A year of Keir: labouring to second place

Elliot Sturge explains his disappointment with Sir Keir’s Starmer’s first year as Labour leader

“Any other Labour leader would be 20 points ahead.” This has been the refrain of the Labour left for several months now, based off a remark made by former Prime Minister and alleged war criminal Tony Blair from November 2017. At the time, Corbyn’s Labour led May’s Conservatives by two points in the polls, but, according to Blair, given the mistakes of the Government, Corbyn was to blame for not being ahead by 20. If Corbyn deserved criticism for only being two points ahead of Theresa May’s Government, one wonders what damning indictment Blair has in store for Sir Keir Starmer, who is currently 14 points behind Boris Johnson’s Government. Starmer’s Labour currently sits at only 29% approval, according to some polls – one point lower than in Jeremy Corbyn’s last opinion poll as Labour leader. In keeping with the scrutiny to which Corbyn was subjected from the day he took over as leader, we owe it to Starmer to analyse exactly where he has gone wrong.

A Fine Start

In April 2020, the future was bright for Starmer, who was hailed as the messiah of ‘grown-up’ politics. He sold himself to Labour members as a leader in the Harold Wilson mould: a unifier who would reconcile the party’s warring factions and put the pressure back onto the Conservatives. This message resonated in a time when Labour factionalism was at its worst, and this was reflected in the outcome of the contest. Starmer won with 56% of the vote in the first round, meaning that he was the first choice of more than half of the Labour membership (which is skewed towards the party’s left). Tellingly, he beat Corbyn’s protege, Rebecca Long-Bailey, by 140,000 votes; this was a clear mandate for Starmer to represent all wings of the party. Some sections of the Labour Left – those traditionally most prone to infighting – were seemingly content with Starmer as a compromise candidate, as he had served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet for the previous five years, and made commitments to several left-wing policies during the leadership campaign. Finally, the party had a leader it could get behind, putting an end to internal divisions and finally presenting an effective opposition to the Government.

Indeed, the early stages of Starmer’s reign showed promising signs. Labour’s standing in opinion polls gradually rose, peaking at a five-point lead in October 2020 (though still nowhere near the 20-point lead that was apparently necessary), while Starmer’s forensic style of questioning proved a hit at Prime Minister’s Questions. For a while, Starmer was able to get by – as he had to some degree during the leadership campaign – without setting out a particularly comprehensive vision for the country. His professional demeanour and impressive credentials were enough to make him an attractive candidate for Prime Minister.

One year later, however, both the strong poll performances and the promised party unity have disappeared, and Starmer must shoulder some of the blame. In short, he has been needlessly antagonistic towards the party’s left, failed to offer any substantial opposition to the government, and engaged in the Conservatives’ ‘culture war’ in an unsuccessful attempt to win back Red Wall voters.

War on the Left

It did not have to be like this. Starmer and the Labour Left initially had a relatively good relationship (or as good a relationship as the Labour Left can have with someone who isn’t an avowed Corbynite), but Starmer’s attitude towards them since taking over has been nothing short of hostile. During the leadership campaign, Starmer claimed Harold Wilson was the Labour leader he most admired, but he does not appear to have studied Wilson’s tactics very closely. Wilson achieved impressive levels of party unity through his appointments and through his policies; Starmer has failed on both fronts.

Left-wing representation in Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet was underwhelming to begin with; even though many left-wing Labour MPs had frontbench experience under Corbyn’s leadership, very few of them were offered positions, and the most prominent among them (Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis or Richard Burgon, for example) were either offered low-ranking positions or snubbed entirely in favour of comparatively low-profile soft-left and centrist MPs. This did not bode well for a leader who had promised a balanced Shadow Cabinet, and it went downhill from there. Long-Bailey was the first to go; she shared an interview by the Independent with actor Maxine Peake, at the end of which Peake accused Israel of teaching US police officers the brutal police tactics that resulted in the murder of George Floyd, on Twitter. Long Bailey was promptly sacked only a short time later. Some called this drastic, but there was a case to be made that, given the undeniable antisemitism problems within the party and circumstances in which Starmer took over, he had to take a strong line on this serious issue. Starmer was given the benefit of the doubt.

No such benefit would be given to Starmer when he sacked another three left-wing ministers for voting against a controversial armed forces bill. Starmer had whipped his MPs to abstain on the bill, which would give soldiers serving overseas presumption against prosecution for offences including war crimes and torture. Given that the one issue on which the Labour Left is most scathing towards the party’s centre is illegal wars, this seemed to be a very clear slight against the party’s left. Another six frontbenchers were then forced out as Starmer whipped his MPs to abstain on another controversial bill, this time permitting undercover police officers to commit crimes with impunity. Empowering the police to abuse their position is another very important issue for the Left, which Starmer at least ought to know. His distancing himself from anything vaguely left-wing appears to have been deliberate, part of an ill-conceived electoral strategy.

