Is Paul Mason’s excitement over Starmerism based in reality? NICK WRIGHT, writing in the Morning Star has doubts

NOT content with perpetually reinventing himself, pundit Paul Mason now wants to reinvent the left.

The actually existing left is, in Mason’s words “…directionless, leaderless, riven into competing projects, with no guiding philosophy and — therefore completely incapable of achieving its favoured objective: Gramscian ‘hegemony’ within Britain’s progressive social majority.”

Note the careful phrasing which establishes the limits of left-wing ambition as within a “progressive social majority.”

This is code for consigning to invisibility all those uncomfortably proletarian elements — the actual working class in its complexity and movement — whose mobilisation and active consent is necessary for society to be turned on its head but who refuse to fit into Mason’s new Nato-friendly constellation of EU-enamoured liberals.

That much-traduced Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci might wonder how his insight — that the accession of the working class to state power carries with it the necessity of winning the battle of ideas — might react to this latest subversion of his ideas. 

Far from Gramsci’s sense that Soviet power was indissolubly linked with proletarian cultural power, Mason’s ambition is limited to assembling present-day Labour’s scattered tribes into some sort of order.

There is no sense that his abject accommodation to Sir Keir Starmer’s new dispensation has any relationship to the profound changes that are required and which the British people in their majority desire. 

And the notion that a Labour government might begin a process which could open the way to socialism and working-class power is entirely precluded.

Compare this to the revolutionary impulses of Gramsci — a man who dealt with profound capitalist crisis by arguing that “the formula ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ must cease to be only a formula, an occasion for outbursts of revolutionary phraseology. Whoever wants the ends, should want the means.”

To this exemplar of revolutionary resolve compare Mason’s claim that the decisive moment at Labour’s conference turned on Starmer’s words — “and, yes, Great British Energy will be publicly owned.”

Mason told his New Statesmen readers: “That was the moment Starmer sealed the deal — not just with the centre-left technocrats who form his natural base within the party, but with broad swathes of activists, from the left to the old Labour right, who’d been sceptical of his capacity for vision, passion and persuasion.”

The real content of Starmer’s performative pledge is a wilful refusal to take the actually existing price-gouging, profiteering energy corporates in to public ownership while, post-conference, his much vaunted state-owned energy company turns out to be rather less than delegates assumed.

Mason says he backed Starmer “because I thought he was the only candidate that could unite a badly divided party after 2019.”

In this he was not alone. The hundreds of thousands of Labour members — those who left the party since Starmer abandoned his promise to maintain Jeremy Corbyn’s programme — fall into the same category.

The difference is that not many still deceive themselves that Starmer is a unifying figure.

Mason’s panegyric continues: “and because I knew that — whatever compromises he would be forced to make — his politics are rooted in working-class experience in a way Tony Blair’s were not.”

Odd, isn’t it, that revisionists of every kind are always telling us that only mechanical Marxists of a Stalinist stripe reduce politics to class origin while their hypocritical scorn is reserved for the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie who renounce the politics of property and profit and side with socialism.

Mason lauds Starmer for his repeated use of the words “working class” and for his pledges to end austerity, his repudiation of trickle-down economics, the rhetorical launch of a “mission-oriented” industrial strategy, and a promise to renationalise the railways and decarbonise the electricity system by 2030.

Indeed these concessions to the national mood and to party sentiment are welcome even if somewhat compromised by Starmer’s record on adhering to his pledges.

Where Mason’s doomed bid to inflect Starmer’s supposedly “statist” turn with a left-wing character falls apart is with the Labour leader’s consistent opposition to strikes.

In this Starmer is admirably frank: “I don’t want the strikes to go ahead. We want to be in government — in government you resolve issues.”

If you didn’t believe him when he gave his 10 pledges believe him now.

Labour is in opposition and has no assured prospect of being in government any time soon while workers are enduring runaway inflation, unpayable energy prices and with limited prospects of obtaining a pay rise without strike action.

The idiocy of Starmer’s position was exposed when he was asked whether nurses should get pay rises that match inflation. 

Just as 300,000 Royal College of Nursing members are balloting for strike action — for the first time ever — he said it was “a question for each of the negotiations.”

Strike action by Starmer’s professional colleagues in the bewigged barrister business seem to have won a 15 per cent pay rise but Mason’s favourite son of the proletariat denies a truth that every trade unionist knows — that industrial action is an indispensable part of negotiations.

His idiotic evasions on the issue are a measure of the Labour leader’s determination to ensure that no hint of his unsuitability for the high responsibility of stewarding Britain’s capitalist state through the chronic and continuing crisis should trouble our ruling class.

