Keir Starmer’s pledge to ‘end factionalism’ would take Labour back to vapid personality politics
Keir Starmer’s campaign to be Leader of the Labour Party has so far pitched left narratively, hamming up his history of supporting unions and social movements as a lawyer. The former Director of Public Prosecutions has also made a point of “ending factionalism” in the party. He says the details of what exactly this means will come in due course, but in the meantime party members should be worried this signals a return to the personality politics and authoritarianism of Blairism.
Factions in any organisation are groupings of people around a shared interest – in political parties this may be ideology, strategy or policy. They span the political spectrum. In recent times, Momentum has been the highest profile faction in Labour organising members broadly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and left-wing policies. Other active Labour factions include Open Labour (the “soft-left”), Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), Labour First (the “old right”) and Progress (Blairites). Sometimes Labour’s affiliated trade unions also organise factionally to advance their own interests.
In practice, Labour party factionalism in recent years has tended to focus on organising around internal elections. Factions will endorse slates of candidates for internal party positions as a way of advancing their interests from positions of influence.
For example, National Executive Committee (NEC) is the governing body of the party. Ordinary members elect representatives to the NEC to set the strategic direction of the party, form policy and oversee procedure (e.g. the timetable for the current leadership elections). In recent years Momentum and CLPD have put forward joint slates which members which members have overwhelmingly voted for. Labour First and Progress have allied to do the same with less success. This has effectively ensured the dominant faction in the party (aligned with Corbyn’s leadership) is represented in key strategic decisions.
Factions also support candidates in local constituency party elections and selections for candidates for public office (i.e. MP, local councillor and Mayoral candidates). Factional endorsements effectively indicate to supporters the real politics of the person they’re voting for, beyond the superficial buzzwords offered during a hustings. This type of organising has been crucial to making MPs and city councillors more representative of the politics of Labour’s growing membership since 2015.
So if we understand “factionalism” as members actively organising within an internal democracy, what does Keir Starmer really mean when he says he wants to “end” it? Presumably the first step would be banning the organisational vehicles for factionalism. Momentum, CLPD, Open Labour, Progress and Labour First would be proscribed. Cutting off its nose to spite its face, a practical consequence of this would be losing significant mobilising infrastructure (particularly from Momentum) that has turned out thousands to campaign during elections in recent years.
With factional organisations proscribed, how would Starmer effectively ban slates for internal elections? Would any candidate organised as part of a slate or endorsed by a faction be disqualified? Presumably internal elections would become bland lists of people and their personal achievements.
Would Starmer ban groupings of MPs within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)? The long-standing Socialist Campaign Group has been a haven for left-wing MPs. Tom Watson’s Future Britain Group was prior to the General Election composed of over 80 MPs. Would the groupings be banned or would they just not be allowed to organise, which would defeat their point?
The reality here is that Starmer’s attempt at a conciliatory soundbite is in fact unrealistic, unworkable and disadvantageous for every wing of the party. Starmer reveals a contempt for party members endemic in the PLP and the superficiality of his own analysis of what’s wrong in Labour and what we need to do to win. This is the platitude of a career politician who has never had to organise around anything. He’s a personality for personalities sake – never working collectively to advance a shared political aim, vision or strategy – only promoting himself.
Any practical application of his soundbite is necessarily authoritarian, returning to the repression of democracy and member activity as instigated by Tony Blair as he turned National Conference into a glorified rally and deprived members of any involvement in policy formation.
Its true that Labour needs a leader capable of holding our together our broad coalition of politics and interests. But unity should be achieved by stewarding a comprehensive party democracy where open political organising is encouraged and not driven underground. We do not need a leader to close ranks and take us back to optical personality politics that will turn off voters and internal authoritarianism that will alienate members. That approach would send Labour the way of other European social democratic parties: annihilation.