Culture Warrior

That the present Government aims to divert attention away from its economic policies towards the ‘culture wars’ – pitting older, white and working-class voters against young, metropolitan progressive ones – is not surprising. What is very surprising, however, is that Starmer has adopted the same tactic, presumably in an attempt to win back the Red Wall voters who were seduced by Johnson’s rhetoric in 2019. 

Aside from the uninspiring flag-based displays of patriotism, Starmer has also, among other things, denied that the mainstream media’s treatment of Meghan Markle was racist, aligning himself with Piers Morgan. He has described the monarchy as “the one institution for which the faith of the British people has never faltered,” apparently forgetting about the monarch the British people beheaded and labelled Labour the party of “law and order,” promising even tougher policing. As if this catalogue was not extensive enough, he worryingly and offensively referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment” and condemned protesters in Bristol for pulling down a statue of infamous slave-trader Edward Colston.

Starmer is so committed to courting social conservatives, that he risks becoming one himself. Nobody denies that Labour, if it is to win the next general election, must build a broader coalition of voters than it currently has. Sir Keir, however, is attempting to do so by purposefully alienating the people who currently vote for Labour. These left-wing voters, whom Starmer has tried so very hard to shake off, may still have stuck around, if this culture-war strategy were a pragmatic way of gaining voters. But – and this is worth repeating – Labour are at least 14 points behind in some opinion polls.

A Conservative’s Best Friend

An element of Starmer’s plan to win back voters from the Conservatives is seemingly to align himself with the Conservatives on as many issues as possible. I mentioned earlier the different reasons why left-wing frontbenchers had been sacked; I neglected to mention arguably the most egregious of them all, however. Last December, three MPs had to leave the Shadow Cabinet after abstaining on Johnson’s Brexit deal, when Starmer had whipped his MPs to vote for it. Those centrists who had branded Jeremy Corbyn a ‘Brexit enabler’ remained curiously silent.

Some may say that Starmer’s hesitance to oppose the Government is justified, as it would be wrong and petty to engage in party politics during this time of national emergency. Others might respond by pointing out – quite truthfully – that Starmer is the Leader of the Opposition, the one person whose job it is to oppose the Government, a Government which, arguably more than any other in British history, deserves to be opposed. Even if the ongoing pandemic did vindicate opposing the Government less than usual, it is hard to see how it could explain Starmer’s refusal to call for Matt Hancock to resign after the Health Secretary was found to have acted unlawfully over Covid contracts. Starmer also failed to call for the resignation of Robert Jenrick, after the Housing Secretary admitted to having acted unlawfully in approving a vast housing development for a Tory donor. Starmer did, however, call for Nicola Sturgeon to resign if she had broken the ministerial code (she had not, but both Hancock and Jenrick had); so at least we know he is willing to call for resignations, just not when it comes to the Conservatives. Could it be that he did not want to cause unstable governance through resignations? Possibly, but only if Starmer believes that the Housing Secretary is more crucial to effective government than the First Minister of Scotland.

Starmer is right to attack this Government – as he repeatedly does – for its ‘sleaze’ and deceit. But these attacks are merely empty words, when he does not back them up with actions. Recently, the leaders of six opposition parties in Parliament signed a letter proposing an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s persistent dishonesty, arguing that he is in contempt of parliament. None of those signatories were Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition.

I am, of course, doing Starmer a disservice. He is capable of opposing Johnson’s Government, in fact he did so quite recently. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak proposed a raise in corporation tax, Starmer – the leader of the Labour Party – opposed it. It is quite some feat for a Labour leader to hand the Conservatives the initiative when it comes to economically left-wing policies; even Corbyn never managed that.

There are a lot of things that Labour voters would forgive Starmer for, if it meant a return to Government. Whether the blunders I have listed here are among those things is as irrelevant as any opinion voiced by Tony Blair in the last 11 years, because none of the things Starmer has done have helped him come closer to power. He is polling as poorly as the last days of Corbyn.

During Corbyn’s tenure, many accused the Labour Left sacrificing electoral success in favour of losing with honour; a valid charge, but losing with honour is a lot better than losing without it, and Starmer’s Labour are currently losing with all the dignity of Prince Andrew in a BBC interview. All that remains to be seen is whether a 14-point deficit is enough to turn the centrists against Starmer, as a two-point lead was enough to turn them against Corbyn.

