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The Left can still sabotage Starmer A new movement has seized the streets

Galloway is the beginning of something, not its end. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty)

Galloway is the beginning of something, not its end. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty)


March 8, 2024   5 mins

I apologise to voters in Rochdale,” Sir Keir Starmer said last week following George Galloway’s victory in the constituency. He was referring to the selection of Azhar Ali as Labour’s candidate, and promised to put forward “a first-class candidate, a unifier” at the general election. In so doing, he treated Galloway’s victory as though it were an unforced error of Labour central office, easily redressed and forgotten. But this attempt to smooth over the issue completely missed the point. Voters in Rochdale don’t want an apology for Ali, but for the assorted platter of Starmer’s failures that Galloway exploited in his campaign.

Front and centre, of course, was Starmer’s failure of principle and command over the war in Gaza. But it was notable that Galloway’s messaging made hay of many other unrelated issues, designed to attract disaffected white voters. Anti-woke rhetoric, Rochdale’s grooming gangs, local NHS inadequacy, and a sense of municipal dilapidation that an economically cautious Labour can’t be trusted to turn around: all also featured in his campaign. Far from a managerial mishap, this by-election points to a far graver threat to the Starmer project writ large. Just in time for this election year, the British Left that he swore to keep out and down is rearing its head once again.

Pollsters and analysts largely missed this development, obsessing instead over the electoral threat that Reform poses to the Conservatives. And this is considerable: we have a prime minister who waxes unlyrically over the “need to protect our democracy” even as, on his watch, trust in British political parties has slumped from a meagre 20% last year to a dismal 12% today. But this energy is not only clustering to the Right. A coalition of hundreds of thousands has assembled to march every week since the war in Gaza began. Galloway’s victory proves that, unlike a Reform Party whose political power still remains in the subjunctive mood, this is a movement that is capable of traversing from the streets to Parliament, depriving Labour of votes and MPs on the way.

Ever the opportunist, Galloway has lost no time in calling on Jeremy Corbyn to stop dithering, and lead a new party of the Left, which he says he would support. But, beyond him and his uniquely divisive personality, this is a move that a significant tranche of former Labour supporters, climate campaigners and peace activists would support, increasingly disenfranchised and frustrated by the Tweedledee and Tweedledum double act of Sunak and Starmer. Because the public fury over the failure of either politician to call out Netanyahu, and at the shenanigans in Parliament to prevent a vote on an “immediate & permanent ceasefire” that might acknowledge the collective punishment of Palestinians, is not confined to British Muslims. At a time when authenticity and answers to profound questions are lacking, it seems that the public increasingly regard Parliament and its occupants (taking their cue from Dennis Skinner) as a “Palace of Varieties”. An ineffectual conjuring house, utterly detached from real matters of politics.

The terminal unpopularity of the Tories continues to provide for a large Labour lead on paper. The traditional parties of protest provide no comparable outlet: the Liberal Democrats have all but disappeared into one of those cracked pavements they tend to obsess about. But Labour’s standing as “the party of change” will only maintain its resonance while voters are on board with what this “change” represents. And a slip in the polls as the election approaches will open the door to new mathematical possibilities in Parliament, especially if Galloway’s win emboldens MPs on the rump Left of the party to jump ship. The best estimates suggest that at least eight Labour seats are threatened by the Gaza effect, while the anti-war SNP seem likely to hold on to more seats than hitherto projected.

And this could sabotage the entire strategic grounding of Starmer’s leadership. In their rush to congratulate him on winning the party leadership (with what proved to be a borderline fraudulent manifesto), and to salute the subsequent defenestration of Jeremy Corbyn (whom he had once claimed as “a friend”), many in Labour seemed to think they could happily do without their Left-wing. But the few successful coalitions of the Left in recent years have not permitted such arrogance. It is a mistake Joe Biden has strained to avoid, continuing to work closely with Bernie Sanders and members of the radical “Squad”, all while rolling out the kind of transformative, state-driven economic programme that Starmer has unceremoniously dropped. But for Biden, the fault lines over Gaza are also showing. He is dropping in the polls, and many of the younger activists who worked so hard for him last time are threatening to sit on their hands, even in the face of a third Trump candidacy.

