Labour, Starmer and Stalinism

The Labour Party leadership election is underway, with Keir Starmer the current front runner. This particular election is the first where candidates require not just nominations from their fellow MPs but also constituency parties, trade union and other affiliated bodies. The nomination process has already demonstrated that Stalinist political practice is alive and well in the ‘people’s party’ with the UK’s largest union, Unison, backing Starmer without any consultation with its membership. Transport union TSSA have proudly announced that they will give their members a say but only offer a choice between two candidates, Sir Keir and Rebecca Long Bailey. Finally, the influential pro-Corbyn pressure group Momentum polled their supporters but only gave them the option of saying yes or no to their steering committees recommendation of Long Bailey. Unsurprisingly they got the answer they wanted!

All this suggests that whoever eventually wins may have a questionable mandate. Of course that won’t be a first, Ed Miliband won the contest in 2010 with the help of union votes, after coming second to his brother amongst the MPs and individual members – something that dogged him for his entire period in office. Interestingly, this time around the union barons seem split with Unite’s Len McCluskey almost certain to back Long Bailey, Unison’s Dave Prentis has already declared for Starmer and Tim Roache’s GMB are widely predicted to back Lisa Nandy. Which candidate wins matters because there are essentially two Labour Party’s, the Corbynite left who are currently in control and the more moderate wing, that traditionally enjoyed a majority, now in exile. This is a battle for the soul of the party and I wouldn’t like to predict how it will finally play out. However, as Liberals we have nothing to fear whichever candidate eventually wins. Our forthcoming leadership election will in contrast be a wholly democratic affair based on one member one vote. Our future is bright and I firmly believe that we will continue to build support for the vision set out by Liberal Democrats regardless of who leads Labour.

However we do need to make a pitch to those voters who in the past have looked to Labour and more recently have viewed it as too extreme. Under Corbyn the composition of the Labour Party changed with the far left tolerated or even encouraged in a manner that harked back to the 1980s when groups like Militant operated openly within its ranks. I am surprised that we as Liberal Democrats have not focused more on this issue. Former Communist Party members who have not renounced their political philosophy acted as advisers in the Labour leader’s office whilst Trotskyist groups such as Socialist Action and the Alliance For Workers Liberty openly operate within the party. Labour’s half a million members have taken them further left than the likes of Tony Benn could have dreamed of and certain trade unions have helped that process along. I have previously written about the deeply authoritarian strand that runs through the Labour and trade union movement. As we start to plan our future strategy we must always bear in mind our unique place in British politics as a progressive, centre left, liberal force.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • I normally find your comments very interesting, David, but sorry, I’m afraid I find your use of the word ‘Stalinism’ way over the top with regard to Keir Starmer…… a
    distinguished human rights lawyer (e.g. the Lawrence case) and who we ought to think very carefully about being able to do business with at some future point.

    In no way should you associate Keir Starmer with the campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union which occurred from 1936 to 1938. … in which an estimated total number of deaths due to Stalinist repression in 1937–38 to be between 680,000 and 1,200,000.

  • It seems that ‘Stalinism’ is, more often than not, used indiscriminately by those who fail to consider what it actually was. I don’t remember such claims being made about the election of Kinnock or Blair.

    The claim of ‘Stalinism’ (if it means centralism around one man) might be more pertinent if aimed at the current PM and/or his advisor in chief..Ministers have been ‘banned’ from giving unauthorised interviews. there have been deliberate witholding of inconvenient facts (Russian interference in UK elections, Social Care Green Paper, etc..)

  • The Lib Dems would be well served to concentrate on their own dire affairs and leave Labour to sort it’s own troubles. The boost from the European Elections has been wasted the party totally misjudged the General Election and will be more than likely battered in the Locals. Check out the TV newspapers etc the Lib Dems are being starved of attention. The party should be talking to itself at the moment and not about others.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jan '20 - 11:36am

    @ David Warren,

    Labour’s half a million members have taken them further left than the likes of Tony Benn could have dreamed of…

    It will be these half a million members who have the final say. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if Unison wants to nominate Sir Keir Starmer or anyone else. Unison members can vote however they like.

    I’m no expert on Russian History but I would say, even though the Labour Party election process might have its flaws, it wasn’t copied from what what went on there in the mid 20th century.

    Which of Labour’s policies would you say is the most “Stalinist”?