Elliot Sturge is a second-year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at St. John’s College. Outside of term-time, he lives in Bristol, and he enjoys playing American Football and complaining about things.

Feature image by UK Parliament, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Rwendland, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Jeremy Corbyn, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Rwendland, used under the Creative Commons License

What are the May elections?

Michael O’Connor discusses the importance of the upcoming local elections

Next month, on May 6th, every seat on both Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council are up for election. If they both end up in Labour hands, that gives us a once-in-a-generation chance to protect public services, redress inequalities and fight the climate crisis.

The County Council deals with transport, education, social services and other such issues; the City Council deals with waste collection, the environment, planning, housing and homelessness among other issues. There’s a breakdown here. The City Council is Labour controlled; the County Council is Conservative-controlled. However, the Conservatives only have control because a couple of independents vote with them. Gaining just one or two seats would put a Labour-led coalition in control.

You’ll be able to vote for a County Council candidate and two City candidates on the 6th May. Links to various candidate profiles are included at the bottom, but the main message is: Use all your votes on Labour.

Why Vote Labour?

So, why should you vote Labour? Why should you vote at all? You should vote because local government works better when it’s run progressively and because local government has the power to move forwards on issues such as climate change that affect all of us at a time when the government at Westminster isn’t doing much. You should vote Labour because Oxford Labour is progressive and effective. Here are some of the things that the City Council is doing/has done:

  • Climate. Oxford has some of the most ambitious emissions targets in the country. The council will go net zero this year, aims to go totally zero by 2030, and aims to get the city to zero by 2040. These targets are a decade ahead of government guidelines and are backed up by concrete plans. In turn, these targets reflect the findings of the 2019 Oxford Citizens’ Assembly, which brought together a lot of ordinary people who  then decided . To meet these targets, the City is rolling out the UK’s first zero emission zone in the city centre this year.
  • Living Wage. In 2009, the City introduced the Oxford Living Wage, set at 95% of the London Living Wage, to ensure that all workers in the city are paid a fair wage on which they can live (not much to ask!). They’ve been campaigning for employers to pay that wage ever since. The university signed up last year but a lot of colleges still don’t pay it. Some don’t even pay the living wage.
  • Homelessness. The City Council has adopted a housing first approach to homelessness, meaning that it’s committed to getting rough sleepers a home before anything else. During the pandemic, it offered housing to every rough sleeper and has devoted funds to continuing this approach: Its overall annual budget for homelessness prevention is £9.1million, higher than ever before. The City also promised that it will refuse to co-operate with the Home Office in deporting rough sleepers and has offered vaccines to all rough sleepers.
  • Landlord Licensing. Oxford is a hugely expensive city to live in and as such landlords have a lot of power. The City Council recently introduced landlord licensing, which means all landlords will have to be licensed to protect tenants and ensure that properties meet basic standards.

Oxford Labour is also firmly anti-racist and internationalist. The City Council has committed to an Anti-racism charter, setting out its commitment to making the city antiracist, and migrant justice is at the top of its agenda. You can find Labour’s City Council manifesto here.

Meanwhile, the County Council has been getting in the way of efforts to get Oxford to net zero. It has much less ambitious targets, has blocked the creation of bus gates limiting traffic in the city centre, and watered down plans for low traffic neighbourhoods in Jericho. Its most recent budget imposed sweeping cuts on mental health and youth services. If we gained control of the County Council then we’d be able to properly fund public services and tackle the climate crisis.

As a student, it’s easy to forget about local elections, to assume that they don’t matter, or to feel disenfranchised. But these elections do matter—councils can change things—and they affect us when we’re renting, when we’re working, and also as human beings in an age of climate crisis. Many of the Labour candidates standing this year are young: If you want young people to be represented on the council, as well as a fairer and greener Oxford, then please please vote Labour.

How do I vote?

To vote, all you have to do is go to the polling centre – you do NOT need to bring your polling card in order to vote, but you are strongly encouraged to bring a pen to assist with Covid safety measures. You can find your polling centre here. If you aren’t registered to vote, then register here. You can also register for a postal vote here if you’re not sure whether you’ll be in Oxford. You can register where you live and where you study as a student and you can vote in both places.

Candidates:

There are quite a few elections and quite a lot of candidates. Profiles of many of the candidates in central Oxford can be found on the OULC website.

Michael O’Connor is a post-graduate student at Balliol, standing for election to the County Council in the University Parks Ward.

Feature Image Credit: Paul Albertella

Autism and the importance of self advocacy

Amy Field

CW: ableism

When you think of the word Autism, what do you think? 