Keir Starmer claims Harold Wilson as his political inspiration. But he shares none of his hero’s intelligence, shrewd political skill, or easy humour. If he did, he might be familiar with the irascible former Labour MP and Commons bookie, Ian Mikardo, who supplied the rule Wilson cleaved to in his own party management: the Labour Party needs a “Left and a Right wing to fly”. Starmer has decisively severed the Left from the body of the Labour leadership, ruling instead through a coterie of sectarian hatchet men. MPs and candidates from the Left have found themselves censured and suspended, often on the most spurious grounds, with even party veterans left wondering if they will be able to stand in the general election. The role of local parties in selecting their own candidates has been quashed beneath the boot of central office, and party panjandrums are said to have a list of approved, on-message candidates they intend to drop into safe seats that become vacant between now and the election.

“MPs and candidates from the Left have found themselves censured and suspended”

All of this is unlikely to cost Starmer his victory, although it suggests a smaller majority than that predicted by the pollsters. But a network of internal opposition is forming, not least in Starmer’s own backyard. In common with a number of prominent Labour MPs who have demurred from calling for a permanent ceasefire (including West Streeting in Ilford and Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green), Starmer’s home ground of Holborn and St Pancras will likely be facing an insurgent campaign from the Left. Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP under Nelson Mandela, has lived in Starmer’s constituency for 20 years and is weighing up standing there in the general election. This weekend he endorsed the launch of a new political alliance, billed as the first organised movement of the Left outside Labour, calling itself “Collective”. The name is more than symbolic: a pragmatic grouping, Collective will likely work with other parties, including Galloway’s own, and could field several parliamentary candidates, targeting constituencies in inner cities with large student populations.

The idea that the bruised Labour Left could be bundled up and tossed over the ropes of the political ring was an enormous miscalculation on Starmer’s part. After all, we’re only seven years on from the peak of the Corbyn movement, which operated with a grassroots dynamism well beyond the playbook of the powerbrokers who’ve managed the party since the New Labour turn. The same forces will drive this new Left, with enthusiasm and young volunteers making up for the lack of donor money drawn to the big parties. And while some may dismiss the electoral damage a Left breakaway could do, as with Ukip and the Brexit Party’s influence over successive elections, independent Left candidates could one day hold the balance of a Labour majority.

For now though, the next election seems probably produce a Starmer-led Labour government, benefiting from the Tory collapse and a likely low turn-out. But beneath this victory, a new movement might begin to find its voice. For decades, first-past-the-post elections have been fought and won among swing voters in a small band of marginal constituencies. Independent candidates may perform better than expected, exerting a disproportionate impact at a time when constituency boundaries have been redrawn and pressure continues to mount for proportional representation. It is the election after this one which may deliver the body blow to the old political giants, who in any case already resemble, as Christopher Hitchens once said of America’s own dead two-party system, “two cosily fused buttocks of the same giant derrière”.


Mark Seddon is a former UN correspondent and New York bureau chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He also worked in the speechwriting unit for the former secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon

MarkSeddon1962

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David McKee
David McKee
4 months ago

Seddon bases his Starmer apocalypse on… what? 12,000 votes in Rochdale for a candidate who appealed to Muslim voters on the basis of who they were, rather than what they wanted; and the grumbles in vegan coffee bars in Islington and Hampstead. That’s rather slim evidence for the great Corbyn comeback.

