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Matt Zarb-Cousin: don't look back in anger

Matt Zarb-Cousin: don't look back in anger

Matt Zarb-Cousin

3 min read

The Labour leadership’s aversion to proposing any coherent alternative to government policy was once premised on their desire not to appear as though they were opposing for opposition’s sake. But while adopting this style was supposed to signal a return to “grown-up politics” it has instead failed on its own terms.

While Keir Starmer was right to oppose an increase in national insurance contributions to fund social care, he did so without saying what he would do differently. You might say this approach risks looking like he’s opposing for opposition’s sake.

Still in awe of Neil Kinnock’s conference speech confronting Militant in 1985 – which preceded a further 12 years out of power – Labour’s right wing, which now occupies the leader’s office, have made it their priority to distance themselves from anything that might be associated with their predecessors. 

While Starmer’s leadership campaign in 2020 committed to building on the popular elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda, he has been rowing back from his 10 pledges ever since. This outlook might be explained by a spurious analysis of history that has led many on the party’s right to believe shutting out the left is some sort of timeless blueprint for winning power. But the economic context has shifted dramatically since the 1990s when Labour last won an election. 

Asset prices have rapidly accelerated while wages have increased only incrementally. The result is increasing polarisation between property owners and renters, and those who derive their income from work and those who derive it from wealth.

The British Election Study found Corbyn’s Labour Party led among non-retirees in the 2019 general election, and 2017 was the first time a Labour leader had gained seats and vote share since 1997. But as the shadow cabinet ambles slowly towards acknowledging the inherent unfairness in taxing work more than we tax wealth, they are held back by a litmus test I am reliably informed the leader’s office applies to every proposed intervention: “What would Corbyn do? Let’s do the opposite”.

Corbyn would have proposed a wealth tax, which has overwhelming popular support, so of course the Labour leadership is reluctant to move explicitly in that direction. So while Starmer has made some broad gestures towards taxing wealth instead of hiking national insurance, the leader appears unable to vocalise anything coherent, or indeed popular, for fear they might sound a bit like Jeremy Corbyn.

The real legacy of Corbynism is a popular agenda buried in a sealed tomb for petty factional reasons

This fear is not only misplaced given the continued popularity of Labour’s 2019 policy agenda. It is also detrimental to, and inconsistent with, what might be the makings of a viable strategy for Starmer. 

But if the leadership wants to continue to draw attention to the antagonisms that exist between work and wealth, then it will need policies that appeal to the working-age population. Something Corbyn’s agenda did successfully, even in 2019.

This hyper-factional stance by Starmer’s team, rooted in shutting out the left and preventing its re-emergence, is entirely self-defeating. 

Those in the leader’s office and in the party’s bureaucracy have made a choice to marginalise the left to consolidate control of the party at the expense of appealing to the country. The real legacy of Corbynism is a popular agenda buried in a sealed tomb for petty factional reasons by the party’s right wing.

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