National strike ballots or industrial action are under way among nurses and health staff, postal and communications workers, railway workers and there are no end of local disputes involving refuse workers, couriers and delivery drivers. Check out the admirable Strike Map UK to keep track of this mounting movement.

The key to understanding why the Labour leader is so set on standing aside from this “exhilarating action” lies not in the present and possibly temporary polling lead which Labour has harvested.

It lies in the settled view of the Labour right wing which shares Tony Blair’s position that he would not want Labour to win an election on a left-wing programme. 

Meanwhile the Tory meltdown encourages it to believe that electoral victory is possible without the kind of radical programme which raised the total Labour vote under Corbyn.

If sustained, Labour’s lead would deliver bushels of votes to whoever leads the party.

The Tories are in a fix. Labour’s polling lead was 9 per cent when Boris Johnson took what is probably not his final bow. Kwasi Kwarteng’s Budget gave that a further 7 per cent and Liz Truss herself helped round up Labour’s total to 52 per cent.

TV polling pundit Sir John Curtice brought these brutal facts home to Tories when he told a party conference audience that even if Labour’s lead eroded it would still probably win the 2024 contest.

Truss may be forced to jettison Kwarteng, restore Treasury orthodoxy in economic management and temper some of her social measures that reflect the bog standard atavism of the Tory swamp. 

Conversely, the ruling class and its more or less faithful reflection in the Parliamentary Conservative Party might dump her and find someone more likely to calm the electoral waters.

Or the decisive movers and shakers in big business, the banks and state bureaucracy might well conclude that Labour under its present management can be entrusted to ensure the continuity of capitalist relations of production and the uninterrupted accumulation of capital.

It is clear that no substantial challenge to Starmerism is remotely likely in present circumstances. And reflecting this abandonment of socialist policy objectives — let alone a prospectus for transformative power — Mason enjoins us to make an overt commitment to the Starmer project.

Mason’s measure of the Labour left is its relative failure at the autumn party conference as compared to previous years. While setbacks are hardly surprising given the widespread purges and Labour’s catastrophic collapse in cash and membership, the left actually did unexpectedly well. 

On proportional representation constituency enthusiasm and a shift in union policies achieved — even in Masons’s accounting — a measure of cross-factional success while an alliance with trade unions produced conference votes in favour of a £15 minimum wage and Royal Mail renationalisation.

Mason sets Momentum’s understandable enthusiasm for what it won against the Morning Star’s equally understandable scepticism, given the longstanding refusal of Labour leaderships to take any notice of conference policy, that this changes very much.

And this is where Witchfinder General Mason argues that we need a different left. One purged of the Stalinist influence that “saw Momentum pressured into refusing to support a motion in favour of arming Ukraine.”

On this question, and notwithstanding its temptation to big up its conference performance, Momentum seems rather closer to what young people think and to the shift in public opinion than our ageing pundit.

Last June public opinion backed a wide range of measures in support of Ukraine barring direct military conflict between British and Russian forces. 

A solid 76 per cent supported increased economic penalties against Russian interests in Britain (this is quite a narrow focus and can be seen as criticism of the intimate links between the Tories and Russian oligarchs; it is down slightly on the March figure) while a further 71 per cent favoured additional weapons shipments with just 13 per cent opposed (down slightly on the March figure).

But now, according to a Times survey, less than half of young people support Britain’s current role in the Ukraine conflict.

On domestic questions Starmer’s cautious triangulation around the demands for the public ownership of rail, mail, energy, utilities and transport is at odds with both popular and party opinion.

Where Mason’s more recent pirouettes do reflect some sort of reality is in the idea that unity is lacking. Set aside the liberal tendencies in Labour and the left that actively foment disunity, accommodate Starmer’s purges and sign us up to Nato’s wars; there is a real need to transform the growing mass movements into a wider political challenge to the system.

Labour benefits from Liz Truss’s errors but Starmerism — even in the hallucinogenic version depicted by Mason — presents no fundamental change. 

Striking an anti-strike pose for the tabloids and broadcast media, dog whistles on immigration that mimic the Tories, splashing out in favour of ramped-up defence spending is just the outward expression of his Establishment mindset.

A challenge from the parliamentary left — stunned into silence by the exemplary punishment dealt out to dissidents, with Jeremy Corbyn the most totemic — will not come since their surrender over the Nato role in the Ukraine war.

It is to a united extraparliamentary movement — strikes, demonstrations like last week’s guerilla action against the Tory conference and the People’s Assembly rally on November 5, the growing renters’ movement, town assemblies like those organised by Enough is Enough — that can change the balance of forces and force a retreat by the government.

And it is the growth and victory of these forces that can make a popular reassertion of public ownership and open the way towards working-class power.


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