In all honesty, if you thought of a young white boy, perhaps about 5 or 6 years old, screaming in a supermarket, I don’t blame you. It’s an inevitable consequence of the conversation around autism that has gone on in the last few years, which is often dominated by parents and littered with misinformation. I’m sure everyone is aware of the vaccine scares (because an autistic child is apparently worse than a dead child) as well as more obscure theories about gluten, sugar or any variety of ‘toxin’…frankly the list goes on. So, let’s get the record straight.

Autism is a neurotype, although it is chronically under-diagnosed in women and girls, it occurs in all genders and amongst all ethnic groups. And yes, autistic adults exist, contrary to media depictions. It is not caused by vaccines, food, or too much TV, in fact it’s not actually known what causes it – and that’s okay! This is because there is nothing bad about being autistic, it is simply a difference. That’s not to say that we are all super geniuses like some media depictions would have you believe (thankfully, Sheldon Cooper is just a product of bad writing), but it is true that for most autistic people, we see and experience the world in a different way.

You may have heard of the term ‘neurodiversity’. It’s a relatively new term that appreciates the different ways in which we are able to experience the world around us, and frames autism as a difference, rather than explicitly a disability. This doesn’t negate the fact that some autistic people do consider themselves to have a disability, which is of course, entirely valid. However, neurodiversity is actually a great thing! The term and concept of neurodiversity is a direct result of self advocacy; autistic and other neurodivergent people are slowly being included in the conversation, making our own choices about how to advocate for ourselves in a neurotypical world.

This has made huge steps in working to break down the stereotypes and barriers that exist around autism. The autistic community has been able to come together against harmful groups such as ‘Autism Speaks’ that at one time spoke over us. For those who don’t know, Autism Speaks is an American charity that has advocated for the use of harmful therapies in an attempt to ‘cure’ autism and even in 2009 created a video that claimed an autistic child would ‘make sure your marriage fails’. Note that no autistic people are on its board. More recently, autistic people were at the forefront of the backlash towards Sia’s film Music. It’s hard to know where to begin with the film; from casting a neurotypical actress in the role of an autistic teenager, to including the use of lethal restraints on autistic people, Music is damaging, ignorant, ableist and offensive. Clearly, autistic people still have a lot to contend with. 

Autistic and other neurodivergent people are not mysteries, or puzzles to be solved like the Autism Speaks logo would have you think. We are human beings who just experience life slightly differently. The vast majority of us reject the narratives that have been perpetuated by neurotypical people and have led to huge amounts of abuse which still goes on today. And let’s not forget decades of institutionalisation that saw thousands of autistic people just locked away. 

Thinking about the future, advocacy needs to centre around the voices of autistic and neurodivergent people themselves. Organisations such as the Autism Self Advocacy Network, as well as support groups within Oxford, have been facilitating this and have made great steps in overcoming historic barriers. Within Labour, Neurodivergent Labour has also made steps in centring autistic voices within the party, releasing a Neurodiversity Manifesto that was created by neurodivergent members of the party and adopted in 2019.

There is still a long way to go, but everyday new steps are being made. I would encourage neurotypical allies to stand with us in solidarity, but please remember: nothing about us without us

Sources:

www.autisticadvocacy.org/2009/09/horrific-autism-speaks-i-am-autism-ad-transcript 

www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jan/27/sias-film-music-misrepresents-autistic-people-it-could-also-do-us-damage

www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/22/autistic-adults-supported-housing-abuse-risk-care-loophole 

www.ndlabour.co.uk 

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

The Case Against First Past the Post

Jasper Evans

It is a tale as old as time. The years of a new government drag on, the opposition, without an election in sight, gets restless. The idea of endorsing electoral reform once again pops up, its name having been hesitantly called. Yet again the Labour party is considering a switch away from first past the post. And as always, the electoral calculators emerge, and get to work calculating the potential ‘rainbow alliance’.

Never mind that last time the Liberal democrats, like a 35-year-old white professional, decided on the Conservatives after flirting with a left-leaning coalition. Never mind that proportional representation would almost certainly lead to the end of the Labour party as we know it, with the left and right wings already picking at the seams. Never mind that how people vote now is dependent on their knowledge of the political system, and may well change if we switched.

No, the switch to PR would almost certainly lead to a Labour – Lib Dem coalition, these advocates say. Yet, despite the optimistic impossibility of these outcomes, this change is still one worth going for. Fundamentally, the aim of the Labour party is to improve the lives of the many, not to have a majority of seats in parliament. A PR system may lead to the end of the party, but it would also end the constant manufactures right wing rule – in the last 21 elections, there has not been a single majority of right-wing votes, yet there has been a right-wing majority in seats in 10 of those, covering the majority of the period.

