Two years of Keir Starmer’s leadership has plunged local Labor parties into crisis

On the surface, it’s hard to fathom why Keir Starmer’s Labor is flailing against the calamitous and incompetent Conservatives.

With a government that is fixed on impoverishing the UK with higher taxes during a cost-of-living crisis, it’s as if over a decade of austerity was not enough to endure. Moreover, let’s not forget the prime minister and his cronies’ flagrant disregard for Covid lockdown rules as they partied their way through the pandemic.

All that being said, however, Labor under Starmer is failing to counter the Conservative narrative. Recent polling has shown how voters’ support for the opposition is only narrowly ahead of a reckless Boris Johnson.

The local elections are looming, but Labor parties across the country are in crisis mode after a sizable drop in members since Starmer’s rightward shift. Recently, shadow cabinet ministers Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting voiced disdain at those critical of Labour’s new branding.

Streeting called members positioned on the left “barnacles on a boat” who fail to understand the party’s history and traditions, whilst Reeves defended the exodus of members as a “good thing”.

In total, Labor has proscribed seven groups affiliated with the party’s left and, in the meantime, is expelling members who merely liked or commented on social media posts that bear the groups’ name. It is clear that Starmerism has so far been defined by the eradication of Corbynism, which has had damaging consequences at grassroots level.

Constituency Labor parties (CLPs) are feeling the strain of divisive rhetoric coming from the top. For example, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newham CLPs have seen exasperated members quit just weeks away from local elections. Furthermore, John Edwards, a longstanding councilor in the West Midlands, took a parting swipe at Starmer’s leadership when he announced his bid to stand as an independent candidate next month.

Those who have quit are quick to lambast the party’s purging of its left-wing base, its failure to tackle Islamophobia and the incessant ousting of Jewish socialists who hold pro-Palestinian views.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, party members in Bolton North East condemned Starmer’s derision of the anti-war movement. In a resolution, they stated how “dismayed” they were at reports of left-wing Labor MPs being pressured to renounce their signatures in solidarity with the Stop the War Coalition. The pressure came from Starmer himself, who threatened to withdraw the whip from 11 MPs who stood in direct contrast to his unequivocal support for Nato.

Starmer is clearly in conflict with party members, but it’s these grassroots networks he’ll be relying on when canvassing for the local elections next month. He was even brave enough to launch his party’s local election bid in Bury, where the recently-defected Tory MP Christian Wakeford has caused quite a stir. Labor members in Bury South, who campaigned vigorously in 2019 to keep Wakeford out of Westminster, have offered skepticism at his defection from him, with some calling for a trigger ballot before the next general election.

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Starmer and his allies’ increasing tensions with subordinates is happening across the board. Just last month, Unite’s branch of parliamentary staff overwhelmingly elected a left-wing slate of representatives at their annual general meeting, which is likely to result in fraught relationships between parliamentarians and their respective aides.

With many local parties also preparing to host their annual general meetings, there are concerns about whether the Labor right is set to tighten its grip. However, some CLPs are waiting with bated breath for the local elections in May to see how well Labor performs and whether they can put more pressure on the leaders’ office to be more radical.

As Starmer grapples with a plummeting membership, local Labor parties are certainly bearing the brunt. More than 200,000 members have left the party since Starmer became leader, representing a loss of £8m in membership dues per year.

Disillusioned with Starmer’s moderate stance, his dithering on key issues and his failure to appeal to an once-galvanised base, Labour’s prospects look bleak. A recent YouGov poll shows that Starmer’s approval ratings are significantly lower than those of his predecessor at the same point in his leadership. Two years in, Keir Starmer is 11 points below Jeremy Corbyn.

Without the steadfast loyalty of members, or an inspiring leader at the helm, Labor should expect to continue sitting comfortably in opposition.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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