On Keir Starmer and “ideological purity”

It has been an ever-present criticism of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters that they are obsessed with “ideological purity”. This rather oblique criticism has been made in a Guardian editorial, in Zoe Williams’ dramatic disowning of Corbyn, and most recently by Keir Starmer in an interview with the New Statesman. It is perhaps worth considering Starmer’s words in full, since he is touted by many as a future leader.

“ I would reject wholeheartedly any notion of a Labour Party that is not committed to returning to power at the first opportunity.
Of course that needs to be principled power. But standing on the sidelines looking for the purest ideology is a dereliction of the duty for any Labour member.”

The view that ideological concerns are antithetical to a pursuit of power is typical of the technocratic liberal left, which considers politics to be largely a matter of administration, and is consistent with Smith’s primary pitch to members: competence.

Starmer insists that principles are a necessary counterpart of power, but the collapse of technocratic parties of social democracy around Europe suggests that the opposition he sets up is a false one.

The constant suggestion that Corbyn is unable to win power because of his ideology ignores the power wielded by intensely ideological forces in the UK.

Nigel Farage, perhaps the most influential politician of a generation now that his Brexit dream is becoming a reality, has whipped up nationalistic fervour in the service of free market fetishism.

The most influential politician of a generation, ladies and gentlemen

Cameron and Osborne, though their own dream has become more of a nightmare, were nevertheless able to put into practice a vast reduction of the size of the state and also win a majority last year. Their pragmatic and deceitful use of bogus economics notwithstanding, the austerity programme was deeply ideological, as has been pointed out by economists such as Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis.

Ernesto Laclau dubs this attempt to depoliticize politics and popular movements “administration”, and describes it as

“the attempt to reduce all differences to partialities within the communitarian whole”

In other words, technocrats deny that disagreement can be ideological, and refuse ideology its place at the decision-making table.

Of course, a commentator like Zoe Williams could not be described as a technocrat, and clearly sees the importance of ideology in politics. Her charge — and many agree — is that Corbyn and his supporters are unwilling to compromise on any of their beliefs in order to win power.

This was belied by Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, which, aside from the sensible appointment of his close ally and smart political operator John McDonnell, was a clear attempt to form a broad coalition, including many MPs whom no one could accuse of being natural allies of the radical left. Charlie Falconer, Maria Eagle, and Hilary Benn were clearly invited into the fold to indicate a willingness on Corbyn’s part to work with all wings of the party.

Indeed, he continued this conciliatory strategy, constantly calling for unity, condemning those few cases of abuse by his supporters (though obviously he can bear no responsibility for this odious behaviour, endemic in online politics), and abandoning some of his more controversial suggestions — anyone remember his plan to withdraw from NATO?

Adieu, my socialist utopia

As for the Corbynites, it has been striking how eager the activist veterans of such movements as Climate Camp and Occupy have been to enter into and engage with Labour’s internal politics. If you spend any time with anyone involved in Momentum, you’ll find that they’re as desperate as anyone for a Labour government. Recognizing the ills of society and their root causes — and radical politics tends to be fairly adept at this — will naturally make one eager to cure them.

The average Corbyn supporter, it seems to me, recognizes that compromise is necessary to achieve power, and has no problem with this. As Marina Hyde remarked of Andrea Leadsom’s candidacy, “We’re all realpolitikos now.” Even the most ardently Communist Corbynite hasn’t demanded that the abolition of money become Labour Party policy.

The most ardently Communist Corbynite

Though the membership will accept — and encourage — compromise, it continues to believe that Labour is best-served by a fundamentally anti-racist, anti-austerity, pro-worker message. Remembering the bad old days of anti-immigrant mugs and austerity appeasement, it assumes that the best route to this is through a leader they can trust to retain his core message, albeit giving ground on various other issues.

This is surely a politically sensible position, retaining the appropriate space for the ideology necessary to form a social movement, while also accepting the need to compromise and build an electoral coalition. It’s certainly more coherent than the demand by MPs such as Starmer that the members disavow their beliefs and harness Labour to the dying technocracy of the European soft left.