Coalition building would require policies to be at the forefront of the agenda, with popular left-wing plans such as nationalisation of the rail or higher taxes on the wealthy becoming far more likely. Policies for the good of all will be more likely under a PR system. Yet the heart of it goes even deeper still. The Labour party has always been a democratic party, it believes that the people should lead the nation; our current system does not allow that. It took 38 thousand votes to elect each conversative MP, the greens, on the other hand, needed 866 thousand. Beyond day-to-day politics and policies, we need to ensure we live in a country where people’s votes actually matter.

Political reform will not guarantee a magnificent Lib-Lab majority next election, but it doesn’t need to to justify itself. The Labour party stands for bettering the lives of the people, and democracy; we can’t do that if we keep trying to be the first past the post.

Photo credit: thepicturedrome via Flickr

Maureen Colquhoun: An Obituary

Image

Sabrina Coghlan-Jasiewicz

The start of this year’s LGBTQ+ history month has brought with it the saddening death of Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly lesbian MP in British history. She died on the 2nd February at 92 years of age, leaving behind three children and a truly impressive legacy that we must endeavour never to forget.

Colquhoun was a trailblazer, remembered not just for her sexuality but also for her pioneering work in advocating for women’s rights. She was MP for Northampton North from 1974 to 1979, during which she campaigned relentlessly for gender balance, legal protection for sex workers, and access to abortion. It was during her attempts to pass the Balance of the Sexes Bill in 1975, a bill that was designed to ‘Ensure that appointments to the boards of public bodies and corporations, to certain committees, panels and tribunals, and to juries and the House of Lords, shall consist of women and men in equal numbers’, that she met Babs Todd, editor of the lesbian Sappho magazine and her future partner. Although the bill did not become law, her work in parliament helped to pave the way for future changes to legislation that revolutionised women’s lives simply by opening up the conversation and refusing absolutely to be shut down in the face of an overwhelmingly male house (in which there were fewer than 30 female MPs). Consistently, she called out the hypocrisies of Parliament, such when in March 1975 she pointed out that no women had been called to speak for more than an hour into a debate on the Sex Equality Bill.

Colquhoun’s legacy as a lesbian in politics speaks to her incredible courage, as well as her absolute commitment to campaigning for change. It was not by choice that Colquhoun became the first lesbian MP – she was outed in 1976 by Nigel Dempster in a gossip column he wrote for the Daily Mail. Despite this violation of Colquhoun’s privacy and a clear attempt to weaponize her sexuality against her, she maintained in her 1980 autobiography A Woman in the House that ‘there was never, not once, ever any attempt to hide our relationship, and I have always sought to give us status as a couple, for I believed it to be, as I do all gay relationships, as valid and as entitled to respect as any other relationship.’ Her commitment to openness, her lack of shame for her sexuality in a society that tried time and time again to shun her, is an inspiration. Indeed, following this public outing her own party tried to deselect her in order to prevent her running as the candidate in the 1979 General Election, citing her ‘obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights’ as the reason for this. Yet Colquhoun fought back: in September 1977 she successfully appealed the decision at the National Executive Committee, and stood again as candidate in the General Election two years later.

Although she lost her seat to the Conservative opposition, her refusal to back down, to hide, or to give up exemplifies her courage and unwavering commitment to her constituents, as well as more widely the women of Britain. Colquhoun saw her role as a parliamentarian as specifically to implement legislation that would make equality for women a legal reality rather than the mere lip service she had seen throughout her life. She recognised the need for legal protection for women and fought unwaveringly for it. One of her final acts in Parliament was to introduce the Protection for Prostitutes Bill in March 1979. Even in her speech introducing it, she affirmed her radical feminist views by stating that ‘I do not hide the fact that I believe that all prostitution laws must be abolished, but the amendments are an attempt at this stage to put injustices right quickly’. After she lost her seat, she continued to work as an assistant to several other Labour MPs, and she served as a member of Hackney London Borough Council from 1982 to 1990. Eventually, she moved to the Lake District with Todd, where she remained active in the community until her death.

To remember Colquhoun only as the first lesbian MP is to severely overlook her extensive and impressive work in advancing women’s rights in Britain. She will be remembered for her outspokenness, her courage, and for her unwavering commitment to her beliefs of equality in the face of great opposition. Although the Bills she brought to Parliament did not pass, her work ensured that vulnerable women were not forgotten – she gave them a voice.

Image credit: Queer Britain via Twitter