Still, Seddon’s fantasy makes entertaining reading.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

It is all a bit of a storm in a teacup really, given that there is nothing that Starmer could say or do that would make the slightest bit of difference in Gaza.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
4 months ago

“unlike a Reform Party whose political power still remains in the subjunctive mood, this is a movement that is capable of traversing from the streets to Parliament, depriving Labour of votes and MPs on the way.”
If the author thinks that Reform can’t deprive the main parties of votes and MPs then he is living in a fantasy world.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

It remains to be seen. People might not want to risk voting Reform in a general election. Even if Reform won millions of votes, they would be unlikely to score more than one seat in our FPTP electoral system.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago

Wishful thinking. No political coalition of any lasting size or strength can be built by around a foreign policy issue. British politics is, and has always been, about land and its ownership. Like Blair before him, Starmer understands that the key to his political longevity is to keep those house prices rising and screw the rent payers and wage earners.

If you want an effective movement of the left then make it about that

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

I predict that the larger a majority that Starmer ‘enjoys’ after the next General Election the more fractious ‘his’ MPs will be.
We could end up with the Conservatives reduced by a Reform schism and Labour fractured into several special interest groups. None of which will make addressing the business of government any easier.

D Glover
D Glover
4 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

People who voted for Thatcher ended up under Major. People who voted Blair found themselves under Brown. People who thought they were voting for Boris got Truss, then Sunak.
If the electorate vote Starmer in, what’s to stop him being replaced within his first term?
As you rightly say, the larger the Labour majority, the more confident the left will feel. The Labour party activists are always well to the left of the voters.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
4 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Nonsense

D Glover
D Glover
4 months ago

Would you care to elaborate?

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
4 months ago

Wishful thinking. Sarmer’s majority will be so gigantic that he can afford to destroy the left and sever them completely from the Labour party which can then bevome a centrist party as Reform and what remains of the Tories quarrel over what remains on the right

Christopher Posner
Christopher Posner
4 months ago

Isn’t that exactly the left’s opportunity? No one will be able to say that they are letting the Tories back in.

Kevin Mahoney
Kevin Mahoney
4 months ago

Previous attempts to form an explicitly socialist alternative to Labour have met with very little success. Look at the derisory share of the vote obtained by the TUSC, the implosion of
Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and Galloway’s failure to translate by-election victories into long-term electoral success. The kinds of people who were enthusiastic for Corbyn will probably vote Green next time and the effect on Labour will be minimal.

O'Driscoll
O'Driscoll
4 months ago

Is this a serious piece? Nobody is obsessed with Gaza except the Muslim community, a handful of TikTok Gen Z idiots, and what’s left of the nutters who meet in pubs who support the extreme politics of Chris Williamson and his ilk. In a few months time, Gaza will be off the front pages and Galloway will be bleating to the wind on this particularly issue.

The real problem for Labour is the white working class, particularly in the North, who support Galloway’s other “policies” – pro Brexit, socially conservative, gender critical, in favour of law and order under a much harsher police presence. These people tend not to be fans of Islamism so Galloway/Williamson’s will have to dance on the head of a pin to keep their coalition intact.

Gaza is a temporary non-story as far as UK politics is concerned.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago
Reply to  O'Driscoll

The real problem for Labour is the white working class
This seems to be the common thread among parties of the left. It’s certainly true in the US and, as best I can tell, across Europe. Predictably and in unison, the left’s media amen chorus has branded any opposition as extreme, far right, or Christian nationalists.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Another delusional leftie we thinks we all want the murdering terrorists made safe

N Satori
N Satori
4 months ago

 …the old political giants, who in any case already resemble, as Christopher Hitchens once said of America’s own dead two-party system, “two cosily fused buttocks of the same giant derrière”.

Thus spake Christopher Hitchens, once the chattering classes favourite Lefty. A jokey and vulgar image which will doubtless appeal to many – Galloway used a variant of it for his Rochdale battle cry – but what does it tell us about the precarious state of Western democracy? That we need Proportional Representation so that every crackpot faction gets a seat or two in parliament? Be careful what you wish for.

