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Now Are You Going to Start Standing Up for Yourselves? 

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Over the past four and a half years, the UK radical left came close making itself utterly irrelevant. Yet despite many wasteful wrong steps, the results of the 2024 General Election are actually surprisingly positive for those who those who want an economy and foreign policy for the many, not the few. Tony Blair’s New Labour was once described as a ‘weightless hegemony’ – all the seats, with no real consent or support – but Sir Keir has now taken that dynamic to a new extreme. The reward for his McCarthyite assault on the left was a bubble bath of cross-spectrum media support and blind-eye-turning to his lies and procedural hypocrisies, of a kind that only 2019-era Boris Johnson had previously been honoured with. Yet this was only enough to nudge Labour’s vote share a percentage or so above the calamitous result of 2019, with one of the lowest voter turnouts in history. The 40% won by Corbyn in 2017 is a distant memory, Starmer has won with fewer votes than Corbyn lost with in 2019, and Labour’s huge parliamentary dominance is down almost entirely to Nigel Farage’s late decision to split the right-wing vote across the country with his anti-immigration vehicle Reform UK. 

In other words, Sir Keir’s new model New Labour has not come close to hegemonizing or reinvigorating progressive feeling in Britain, and it begins its spell in government entirely at the whim of the radical right. Losses to pro-Palestinian independent candidates (including Jeremy Corbyn himself) in five seats, the Greens winning four, and similar outcomes only narrowly missed in many others, all demonstrate that even ad hoc and opportunistic campaigns can hurt Starmer from the left. Since the shock of the 2016 Brexit referendum itself, every election in Britian has demonstrated that we are living in a time when people are able to abruptly change their mind, and the left and the right can both be the beneficiary of this low-commitment environment. The new parliamentary presence of the radical right is going to ensure that – despite Sir Keir’s majority – antagonism, contestation, and experiment will continue to characterise the times. The radical left has to get in front of this. 

After its defeat in the 2019 election, the Corbynite radical left broadly recognised that it had made a big mistake in allowing itself to be manoeuvred into opposing Brexit. Unfortunately, they then approached every subsequent political crisis with a combination of anti-populist suspicion of ‘the people’, sympathy for professional class managerialism, and blaming of ‘the Tories’ for all Britain’s ills: the very mix that had made it unable to see the dynamics of Brexit clearly in the first place. As I detail in So You’ve Been Ideologically Discredited, this was supremely true of the left’s reflexive preference for maximal COVID-19 containment measures, but also coded its turning against its own anti-war institutions over Ukraine, and its calling for legalistic solutions to unfair accusations of antisemitism. 

The fact that so many independent left candidates ran in the 2024 election is itself a symptom of this failure. Despite a mass exodus of highly motivated left-wing members from the Labour Party, plus personnel, an economic programme, and an alternative media ecosystem basically waiting in dock since the Corbyn days, no new party – or even formalised electoral pact – coalesced long enough to contest the 2024 election. A welcome experiment trying to dovetail anti-imperialism with the authoritarian views of parts of the working class, emerged in George Galloway’s Workers Party of Great Britain, but whatever its future, this was never going to replace the much bigger potential coalition of 2017-style Corbynism. 

Why this gap? As much as anything it’s because too many of our potential leadership figures remained tethered to the Labour Party or had visible misgivings about working against it. This was nowhere truer than in the case of Corbyn himself. The man who once owned a cat named after Harold Wilson struggled to commit to running against the Party that had done everything it could to humiliate him and bury his good name, until it was almost too late. It is easy to scorn this ‘Labourism’, but – like so much in Corbyn’s character – it is a blind spot of a piece with the consensual humbleness and lack of impulsive ego that is, we must admit, one of Corbyn’s unusual leadership strengths. For all the wild goose chases it has often felt like he is taking us on, he remains the (anti-)charismatic centre of the UK radical left, and one hopes the good will and energy that his supporters all over the country showed his re-election campaign reminds him that he has a better home than Labour. 

Starmer has gotten lucky, he shouldn’t be allowed to forget it, and his luck may not last long. But we’ve gotten lucky too. Corbyn’s re-election, a new mini cohort of MPs whose accession owes nothing to the Labour Party, the proof that foreign policy is not just a distant abstraction, but a living material politics to a non-negligible number of people in the country, cabinet members with tiny majorities to keep in the sights… these weren’t assured, and they shouldn’t be wasted. This election has shown that there is a great deal of ideological diversity among those successfully opposing Starmer from the left, from the authoritarian to the woke, from the religious to the environmentalist. Nobody should be rushing into trying to commit everyone to a single programme, and it would be better to have a left culture that is more tolerant of this spread than any side has tended to be of late. But we do need to take the 2024 result as an immediate mandate for forming networks, pooling funding, staging cultural events, and formalising electoral agreements. With the radical right poised to take advantage of Sir Keir’s inevitable unpopularity, at the very least it needs to be clear that he does not act for the left, that there is a different left out there, and it is coming back to life. For the many, not the few.