If Keir Starmer's Labour keeps moving to the right, disillusionment with democracy will grow – Joyce McMillan
A message arrives from a friend, highlighting a newspaper story about the UK’s growing ‘climate choir’ movement. Made up of ordinary citizens who seek to appeal to people’s hearts by singing sweetly and wittily about climate change, the movement sees itself as a less militant ally of groups such as Just Stop Oil, providing an outlet for those who can’t risk being arrested, under the UK’s Draconian new anti-protest laws.
How the members of these groups, and millions like them, will vote in the coming UK general election, though, is fast becoming an interesting question. With only one Westminster seat seriously winnable for the Green party, the climate choir folk might well, until this week, have been looking forward to voting for Keir Starmer’s Labour party, which, with Ed Miliband as Shadow Climate Secretary, had made a historic and hugely encouraging pledge to invest £28 billion a year, over the course of the next parliament, to kick-start Britain’s rapid transition to a new green economy.
Now, though, that vital pledge has gone the same way as so many of the promises made by Keir Starmer, when he was elected Labour leader four years ago. The list of his reversals and betrayals, on everything from tuition fees to Lords reform, is long and depressing, and can be found in detail on the websites of all Labour’s opposing parties.
A breach of humanitarian law in Gaza
There are two areas, though, where Keir Starmer’s recent right-leaning decisions are particularly likely to return to haunt him. The first involves his backing of the fatal decision of the US and UK governments to offer uncritical support to Israel in its assault on Gaza, after the events of October 7; a debacle in which Starmer, the former human rights lawyer, could not even bring himself to say that it was a breach of humanitarian law to turn off water supplies to an entire civilian population, and over which he has already sacrificed large swathes of traditionally strong support in the British Muslim community, and beyond it.
The decision to back away from the £28 billion-a-year green investment plan, though, is possibly an even more far-reaching misjudgment. Essentially, the argument now being made by Keir Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves is that Labour cannot win the upcoming election unless it persuades wavering former Conservative voters of its financial prudence by adhering rigidly to the “fiscal rules”, and pledging not to spend any more than the Tories do, at least at first.
Now it is difficult to know where to start with the economic and political weakness of this argument. Economically, it makes no sense, since it is precisely 14 years of needlessly severe austerity in public spending that has contributed to a vicious cycle of decline in the UK economy, and left Britain’s physical and social infrastructure, its essential public services, and arguably millions of its people, in such a poor state that achieving significant economic growth – even if that is still a legitimate goal – has become extremely difficult. If the “fiscal rules” forbid the government of one of the world’s largest economies from making what is now essential investment in our sustainable economic future, then those rules obviously need to be challenged and renegotiated by serious centre-left politicians, and not lazily accepted as an immutable law of nature.
Yet the current Labour leadership essentially runs scared of any such challenge, partly because of the imperatives of the first-past-the-post electoral system, with its relentless focus on a tiny minority of ex-Conservative voters in marginal seats, but also, at a deeper level, because of Labour’s habitual, hapless compliance with the right-wing framing of issues in Westminster’s dominant media culture. To hear a television interviewer, this week, describe the £28 billion green spending pledge as a “millstone around Labour’s neck” – when in fact, for millions of citizens including many younger voters, it was a vital sign of hope for the future – is to understand just how deeply right-wing assumptions now pervade UK political debate, and also, sadly, how rarely they are challenged.
SNP can outflank Labour on left
Yet by so meekly reflecting the contours of a political landscape shaped over decades by the enemies of social democracy, the Labour leadership is gradually undermining its base of wider support in the country. Keir Starmer’s recent decisions could well, for example, set a limit on the current Labour advance in Scotland, where the SNP is now back in that comfort zone where it can easily outflank Labour on the left, both on Gaza, and on its green and social justice credentials.
And even more significantly, this instinctive Labour compliance with the status quo is increasingly robbing British voters of the real choice of economic and social policies to which they are entitled, thereby increasing the possibility of mass disillusion with electoral politics, and of dangerous forms of radicalisation. The area of climate change is one where millions – while they may not list it as their most pressing concern – are now living with constant low-level anxiety and pain, over the rapid decline of the natural world on which our lives depend; and responsible governments now have an absolute obligation to address those well-founded fears.
And in that sense, to back away from Labour’s climate change promises on such relatively petty grounds, in the very week when it was confirmed that the world has now breached the 1.5-degree global warming threshold, is a betrayal of the future that smacks of pure political cowardice. That Keir Starmer has his reasons goes without saying. Political calculation, though, should always be balanced with elements of vision and boldness; and this week’s decision represents a retreat from leadership, and a failure to seize the moment, of which climate choirs will sing with sorrow for years to come – and which Keir Starmer, if he is any kind of Labour politician at all, will almost certainly live to regret.
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