Labour’s Short-Term Thinking
On Friday – when the Conservative government was attempting to shrug off another day of scandal focused on the housing minister, Robert Jenrick – the Labour Party leadership decided it was the perfect time to take a swing at the left. Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked as shadow education secretary for retweeting a link to an interview in the Independent with the actor Maxine Peake, in which Peake claimed, incorrectly, that ‘the tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’
Keir Starmer’s sacking of Long-Bailey makes a number of things clear. First, it shows that there are people in the Labour Party who have not yet finished using anti-Semitism for factional purposes. (Please note: this is not to say that there is not a genuine anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party. There is, but that is for another discussion.)
Second, it shows that the new Labour leadership is going to react to media pressure in much the same way as its predecessor. Like Corbyn’s team, Starmer’s advisers are terrified – to the point of panic and overreaction – of bad press. Firing a member of the shadow cabinet for someone else’s misunderstanding is no way to tackle anti-Semitism, and no way to lead a party. But it’s the kind of decision you reach when you’re more worried about the Mail and the Telegraph than anti-racism.
Peake was obviously wrong – as she has since admitted – to say that US police forces learned the knee-on-neck tactic at seminars with Israeli secret services. But that doesn’t mean she was repeating, in Starmer’s words, ‘an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory’. Amnesty International reported in 2016 that many police departments across the US have received training from Israeli police. It said nothing about neck-kneeling – ‘the precise nature of the training offered to US police forces by Israeli officials is not something we’ve documented,’ the organisation told the New Statesman last week – but it did say that the training puts ‘US law enforcement employees in the hands of military, security and police systems that have racked up documented human rights violations for years’.
The Labour Party observes a hierarchy of racism. It will speak out on anti-Semitism and perceived anti-Semitism with alacrity, but it will not aggressively challenge other types of bigotry. Starmer and Angela Rayner took a knee on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, but the leader of the opposition is so unbothered by the untethered hatred in the Telegraph that he is happy to write for that paper. He is happy to keep Toby Perkins in the shadow cabinet despite his demonising of the Traveller community, and he will not sign a pledge in defence of trans people.
It’s a ‘shame’, Starmer said on BBC Breakfast yesterday morning, that ‘a moment … about reflecting on what happened dreadfully in America just a few weeks ago’ is ‘getting tangled up with these organisational issues, with the organisation Black Lives Matter’. He ‘wouldn’t have any truck with what the organisation is saying about defunding the police or anything else, that’s just nonsense,’ he said. No one seriously expects the Labour leader to support defunding the police. But not even an acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter may have ‘legitimate concerns’?
It seems that the party’s plan for the next general election is to fight the battles it lost in 2019, in the hope of recovering ‘red wall’ seats and ‘shy Tory’ voters, even if it means sacrificing ethnic minority votes. Either that, or they are hoping those ethnic minority voters will have nowhere else to go (as Peter Mandelson once said of the voters Labour is now trying to woo back).
Part of the reason that austerity under Tory-led governments since 2010 has done so much damage is that the positive changes effected by New Labour, such as Sure Start, were easily overturned. And the party of Blair, Brown, Campbell, Mandelson and Clarke was directly responsible for the popular myth that the vulnerable are somehow cheating the system and somehow the cause of its faults. Muslims, the disabled, the young and the unemployed were all set up as the fall guys for whatever crisis was to come next, and David Cameron and George Osborne did not let that go to waste.
Labour and Starmer seem to think that the Jewish voters who have turned their backs on the party are simply waiting to be won back. They seem to think they have a right to Jewish votes, just as they presumed for decades that they had a right to the red wall vote. They also seem to be ignoring the fact that most Jewish voters abandoned Labour not under Corbyn but before the 2015 election.
What’s missing is an analysis that accepts that broad communities and identities may change. Maybe a significant number of British Jews are, like much of the rest of Britain, open to voting Conservative. Maybe red wall voters are now committed to a vision of the country that rejects the outlook of its major cities, where Labour’s core vote – for now – remains.
Identities – Black, Asian, Jewish, white, working-class, northern, Scottish, Welsh etc – are not all fixed (or separate) demographics with no fluidity of thought or nuance. The Labour Party views them as datasets to be analysed and manipulated, as opposed to humans with complex and contradictory thoughts. There may be a simple way to put off most Black voters – the Tories have managed it for decades – but there is no easy way to win them over as a single bloc.
Labour faces multiple problems that are the result of long-term decline. Not for the first time, centrists in the party are seeking short term solutions. It’s possible that purging the left will allow British Jews to feel more comfortable voting Labour in 2024, but the party still needs to address why they abandoned it under its first Jewish leader.
It can try to appeal to the red wall with dogwhistle overtures to anti-immigration sentiments, military patriotism and a ‘strong state’ push, but it would do better to address the fact that the NRS social grades are no longer adequate for analysing class. A home-owning electrician in Redcar on £50,000 a year has more in common with a London banker than with a Deliveroo delivery rider. Cultural identities have been forged with more strength than some class identities.
Centrism has nothing to offer university graduates earning minimum wage and paying exorbitant rents, despite being promised a steady salary in return for student debt. It provides no solutions to the contradictions of the red wall, where voters still identify themselves as belonging to a Labour tradition but are increasingly drawn to the social conservatism of the right wing’s culture war. It can’t alleviate the worries of those in multicultural towns and cities, who feel there is a real threat to their intersecting lives as a result of the increasing animosity surrounding such issues as immigration, LGBT rights and structural racism.
But, most damning of all, centrism has absolutely nothing to offer those who live in cramped housing, work two jobs and still don’t earn enough not to be reliant on food banks. This is how Labour lost so many voters to begin with. And it’s how Starmer will lose city seats to the Tories in 2024.