by Martin Odoni

One of the worst failings of political debate in this country is that fallacious reasoning, including macho stubbornness, often overrides ordinary logic, and Occam’s Razor is frequently substituted with confirmation bias.

The Labour Party leader of much of the 1980s, Neil Kinnock, was a superlative example of this attitude. He had come to the leadership in place of Michael Foot, after the calamity of the 1983 General Election, which saw Labour’s vote plummet, and the Tories score a landslide 144-seat majority. Kinnock, a Welsh coal-miner’s son and a staunch left-winger up to this point, deserted almost every single one of his principles within days of winning the leadership. He lurched firmly to the right, having been convinced that the reason Labour lost the Election was that Foot had been ‘too left wing’ in his policy platform.

Not left, not right, just general chaos the real problem

In truth, the reasons for Labour’s defeat were far more varied and nuanced. For one thing, the Tories had been given a massive, and in hindsight rather disturbing, boost in popularity due to winning the Falklands’ War less than a year earlier – apparently nothing will make a British politician more popular than having other people kill foreigners in their name. Within the Labour Party, there had been a massive split between left – as led by Tony Benn – and right – as led by Denis Healey and former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. The split, dating back to the Labour Conference of 1976, had caused years of chaotic infighting, and no matter who was chiefly to blame for it, it left the party looking hopelessly unfit to govern in the public eye. The break-off of the infamous “Gang Of Four” in 1981, to form the Social Democratic Party was particularly destructive. By the time the party published its Manifesto – the notorious “longest suicide note in history” – it was clear that Labour had already lost, and so policy detail in fact played little role in the way the polls shaped up. Indeed, right wingers on the National Executive Committee decided to publish the Manifesto in its first draft form, and then use the inevitable defeat to discredit the left.

But Kinnock clearly took the backlash against the Manifesto very much to heart, and blamed the left wing of the party more broadly for the Election drubbing. He started purging left wing members from Labour, often on dubious pretexts, and brought forward a more middle-of-the-road policy platform. The result of campaigning from the right, in 1987… was another drubbing and Tory landslide. The gap had narrowed somewhat, to be fair, but the Tory majority still exceeded 100.

Stalinist-centrism

Interpreting this outcome as in some way ‘encouraging,’ Kinnock continued purging leftist members, and increasingly focused power and control over the whole party on the leader’s office, to the point where, paradoxically, the way the party was run became more Stalinist the further it shifted to the right.

By 1992, Kinnock was ready to challenge for power again… and lost again. This time, it was not quite a drubbing or landslide, as the seat-count was close – a Tory majority of 21. But the Tories’ voting percentage share was only down by about 0.3%, and in terms of overall vote count, they in fact got the highest number recorded by any party since before the Second World War. Kinnock was left trailing some two-and-a-half million votes behind. His vote count was roughly the same as Harold Wilson had managed in October 1974, and therefore could hardly be described as “breaking new frontiers.”

So much for stealing support from the Tories by shifting right.

1997 proved Kinnock right… or did it?

Labour finally returned to power in 1997 with a massive landslide majority under Tony Blair. The frequent refrain in the years that followed was that the party was reaping the inevitable benefits of the ‘modernisation’ it undertook during Neil Kinnock’s stewardship. Once again, the real picture is a lot more nuanced. Beating the Tories in 1997, for one thing, was not nearly as big a challenge as it had been in 1987.

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher was an elected dictator of the Conservative Party, her whim law, and every MP on the Government benches too disciplined, or just too terrrified of her near-insane fervour for hard-right economics, to dare step out of line. The Conservative Party, be it by loyalty or by fear, was firmly united. They also had all the major newspapers solidly on their side, presenting the economic chaos of the 1980s as somehow being of a ‘superior standard’ to the economic chaos of the 1970s.

In 1997, this picture had changed. The Tories’ (unearned) reputation for economic competence had been badly wounded by a deep, debilitating recession around the turn of the decade, one that had been needlessly prolonged by the foolish decision to enter the pound sterling into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism at too high a value, and culminating a few months after the 1992 Election in the financial disaster known as ‘Black Wednesday.’ Even some right wing newspapers began to take against the Conservatives after this.