0 0
0 0
4 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Chris Hitchens was a treasure, he was a intelligent and very curious person who happened to be a good observer of life and was open-minded, and had a strong sense of nuance. Creatures like him are a rarity amongst the modern left, they do exist but they’re but are often purged and ostracized from their world. One of the things I really respect about the guy he really fully grasp the the nature of Islamic fundamentalism understood the monster that was coming, while those on the left or even in a state of denial, downplaying and some cases going as far to excuse these people and even praise them despite how awful they really are despite how contradictory their beliefs were to leftist thought.

N Satori
N Satori
4 months ago
Reply to  0 0

A treasure? I do remember that he was quite rattled when his friend Martin Amis’ published Koba The Dread, a non fiction work dealing with the indulgence of communism by Western Left wing intellectuals including writers at The New Statesman one of whom was Hitchens himself.

I have read God Is Not Great three times now and, while Islam comes in for criticism it is just as part of a general attack on the power of religious beliefs. Remember his famous attack on Mother Teresa? Perhaps I have not read as much of Hitchens as you but it does seem that the monster he ‘understood’ was religion itself – any religion.

By the way, check out the latest pronouncements by George Galloway. He’s now talking about a coming change in British politics with huge numbers of small factional groups seeking political office. Will Multiculturalism have spawned a creature with a giant derrière and many, many buttocks?

Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
4 months ago

Starmer did not display a lack of principle. He stuck to his principles as far as I could see, and refused to have those hijacked by the relentless antipathy and aggression of the anti Zionists.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
4 months ago

Labour would find it easier if there was a Trotskyist Party. Galloway, Livingstone, Corbyn , Scargill, etc are basically Trotskyists, one aspect of which they despise patriotism and British culture. The Trotskyist mentality is very appealing to resentful embittered ineffectual office workers in the public sector with a sense of entitlement and repels self emplotyed tradesmen and the self- employed and those in small businesses in general.
A Labour Party of C Attlee, E Bevin, D Healey, Callaghan with Union leaders such as Hammond and Chapple of EETPU and Laird and Jordan of AEU would be very appealing. Namely; tough practical, patriotic, pro NATO, pro advanced manufacturing and the technical education to go with it, pro law and order, contempt for cultural Marxism ( Woke ). They would attract Conservative voters outside of the M25 and those in industry, farming, fishing, etc .
It has been said the best Foreign Secretary since 1945 was E Bevin; and the best Secretary for Defence was D Healey and most robust Home Secretary was J Callaghan.
The Conservatives would end up representing effete affluent ineffectual suburban office workers.

J Boyd
J Boyd
4 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Scargill was always a Stalinist. Galloway is probably closer to Stalinism than Trotskyism.
And Stalinists and Trotskyists hated each other for more than they hated the Right.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
4 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

That would get my vote.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago

This election looks very much like ours in the US. Here, I can understand why Trump puts off some people, but I cannot grasp how anyone would want more of the past 3+ years. Similarly, I can understand why UK voters would be disenchanted with the Tories, but not why anyone would be enthused by Labour.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I don’t think anyone is enthused by Labour – it’s got more to do with getting the Tories out. If the Tories get their act together, ditch the woeful incompetents they have in government and inject some real talent, maybe their comeback will be a lot quicker than currently envisaged.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
4 months ago

Yet again, a left winger claims that the whole country is anti-Israel whereas most voters have other priorities and want their politicians to concentrate on stuff that needs sorting out at home, rather than cosying up to the Hamas lovers. The presence of 1000s on the streets every week is deliberately provocative as is the attempts to threaten MPs and their families.
As for the left posing a threat to Labour, most have left the party of their own accord and some have been expelled so hardly any of them are still part of the party machine.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

I suspect that, in reality, there’s pretty substantial majority support for Israel.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
4 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

And for Israel’s ongoing actions to disable the latest avatar of genocidal Jew-hatred.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
4 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

To the extent that they even GAF, that’s certainly true among my friends.

Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle
4 months ago

The key to the door of magical and transformational change of power in Westminster is change FTP system to one of PR
and the hand that reaches for that key
Is for the upcoming Election is Tactical Voting
, which if such key placed in the keyhole then you can have ‘ The Hinges of Fate ‘ begin to ease and move
Unstoppabley so till the doors fully open
Into a bright new dawn

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Great to see Mark on Unherd, but in terms of a growing Left, sadly its not the Left we(many of the wider Left/inc on here, not all hard right) want or need: its a mix of poisonous dwindling Far Left Sects(see my reply to article by Terry Eagleton) but who have had a second wind(nah umpteenth) by organising the demos, etc, The main one is the SWP(read about Comrade Delta), who fund many of the costly Gaza demos, who have been absent from basic issues like housing, social security, economic inequality for decades. Counterfire, ex SWP, (Rees/German, e5c), a growing Student Left based around the Communist Party Of Britain, many radical islamists(i also recall a key member of the MCB during Iraq War was a former SWP member.)
Then, there are many of the Old Left/IMG/Anarcho’s(strangely not many ex militant) in their 60’s/70’ even 80’s who now show absolutely no interest in basic issues like above, have abandoned the working class as a agent of change, don’t help in working class communities any more, lots of conspiriacy theorist, flakes, etc. Of course there are also many thousands of young people just disgusted by what is happening in Gaza, (but also consumed by a extreme woke agenda). There are also lost of ordinany middle class liberals, There are also the huge amount of Muslims who are terrified and angry by what is happening to their co -religionists, may not that part of a new coaltion bases on non religious basic issues.

A fair number, but as a wider left ready to take on Starmer(and the inevitable growth of a new far rightmuch more sophisticated than Tommy, EDL, etc. as he inevitably loses support post election win,It just doesn’t cut the mustard, and probably deletorious to any new project that wants to engage with the masses, including the ex miners, etc, who deserted such politics in the last decade.

Frederick Jones
Frederick Jones
4 months ago

What part will Jew hatred play in the Collective?

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
4 months ago

I don’t think Starmer has had a failure of principle, quite the opposite. He has stood up to the radical left activists to keep labour electable. As said many times, including on this site, UK elections are won from the centre. The activists don’t understand this in their echo chambers. The risk of course is that after Starmer is elected he is ousted for the radicals and activists.

Alice Devitt
Alice Devitt
4 months ago

At no time EVER has Starmer discounted the threat from the nasty, wicked hard left…ruined Lab history since 1918. Me thinks author, like so many MC loathe Starmer. ‘Keith’ like rejection but better written.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
4 months ago

Labour’s in-built fatal flaw – its birth defect – is the irreconcilable conflict (and mutual disdain) between its socially conservative working class support and its blue haired, graduate liberal wing. The whole contradictory contraption is only held together by FPTP and provides another reason why we need electoral reform. “Oh but be careful what you wish for; we’ll end up with crackpots, crooks and weirdos in parliament”. Yes probably, but if that’s who people want to vote for then that’s democracy for you. The current arrangement clearly doesn’t work.

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
4 months ago

Leaving aside the rather bizarre attitude of treating deaths in the Middle East as being uniquely special I think the authors prophesy of the far left hurting Starmer will more likely come true immediately after the next general election.
I suspect Starmer will win, with a much smaller majority than some suggest and within a year will be removed by the very scary and deeply dangerous totalitarians on the far left of Labour. Probably with the help of a block Muslim vote which will eventually, in turn, dump the Labour left. RIP the UK.

William Brand
William Brand
4 months ago

Biden is trying to be on both sides in Gaza building a dock for Gaza and giving bombs to Israel. Us domestic politics drives action by the army. God is watching and will destroy America if he dumps Israel. Read Revelations 18 for Gods reaction to dumping Israel. One only prays that there are enough Christians in America that the doom will wait until the Church is raptured. God is allowing the growth of Woke antisemitism to cause Jews to flee to Israel prior to America’s doom.