|Perpetually worried - Keir Starmer stares into the centrist void...|
He was the quiet one, modestly titling his long lost autobiography Fourth Among Equals - no Caesar Augustus he, one of the joint leaders of the Social Democratic Party, the breakaway from the Labour Party in 1981.
Headed by heavyweight former Cabinet Ministers Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Dr David Owen, Rodgers, a former Transport Secretary, was the final member of the "Gang of Four" and was seen as the organiser of the SDP, which boasted new fangled initiatives like letting members join using credit cards and phone banks.
Under its collective leadership, the party initially pitched itself as a left of centre alternative to the overtly socialist leadership of Labour under Michael Foot from 1980 to 1983. Later, however, it shifted during the sole leadership of Owen to a more rightwards "tough but tender" approach where the emphasis was much more technocratic, with the Doctor loftily holding forth his diagnoses of rampant incompetence on the part of the increasingly creaky Thatcher administrations. Often causing ructions among his Liberal Allies, Owen's pitch was firmly on the Tories' own terms - his "social market" was a conscious decision to operate on their ground, implying, ultimately, that he could be a better Conservative than the slavering followers of the wild-eyed Thatcher as she moved into full Caligula mode.
Ultimately, of course, the Liberal-SDP Alliance ended in utter rancour. After a disappointing result in the 1987 election left the SDP with just 5 MPs, a majority of the membership voted to merge with the Liberals. Owen refused to have anything to do with it and briefly created a "continuing SDP" which was wound up after polling behind the Monster Raving Looney party in a Merseyside by-election in early 1990. The Doctor exited elected politics and ended up aptly as a cross-bencher in the Lords, while Rodgers followed his other Gang members into what became the Liberal Democrats, leading them in the Lords for several years and happily backing the 2010 to 2015 coalition of austerity with the Conservatives.
His relevance today stems from his comments on a BBC "reunion" programme a little while before the European referendum in 2016. Interviewed with Williams and Owen about their reasons for their 1981 adventure (which had been dramatised as a successful London stage play) the now Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank opined that British politics had been "broken" then as it was again but, crucially, in spite of the surging UKIP and previous upswings for the BNP and street demos by the EDL, "politics will get back to normal soon enough."
His Lordship was perhaps expressing hope as much as prediction, but his complacency is readily explicable and not without some merit. For, while the SDP itself collapsed after barely six years' existence, its purpose - to stop an overtly socialist Labour Party being elected to office, was powerfully and successfully achieved.
First under the former leftwing firebrand Neil Kinnock and ultimately under the narcissism of the Blair leadership, Labour reacted to the SDP's brief but damaging insurgency and the accompanying four terms of Conservative governments by shedding its socialism, jettisoning commitments to large scale public ownership and wealth redistribution. In their place came an almost fervent advocacy of market economics, public services outsourced to the supposedly efficient private sector and a relentless focus on courting centrist voters.
By the late 90s "New Labour" Chancellor Gordon Brown was making a virtue of following Tory spending plans and deregulating the financial sector, while Peter Mandelson smooched with the rich and not-so-beautiful, whispering seductively that he was "intensely relaxed" about their being filthy rich. Unions were cowed into partnership agreements with no strike clauses while academics like Anthony Giddens lauded Blair's "Third Way", a faux centrist philosophy of a supposedly conflict-free society.
It was the emergence of inequality on a scale unknown in a century as well as Labour's strategy of taking working class voters for granted during these years that led to a slow but steady leakage of support away from the party and directly into the arms of far right populists like the neofascist BNP and later the revanchist UKIP. For the truth was that it was under these conditions that the working class became detatched from the Labour Party.
Many may have switched to not voting at all, but, alienated from the economic boom sucked up by the wealthy through the first decade of the 21st century and forced to compete with immigrant labour, the lure of xenophobic memes well and truly nurtured by the media was to lead in time to the Brexit vote. "Taking back control" wasn't only about asserting British independence from the EU; it was, perhaps ironically given some of the Leave leadership, a full-on rebuke to the liberal Establishment - which, too late, semi-awoke to the patronsingly labelled "left behind".
Yet the period that saw British politics slide into chaos from the Expenses scandal of 2008, the recession of the same year and the austerity of the following years, fostered not only a revolt on the right of politics - the Left was on the march too, a process that culminated in the breathtaking rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in the autumn of 2015. Simultaneously the party saw its membership rocket to well over half a million members, becoming the largest political organisation in Europe. In spite of two attempts to remove him by recalcitrant rightwing Labour MPs, who remained the majority of the parliamentary group, Corbyn endured through the now-revealed sabotage of party staffers in the 2017 general election to deliver the party's best result in almost two decades, depriving the Tories of their majority at the same time.
Lord Rodgers' hope of a return to normal seemed remote indeed. But, facing the rise of powerfully ideological forces on both their flanks, the Political Class rallied around a protracted campaign undermining Corbyn again and again, while ceding the Tory Party to the rightist populism of Boris Johnson, which ultimately saw off UKIP and its briefly popular successor, the Brexit Party. That Labour still turned in a 32% vote share last December - higher than Brown or Miliband achieved during their leaderships and, in vote terms, better than Blair himself achieved when he won in 2005 - is little short of a miracle, and proof perhaps that, however devastating the outcome was in terms of seats (a relatively moot point given that our electoral system is as rational as a turn on the roulette wheel), a large movement remains for genuine socialism.