The Tory Party then began to split just as bitterly and irredeemably as Labour had in the 1970s. This time, the split was due to fundamental disagreements over Britain’s relationship with the new ‘European Union’ that was replacing the previous ‘European Community.’ This party split would never be healed until the mid-2010s, when ‘Brexit’ effectively ended the argument for better or worse. Back in the 1990s, the relentless rebellions by euroskeptics against the leadership of John Major, and the ‘sleaze’ scandals surrounding many other Tory MPs, left the Conservative Party in such a miserable, exhausted shape that, frankly, had no other opposition party been available, even the Greens would have given them a serious run for their money at the 1997 Election.

Certainly, I am confident that the Labour Party of the mid-1970s would have beaten the Tories hands down in 1997 as well.

Always drawing the same conclusion from opposite outcomes

The real aggravation in all this was Kinnock’s one-dimensional view of what he was doing. This is probably because he knew back in 1983 that he was about to sell out, in effect, and so he was desperate for his decision to succeed in order to justify to himself what he was doing (insofar as ‘success’ entails ‘justification’).

That sort of desperation is the worst mindset when trying to assess how successful a move has really been. It makes it dangerously tempting to see what one wishes to see, rather than to take an objective view, and leads to a very fallacious and self-defeating pattern of behaviour. This is the tendency to see every development, even completely opposing ones, as confirmation that one is doing the right thing.

This was particularly true in the two General Elections Kinnock lost. In 1987, he somehow interpreted losing in a landslide to the Tories as a ‘good result’ and an encouraging sign to stick with his moves to the right, and to take them even further.

In 1992, when Kinnock let the Tories win a record number of votes, he and his allies somehow interpreted this as a sign that their plan to win over Tory voters with a rightward shift was working. The failure to win was disappointing, but it was still a clear sign that moving right was correct, they just needed to go a bit further right.

In reality, as the late Tony Benn pointed out more than once, Kinnock betrayed his old allies on the left, and stood against everything he had originally stood for, and it meant a lot of people were unable to take him at his word or to trust him. At no stage did Kinnock pause to ask, “What would have happened if I had tried campaigning from the left instead?” suggesting that he was not even being honest with himself.

But the bizarre aspect is that if the opposite results had happened, Kinnock would of course have interpreted them in exactly the same way. This is obvious. In 1987, if he had won, or even forced a Hung Parliament, the improvement on 1983 would have constituted solid proof that his plan was working, and the sacrifice of betraying the left had some element of vindication. In 1992, if he had won, or even forced a Hung Parliament, again the improvement on 1987 would have demonstrated that he was doing the right thing.

Instead, in one form or another, he got thrashed both times, and yet carried on insisting that he had been proved right anyway.

Starmer – not Blair MkII but Kinnock MkII

All of which brings me round to Labour’s absolute crushing misery in the last few days, as the Scottish Parliamentary, Welsh Senedd, Hartlepool by-, and English Local Elections brought home just how truly awful Keir Starmer is as Labour leader.

The results speak for themselves.

In England, despite this being mid-term in a Tory administration (sitting Governments at Westminster historically have tended to do very badly in mid-term elections due to the inevitable dissatisfaction the public often feel with parties delivering less than they promised), the Conservative Party actually gained over 230 councillors, and seized overall control of 13 councils. Labour lost over 320 councillors, and surrendered overall control of 8 councils. Labour lost five mayorships to the Tories and gained only one.

In Scotland, Labour hit a new low of just 22 seats in the Scottish Parliament. The election results across Scotland were being announced all day Friday and Saturday. Labour’s first seat was not announced until nearly 7:30pm on the Friday. At that point, the Scottish National Party had already raced past 30. The SNP ended up just one seat shy of an overall majority (a deal with the Greens, who won eight seats, should set the seal on that). Labour finished nine seats behind even the much-hated Scottish Conservative Party.

In Wales, the news looks happier at first glance, with Labour establishing a small-but-workable majority in the Senedd. But looking more closely, even this was bad news for Starmer’s centrist strategy. Starmer, like Kinnock before him, was looking to resuscitate the party’s fortunes by shifting to the right. The Welsh Labour Party is headed up by a Mark Drakeford, a left-winger and long-time Corbyn sympathiser. His profound success clearly points to more support to be had by remaining on the ground Corbyn had fought.

Starmer draws the same premeditated conclusions as Kinnock

And how has Starmer responded to all the very obvious lessons of the last few days? Well of course, entirely predictably, he has judged the results as a sign that, having shifted to the right, he has not moved the party far enough and so he must shift it even further to the right.

The mental contortions required to be a Labour centrist must be painful. Is it worth it?

Whereas, had Labour done well in England and Scotland, and poorly in Wales, Starmer would of course have been able to say, with some justification, “There, that proves I am right and Corbyn was wrong.” And so he would follow it up by shifting even further to the right.