  • Here’s the dilemma. Another Hard Left Leader may well drive more Labour leaning moderates to us. But according to polling research around half of the Tory Remainers, who might well have voted Lib Dem, stayed with Brexiteer Johnson. That decision was anchored by deep their fear of PM Corbyn. As a result, we failed to win many seats, Johnson got his the large Tory majority to deliver Brexit. In another Referendum they would have probably voted Remain and we would be in the EU. General Elections are multi dimensional, so we are leaving the EU. Another “hard Left” Labour Leader, even without Corbyn’s baggage, may well “lock them in” again to deliver another Tory win. A more moderate Labour Leader might well reduce this “fear factor” and so release those more “liberal” Tory Remainers. It may also mean that as the “radical Left” Corbynite agenda fades, younger votes who voted heavily for Labour in ’17 & ’19 may also be liberated and become available to us. This was the 2005 & 2010 “formula” that helped deliver so many MPS for us.

  • Mark Blackburn 20th Jan '20 - 12:18pm

    Superficially one might think that RLB victory would open up an opportunity for us, but due to First Past The Post the irony is fear of the far left drives voters away from us to the Tories. Down here in the SW in both GE17 & 19 many who were sympathetic to us and voted for us in local elections voted Conservative to keep Corbyn out.

  • @Peter Watson

    It did look at one stage as if there was agreement to focus on the climate emergency and measures to reduce UK emissions more quickly – which would separate the party from the two main parties [mainly because a divided Labour will not have time to focus on the issue].

    However, this apparent agreement seems to have disappeared over the last few days.

  • Peter Kenny 20th Jan '20 - 1:17pm

    As has already been said ‘Stalinist’ is an insult which is usually completely disconnected from what Stalinism actually was and is.

    These processes in LP organisations are about nominations, the leadership is then decided by one member, one vote.

    Now, in your party MPs nominate for leader. I wonder how many formally ask local members what they should do? Or do they have the power to make the decision alone (arguably quite a ‘Stalinist’ thing) ?

    I think it’s time to introduce some new insults, how about ‘Cleggist’ for someone who doubles down on a stupid position, as in ‘Jo Swinson showed her Cleggist credentials today in continuing to call for the revocation of article 50’ ?

    Anyway, there isn’t yet a ‘Godwin’s Law’* about Stalin but keep up with nonsense like this and there may well be a need for one!

    * “As a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the likelihood of a comparison of a person’s being compared to Hitler or another Nazi reference, increases.”

  • I have no desire to waste time fretting about the Labour hard left. They are a minority amongst Labour’s authoritarian strands who can surface in different parts of the undergrowth regardless of their place on the traditional “left-right” spectrum. Their self-harm is probably superior to anything Lib Dems can throw at them. Like the far-right they have a long history of splitting, name-changing and re-grouping. They are peripheral to our efforts to create a more liberal society and getting people elected at all levels to help inject our values into a healthier way of doing politics..

  • James Baillie 20th Jan '20 - 1:56pm

    Speaking as a historian whose field of study is mainly in former Soviet states, the evocation of Stalin and Stalinism in the title and rhetoric of this piece is frankly utterly crass and does no favours either to the author, or to LDV for publishing it. Disappointing to see.

  • Gavin Grant

    I agree with most of that – except that I don’t think the 2005/2010 Lib Dem voter coalition is easily repeatable. I don’t see what platform would attract both soft Conservative voters (even if they were less scared of Labour) *and* radical young voters upset by Labour’s move to the centre.

    I think it comes down to trust. *If* the Lib Dems made clear that in the event of a hung parliament they would only coalition/confidence with Labour/Conservatives and never with Conservatives/Labour (delete as applicable), then they could potentially pick up a lot of votes from supporters of one side – though would lose some votes and activists on the other side, of course. But trying to publicly play both sides at once does not help with either post-2015 trust issues on the Left or socialism fears on the Right.

    (2019’s “neither” policy was even worse, though – “in the event that we have enough MPs to matter but not enough to be a majority, we will ensure no majority government is possible and force another GE”. Clegg’s “whichever is larger” policy was an improvement on that!)

  • David Becket 20th Jan '20 - 3:38pm

    !2 comments on this (to date), 35 on Voter migration and 67 on three posts concerning leadership elections. 17 on climate change, the key issue facing the country.

    It is easy to see that this party is crawling into its shell, with occasionally hitting out at Labour. Let them sort themselves out, we have a big enough mess to clear up. I also am concerned that the Locals will not be good, in particular we will come well behind Rory Stewart (with whom we should have done a deal) in London.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Jan '20 - 4:03pm


    Yes, you are correct in saying that “in the event that we have enough MPs to matter but not enough to be a majority, we will ensure no majority government is possible and force another GE” is nonsense, because there would then only be one sensible thing to do in that next GE: don’t vote LibDem, as the existence of LibDem MPs is causing our country to be in a mess by not having a government.

    That was the issue in 2010, and the other issue was that the only stable government that could have been formed, thanks to the disproportional representation system, was a Conservative-LibDem coalition.

    We needed to make that CLEAR right from the start, but we didn’t and still haven’t. Why not? I say because of the rude word deleted who have been in control at the top of our party.

