The Corbyn project is over, but Keir Starmer still needs the left | Politics

Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader marks the end of the Corbyn project and its domination of Labour’s internal politics. Having barely lost an internal election in four years, the alliance that elevated Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership is now shredded – in equal parts defeated, disillusioned and defected. But the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the left’s re-emergence into British public life must not retreat into the shadows. The lessons of what went wrong must be learned – and the new leader must be pushed to understand that now is the time for bold ideas and opposition in response to the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The arithmetic of Starmer’s victory is relatively straightforward. In the summer of 2016, at the height of Corbyn’s popularity, Owen Smith still scored 38% of the vote. All that Corbyn-sceptics had to do was get behind a candidate who could win over a small part of Corbyn’s support base in the wake of a historic election defeat. Starmer’s team knew that they could afford to run a boring, low-risk campaign – and that is exactly what they did.

Corbyn’s internal coalition was always very broad. It included much of the soft left of the party, and a large number of members who wanted to end austerity and break decisively from New Labour but whose politics didn’t go much further. The big majority opposed Brexit, and most of them get their perspective on internal party politics in broad brushstrokes from reading the news, not in granular detail from attending meetings. Starmer was an ideal candidate to appeal to this base: authentically soft left, and having played a high-profile and relatively loyal role in the shadow cabinet.

But the most crucial factor at play was mass disillusionment within the Labour left, and the failure to deliver on the promise of 2015, despite Corbyn’s own instincts. After some early moments of hope, Corbyn’s leadership came to be run not by “a new kind of politics” but by the left wing of the old politics. Momentum’s role as a brilliantly effective mobilising tool masked a lack of internal democracy that rotted its grassroots potential. The party management machine, familiar to long-suffering party activists of any era, shut down attempts to bring in open selections for MPs and ensured that key decisions were taken by professionals behind closed doors, not by members. This time it was staffed by people who read the Morning Star rather than Progress magazine.

Rebecca Long-Bailey was the continuity candidate for the outgoing leader’s office, and inherited all of its baggage – including its ambiguous Brexit position and the attempt by some of her prominent supporters to “blame Remain” for the 2019 election result, when the vast majority of Labour members always opposed Brexit. This meant that the grassroots energy on which the left always relies simply was not there. In 2016, I worked 12-hour days on the campaign to get Corbyn re-elected. In 2020, I grudgingly, passively, lent Long-Bailey my vote in order to increase the left’s perceived strength after the result. I don’t think I was alone.

Keir Starmer enters the leadership at a pivotal moment, and he will need the left in more ways than one. With the left out of power, Starmer must be held to his commitment to honour Corbyn’s radical and popular economic policies. And with a failing government coronavirus strategy likely to leave people destitute and cause thousands of unnecessary deaths, Starmer’s response has so far been too cautious and lacking in bite.

We badly need an opposition that can pull no punches in holding the government to account, breaking with any false idea of national unity and putting unprecedented progressive social measures on the table. In that task, the spirit of Corbynism may well be kept alive.

Michael Chessum was a former member of the Momentum steering committee

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