But, just as they made the anti-Corbyn narrative before the election, the Labour right have happily fashioned a new one post-polls. In this, Brexit had nothing to do with the sharp decline in the party's showing after their Brexit speaker, Keir Starmer, persuaded the NEC to over-rule Corbyn and campaign for a second vote on EU membership. In spite of the clear evidence on the doorsteps and in the results that Farage's Brexit Party drew enough support from Labour to deliver dozens of seats to Johnson, especially along the so-called Red Wall, the outcome is blamed entirely on Corbyn. Anything from anti-Semitism to "having too much in the manifesto" (Starmer's argument) has been deployed to explain the outcome. Almost surreally, former leader Ed Miliband has been commissioned to analyse and report on why Labour lost, in spite of the party polling almost a million more votes and a larger vote share than it achieved under his tenure.
In spite of his relatively comfortable victory in the leadership contest, three months in Starmer appears to have lost none of the Labour right's long-brewed vitriol. While his challenges to Boris Johnson during the covid crisis have hit home a few times over the chaotic handling of initiatives like track and trace and the late care homes lockdown, such passion as he has managed to muster has seemed far more focussed on the Left of the party and on Corbyn's legacy in particular.
Still light on any detail, Starmer has backslid on Labour's promises of wealth redistribution, signalled a likley retreat on the groundbreaking Green New Deal and proclaimed the party to be under new management. His Corbynite leadership rival, Rebecca Long Bailey, was ostensibly sacked from her Shadow Education role over an allegedly anti-Semitic tweet (in which she disseminated an Independent newspaper's interview with actor Maxine Peak). But by many accounts the real rift was over her wish to support the teachers' unions opposition to Government attempts to force them back into the classroom while the pandemic was still raging - Starmer, fearful of not being "constructive" wanted to support the government instead.
This week has seen the purge of Corbynism reach new depths with a legal settlement the party's lawyers advised against and now rumours that Starmer plans to expel the former leader himself from the parliamentary party.
Lord Rodgers may yet, it seems, have his wish of a return to "normal". Two parties, two sides of the same capitalist coin, endlessly rotating around a status quo, shoving it first a little one way and then the other to contain and neutralise those on both sides of the divide they straddle.
Containment - but for how long?
The notion that some centrist settlement - the polite comfortable certainties of the Major and Blair years - can be brought back and that, somehow, as if by magic, the very policies and even some of the people who fostered the crises of Britain will yet provide the solution - is beyond risible. Indeed, it is insulting to the victims of a decade of austerity and poverty, lost life-chances and premature death.
The risk of course is this - if there is no vehicle like the Labour Party to provide hope for a fairer society, for a tomorrow that achieves social justice and effectively tackles the environmental crisis, the currents of disillusion will not dissipate: like any tide, they will still gather and push until they find a new direction, one which, as past flirtations with the hard right have shown, will decidely not provide in any way a happy outcome.
Many on the Left fear Keir Starmer is a reincarnation of Tony Blair. Yet in truth he is far more akin the SDP's Dr Owen - almost delighting in a lack of any underpinning vision or ideology, but instead "forensically" scoring points over the contents of Government briefings - as if, this time, the modern Social Democrats rather than breaking away, have stayed and seized control of the Labour machine. An almost Stockholm syndrome-like atmosphere prevails - don't challenge this appalling Government's sociopathic behaviour over covid, its nepotistic dishing out of public contracts to its mates and shameless lack of values. Instead, tell Johnson and Co how you welcome what they're trying to do - just show them how to do it a bit better.
Where is the anger at tens of thousands of needless deaths and the failure to plan for the economic catastrophe that seems to loom ahead? How can we mobilise to campaign for public services when the Leader of the Opposition can't even rouse himself to condemn Tory legislation that, as Corbyn predicted, has now opened the NHS up to overseas ownership and control? Where is the will to fight racism when Starmer's immediate reaction to the toppling of the Bristol slaver's statue was to castigate demonstrators for being inappropriate? What is there to get out on the doorsteps about when the promise is of a pruning of "too many" policies seeking justice in a country where "normal" means 25,000 rough sleepers on the streets each and every night?
Little wonder that the party is reportedly losing many of its members, particularly among the crucial younger and BME demographics - where it overwhelmingly led the Tories last December. Many others seem to be following suit and Labour languishes 4% behind the Tories in recent polls - the mirror image of Corbyn's lead at the equivalent stage in the last parliament.
Starmer has been gushingly praised by the liberal press for his technocratic Question Time inquisitions of the increasingly truculent and lazily out-of-his-depth Johnson. Maybe so, yet as he stares with his seemingly perpetual look of worry across the despatch box, this strangely bloodless Labour leader would do well to check that he is not in truth simply gazing into a great big, gaping centrist void.
|Contemplating Normal - Bill Rodgers (left) breakfasts with David Owen and Roy Jenkins.|