Two completely opposite outcomes would have led to exactly the same actions Starmer is carrying out.

This is not cool, level-headed self-reflection, ladies and gentlemen. This is a premeditated, ideology-driven attempt by Starmer and the Labour Right to arrive at a strategy that they already decided to employ many, many years ago. It is not rational, it is rationalising. It is not objective, it is prejudicial, and it is exactly the same self-deceiving nonsense that has clattered around the interior of Neil Kinnock’s head for decades.

New Labour won, but let us not overlook how it took 14 years

Yes, Tony Blair won, therefore moving to the right is not necessarily going to kill the Labour Party’s chances. But I do find it very telling how so many centrists keep banging on about that, but keep failing to mention the context. In particular, they never mention that it took three different leaders – Kinnock, John Smith, and Blair – across fourteen years of rightward manoeuvring, before the party got to Downing Street, and even then only against a Tory Party that was as unelectable in 1997 as Labour had been in 1983. Labour was only a left wing party for four of the eighteen years of the Thatcher/Major Governments. It was a centrist party from the moment Kinnock took over, and as a centrist party, it would go on to experience the same futility for far longer years than under Michael Foot. Move on fourteen years from 1997 and Labour was out of office again due to another Labour Right leader, Gordon Brown, losing the 2010 General Election.

The facts are there for all to see, and it is time that the Labour Right stopped turning Nelson’s Eye to them; most of the time – all of the time in Kinnock’s case – Labour’s centrist project has been a failure.

The legacy of Kinnock; the madness of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

The absurdity is, if Labour persists with the centrist approach and it keeps failing, but in another fourteen years or so the Tories collapse into another era of unelectability and Labour get back into power by default, this will again be interpreted as “Right is right.” It will not be acknowledged as just the fluke of happening to be what was around when the Conservatives fell.

None of these points will ever be allowed to factor into Starmer’s thinking. Nor will the reality that most of the few bright points for Labour this week happened to openly-socialist candidates in Wales and the north-west of England.

Instead, Starmer just carries on seeing what he wants to see, refuses to note that the alienation of the Labour Left over the last year, as he has persecuted any leftist party member he can find an excuse to offload, has basically decimated Labour’s most fundamental support base. Six years of smearing, undermining, cheating, lying to, and double-crossing the left of the party by the right has inevitably turned the left into natural enemies of a centrist Labour Party. It should not need explaining, it should have been grossly obvious at the outset of the anti-Corbyn chicanery in 2015 that this was where it would all lead – a Britain where the left finds the centre ground every bit as nauseating as Toryism.

The centrists never stop going on about how the Labour Party “needs the support of Tory voters.” There may be an element of truth in that, although I would rather they tried harder to engage and involve the huge army of non-voters across the country instead. But whichever approach is better, it is clear that there is one unassailable truth that Kinnock before him, and Starmer now, have completely failed to notice; –

Labour still needs its left wing support even more

If Labour loses its left wing support base, the Tory support it might ‘poach’ will not be enough. The Labour Right took the left for granted throughout the Blair and Brown years, with the thoroughly vile, deceitful and corrupt Peter Mandelson, always the epitome of complacent liberal arrogance, arguing that “the left has nowhere else to go.”

The last few years have shown otherwise. The left do have other places they can go, and even if they are ones that are never going to see power at Westminster, they are still willing to go to them. They can switch to other (somewhat) leftist parties like the SNP and the Greens. They can have their heads turned by extremist right-wing ideas and support smaller parties like UKIP and the Brexit Party. They can just become disillusioned and stop voting, as was very evident on Thursday and Friday. They can even form new parties. They do have somewhere else to go, especially when they realise that the Labour Party, when dominated by its right wing, really does not offer up an alternative different enough to be worth fighting for.

Labour had a massive intake of members in 2015 in support of Corbyn. The subscription fees wiped out the party’s debts, while the new arrivals included thousands willing and eager to take to the streets and campaign. This should have been seen as a massive, exciting boost for the party. But idiotically, the Labour Right, blinded by raging ideological purism, attacked the newcomers with unrelenting savagery, just because they were further to the left. They made politics look like a very ugly, alien, hostile world that did not want ‘ordinary’ people in it, and the Right have continued that campaign of cruelty right up to the present day. Is it any wonder that people feel disengaged and alienated from politics when they get treated like that as soon as they get involved? This is in spite of years and years of the political class looking befuddled and wondering why young people seem so disinterested in politics. How do these imbeciles fail to join two such obvious dots when they are right next to each other like that?