    So, most ordinary people think we made a coalition with the Conservatives because that was our preference. No it certainly was not. We were severely damaged by unelected people given senior roles at the top of our party who did seem to hold that position, with Clegg himself arguing that if we became a more right-wing economic party, we’d pick up many more new votes. Er, no, we didn’t, did we? Our party as a whole NEVER voted to take that line. And it was done at just the time it was becoming clear that conventional right-wing economics, which used to be called “Thatcherism” but now gets called “neoliberalism” is just not delivering what those who pushed it said it would in terms of a better and more generally free society. That was rather like giving the impression we were becoming an orthodox Communist party back in the 1970s when it was becoming clear Communism wasn’t giving the better society that 40 years before many supposed it would.

    Most ordinary people seem to believe we could get whatever we wanted from a coalition. We needed to make clear that was not the case, and as just a small part of the only coalition that could be formed, we would have only a minor say, and it would be VERY different from a government in which we were the largest party. So, again the rude word deleted who have been in control at the top of our party have seriously damaged it by not making that clear.

    I would be so grateful is someone standing as our Leader said they would make it their priority to explain all this, and so enable us to recover.

  • Michael Sammon 20th Jan '20 - 4:13pm

    First Tories are Nazi’s and now Labour are Stalinists. This is way over the top and not doing us any favours.

  • James Baillie 20th Jan ’20 – 1:56pm:
    …the evocation of Stalin and Stalinism in the title and rhetoric of this piece is frankly utterly crass and does no favours either to the author, or to LDV for publishing it. Disappointing to see.

    Indeed. Although the, likely apocryphal, Stalin quote: “Those who cast the votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything.” might well have been applied to the LibDem’s Brexit policy.

  • Paul Barker 20th Jan '20 - 8:22pm

    I cant say that I am that bothered whether Starmer or Long Bailey become Labour Leader, I would like the result to be as close as possible & the turnout to be sharply down but otherwise I dont really feel its any of my business. The Libdem obsession with Labour is unhealthy.
    On Stalinism, there is a very long tradition of using the Word to refer to supporters & fellow travellers who never, personally murdered anyone. There are plenty of People in Labour who call Themselves Stalinists & are Proud to do so. Across much of our Planet Stalin is worshipped as a Semi-Divine figure & even in The UK I doubt more than 1% of the population know that The Stalinist Regimes murdered 10 times as many victims as The Faschist ones did.
    Of course very few Stalinists actually defend the Killing, they talk of “Mistakes” & point to Stalin & Mao,s “Acheivements”.

  • David Warren 20th Jan '20 - 9:23pm


    Thank you for understanding the context that the S word was used in the article.

    In my time in the Labour and trade union movement I came across plenty of people who were happy to called themselves Stalinists because they believed in the theory of socialism in one country i.e. the USSR. They also thought nothing of subverting any democratic process to get the results they wanted.

    I may not be a historian like @JamesBaillie but I have seen at first hand how Stalinist political methods work in practice in left wing organisations here in the UK. It has been very refreshing to be part of a democratic party the Lib Dems in recent years and leave that behind.

    Maybe I am not that subtle but when you have lived in the monster you can see what it is capable of.

  • For most of the time I was a party member some wing or another was saying that just around the corner was some split in one of Labour or the Tories which was going to be hugely to the Lib Dems benefit.

    Despite both parties going to the extremes it’s failed to happen. And EVERY single MP who defected lost their seat – and historically 4 of the SDP defectors survived beyond 1983 so the benefits of anyone doing likewise is limited.

  • Peter Watson – agree, excerpt Party is defining itself as being against 3 things (the third being against any expression of self determination in Scotland). It so desperately needs to decide what it is for! I’d offer electoral reform, tackling climate change and being – truly – the party of small and medium business, but this seems to suggest that it’s gender and identity all the way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jan '20 - 3:20pm

    I see loads of criticisms and accusations made against Labour – but nothing in terms of actual policies they proposed that are considered unacceptable by most people.

    Mostly what I recall in the general election was Labour making vague promises that would involve loads more government spending, but not much on how to raise the money for it. So is that what counts as unacceptable “Stalinism”? I don’t think so.

    If the issue is Labour wanting to run the government all by itself, how does that differ from the Conservatives? So why is it described as “far left”? Is it really far left, or is it just another form of right-wing: too much control by a few elitists?

    What does “left-right” mean these days? There seems to be hardly any discussion on what used to be the real left-right issues.

  • Innocent Bystander 21st Jan '20 - 3:41pm

    “unacceptable to most people”
    But they weren’t accepted. At least they lost badly. People aren’t stupid -‘free broadband’, for example, wouldn’t be free. We would just pay in taxes.

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