea that the only just authority derives from law. The Labour right often castigate the Labour left (who might occasionally flirt with direct action or refusing to implement one law or other in local government) for ‘breaking the law’ because if Labour wants to be a party that governs and passes laws then it must be a party that respects laws even when they are wrong. Yet anyone with their head not buried in a copy of Hansard will know that some laws are plain unjust, and some governments can ‘legally’ kill people or make their lives miserable. Socialists have always understood that under capitalism the laws governing property and wealth are class laws that benefit the rich and powerful. The African National Congress, the freedom riders, the Stonewall riots, Suffragettes – all broke the law. Does history say they were wrong to do so?

So was it illegal to tear that statue down and throw it in the water? Yes. But was it right? Absolutely.

The final reason why Labour will always be wrong on questions like this is its gradualism. When faced with an insurgent mass movement taking direct action and willing to take on the police to make the world a better place (because in nearly every instance where the world has been a terrible place, the police are the first line of defence) Labour is at best lukewarm and at worst totally opposed to it. Because Labour sees its role as gradually making things better using the parliamentary machinery, it becomes a block to radical, revolutionary change. But its links the unions and its working-class membership mean that, particularly in times of social upheaval, the contradiction between the interests of its membership and those of its leadership comes to the fore.  

Whether it is the fight against the Black shirts in the 1930s, the Poll Tax, the Iraq war or this new anti-racist movement, the message from the Labour party is clear – we don’t really want anything to do with it. Corbyn backed the XR protests in as much as he didn’t condemn them, but even under its most left-wing leader Labour would never call on its social forces to really build a social movement. Many members on the other hand, whether through their Labour branches or outside of them, mobilised in support of all those causes as they have the Black Lives Matter movement.

A genuine anticapitalist strategy has to start from a serious and considered criticism of all these problems. They are the problems of Labourism and they date back to the inception of the party in 1900. Starmer’s comments are only the latest in a long line of bad positions the Labour Party has taken that you most notice when they happen in the context of a mass movement. 

We need something better. Instead of celebrating police officers, Momentum should be fighting to generalise the protest movement, mobilise the trade unions and party members, and move from tearing down the symbols of racism to uprooting the institutional economic, social, and political racism which is built into the foundations of capitalism itself. Under a new anticapitalist leadership Momentum can start to offer this revolutionary perspective and ambition.