Worse than that for Labour though is that when voter turn-out at Elections is higher, it tends to benefit Labour. When it is lower, it tends to benefit the Conservatives. By lashing out hysterically, by throwing the enthusiasm of new supporters back in their faces, by lying about them and smearing them, the Labour Right inevitably discouraged huge numbers on the left from even wanting to vote for the party anymore, let alone campaign for it. The Labour campaigning over the last few weeks was abysmally short of numbers and energy. Turn-out on Thursday was abysmally low. Labour’s performance was abysmally bad.

Home truths

Both Starmer and Kinnock need to face these home truths, because they are not only damaging the party with their delusions. They are leaving a hopelessly inept and malicious Tory Government unchecked. It is beyond laughable that Kinnock still seems convinced that he did better in 1987 in losing by over a hundred seats than Corbyn did in 2017 by forcing a Hung Parliament. Irrespective of what happened in 2019 – both of Corbyn’s General Election campaigns were disrupted by internal sabotage, foul, theatrical trickery that the Labour Left did not resort to in the 1980s or 1990s – Corbyn did demonstrate that leftist ideas are at least as attractive to the UK population as the centrists’ great love of ‘fiscal responsibility’ (which is really just a mature-sounding way of saying, “we’re misers”).

This is not necessarily to say that a more centrist approach by Labour is definitely a bad move. My suspicion is that neither wing will always be the correct one, and which part of the spectrum the party chooses to campaign on should be decided by the national circumstances of the time. Sometimes, a more moderate policy, especially at times of high inflation, is wise.

What I am saying is only that I see no evidence that a centrist approach is a good move, especially right now, when the economy is so sluggish. Starmer insists that he can see evidence in last week’s calamity that he needs to push right, but as I said above, his response looks very obviously premeditated. Some Labour campaigners and MPs have tweeted that they heard a lot of anti-Corbyn noises on the doorsteps during the campaign, but again, this sounds like a message they have been instructed to put out. (I am not even sure, during a pandemic, that anyone should actually be door-knocking at all. Canvassing, sure, but not door-knocking.) The actual evidence from (relatively) more objective sources, suggests the present leader is more of an issue for the public than the previous one.

Just like in 1987, there was no particular evidence that moving to the right was doing Kinnock a great deal of good, but he stubbornly went with it anyway, so in 2021, Starmer is also seeing what he wants to see, instead of what is there.

As for Starmer’s ridiculous, and possibly sexist, scapegoating attempts against the likes of Angela Rayner and Lisa Nandy, I have little sympathy with either of them given the recent behaviour of both. But Starmer’s clear attempts to insist that none of this is anything to do with him reminds me of certain moments in the Star Wars films; –

Someone blow up the Death Starmer, quick!

The lack of rationality is betrayed by the lack of consistency

It does seem incredible that Starmer and his supporters keep insisting that Corbyn did such damage while leader that its effects over a year after he has gone would include losing a Westminster seat that Labour twice retained when Corbyn was actually in charge. How intentionally stupid does anyone have to be to believe that?

When the ‘Chicken Coup’ of 2016 broke out, Labour were level-pegging in the opinion polls with the Tories, on 32% apiece. Corbyn had only been in the leadership role for nine months, and so had hardly had long enough for a fair crack of the whip.

Starmer has been Labour leader for thirteen months. The Labour Party have routinely been behind the Tories in the opinion polls throughout, and are regularly slumping into polling deficits in excess of ten points. They have now been massacred at a wide series of local and devolved assembly elections, while losing a Westminster seat that had always been a Labour seat since it was first established in 1974.

The right wing of the Parliamentary Party tried to force Corbyn out in the first scenario.

The right wing of the Parliamentary Party is defending Starmer to the hilt in the second scenario.

And had Thursday/Friday gone well for Labour, do we seriously imagine for one moment that Starmer would now be offering credit to Corbyn for the obviously healthy legacy he left when stepping down as leader?

No. Good news, on the rare occasions there is any, is presented as a sign of Starmer’s merit. Bad news is presented as a sign of Corbyn’s failure, even, as in Hartlepool, when that makes absolutely no sense.

Please, centrists. Stop telling me that the Labour Left are living in a fantasy world and that the Labour Right are ‘realists.’ The Labour Right are phoneys, frauds, ideological fanatics.

They are also routinely lying to themselves.