The Greasy Pole column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
For any enduring Labour Party hopefuls the recent death of Gerald Kaufman summoned up some of the most painful memories. Because all the obituaries for the late MP for Manchester Gorton reminded us that one of his grandest, most memorable achievements was when he ridiculed the Labour manifesto for the 1983 general election, when they were led by Michael Foot and went down to Margaret Thatcher who was still in triumph over the Falklands war, as The Longest Suicide Note In History. The Party then was offering, as a cure-all for the historically typical chaos of militant capitalism, delusions about abolishing the House of Lords and renationalising the likes of British Aerospace and the Post Office. It was no longer suffering the particular conceits of the likes of Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams who were gathered into the Social Democratic Party which was virtually wiped out in that election.
Now the Labour Party has all that behind them but it still offers its persistently weary ideas on matters such as unemployment, poverty, an embattled National Health Service. And it has nurtured another, equally impotent, bunch of tricksters such as Hilary Benn, Owen Smith, and Yvette Cooper. It has to be expected that from this swamp of despair there should emerge the occasional personality who offers their version of those exhausted options for what are in effect the same obdurate crises as bedevilled the authors of that infamous suicide note. The most recent of these is Sir Keir Starmer who is the MP for Holborn and St. Pancras – who does not welcome being reminded that his success at his former job of Director of Public Prosecutions was rewarded with a knighthood. Now he is being proffered as Labour’s new hope in spite of his lack of ministerial experience.
And does his name offer anything new? Keir is among the least likely to be used by newly-doting parents. Most famously it was the middle name for the first ever Labour Member of Parliament – none other than James Keir Hardie who, apart from being leader of some striking Ayrshire coal miners was also the MP for West Ham South, and prominent in the formation of the Independent Labour Party. His mother was a nurse and his father a ships carpenter; they eventually moved to Govan where they struggled to survive on his miserly wages. When he was seven, Keir started a life of exploited employment, as a messenger boy for a steamship line, which prevented him attending school. However his father taught him enough about the life of a worker struggling in capitalism to organise a pacifist strike at the start of the First World War. He died in 1915, at the age of 59. It was in tribute to Hardie that Starmer’s parents, keen members of the Labour Party, gave him that name –although he says that he has never actually discussed the matter with them.
Starmer’s mother has suffered for some 50 years with Still’s disease, a condition which for the past five years has prevented her speaking and caused her to have a leg amputated. ‘She has been a massive fighter all her life. She’s been in high dependency units for as long as I can remember. It was something I grew up with. I certainly have seen the NHS from the inside’ was how Starmer has described her suffering and its effect on him. In his legal career, in 1997 he advised Helen Steel and David Morris in the infamous McLibel case brought against them by McDonalds. He was made a Queens Counsel in 2002 and then, in 2008, reached the heights of Director of Public Prosecutions. In 2005 he won a case in the House of Lords which prevented torture being used to collect evidence presented in court. He later represented to the Privy Council a number of appellants who had been sentenced to death in states in the Caribbean and Africa, which led to the abolition of that mandatory penalty in those countries.
Holborn And St. Pancras
By 1 November 2013 there did not seem a lot more Starmer could do to impress himself on the work of Public Prosecutions so he left the job. ‘Well, I’m back in private practice’ he told the BBC News ‘I’m rather enjoying having some free time and I’m considering a number if options’. One of these was concerned with the chaos and back-stabbing in the Labour Party and all those hopefuls who had so briefly toyed with the idea of winning the Leadership. In particular there was the juicy prospect of the parliamentary constituency of Holborn and St. Pancras, where the long-standing, inveterately wise-cracking Frank Dobson intended to retire. Starmer had not been hesitant in revealing his ambition: ‘Being in opposition is pants …we achieve nothing other than minor changes to what the Conservatives are doing. The only way we can change things is by being in power’’. When Holborn and St. Pancras went to the polls in the 2015 election Starmer romped home with 52.9 per cent of the votes and a majority of 17,048. It was not long before he was raised to the Shadow Cabinet covering the Home Officer Minister and then, after a brief spell among the ever-seething group of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies, come out as Labour’s participant in the in-fighting over Brexit with all that entailed: ‘I’m really glad to be in, to have the opportunity to hold the government to account on some of the biggest decisions for probably 50 years is an incredible privilege.’
One response to this was from Harriet Harman: ‘It’s just as well we’ve got Keir (and his) wisdom, expertise and ability to solve insoluble problems’. But the reality of this did not entirely meet with Starmer’s admirers although it might have been comforting to some UKIP theorists licking their wounds after their recent by-election disasters. In September last year He told Politico that any new pact with the rest of the EU must include ‘ . . . some control over who comes to work in the U.K.’because immigration has been ‘too high’ and that the Labour Party must support ‘. . . some change to the way freedom of movement rules operate’. So we should not be impressed by Starmer and his ‘wisdom’ as a future manager of the ‘insoluble problems’ of this property society. As a politician he offers nothing we have not already experienced, leaving us bewildered and exasperated.