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Eyes Left Starmer’s hollow manifesto rings last gasps of centrism

The Labour leader’s threadbare platform exposes the bankruptcy of liberal orthodoxy, not just here in Britain but as an era that is ending, with the far right waiting in the wings, writes ANDREW MURRAY

TWO THINGS hung over Labour’s manifesto launch in the atrium of the Co-op’s headquarters in Manchester.

The first was groups of employees draping the balconies all around the space where Starmer and his crew were gathered. Four of them, two floors up, seemed to be trying to recreate the iconic cover of the Beatles’ first album.

Down below it was not so much please please me as Starmer’s six baby steps on the long and winding road to nowhere.

And that’s the second thing looming. Is this liberal centrism’s last stand? Is it Starmer or bust for the governing system dominant since the end of the cold war, if not earlier?

Take a look at France. There Macron was the razzamatazz saviour of the beleaguered status quo in 2017, but now seems played out. Polling suggests that in the snap parliamentary election he has called, opinion will be polarised between the right-wing nationalist-populists of Le Pen and a united front of the left just as antagonistic to the Macron project.

And the mainstream right — the Gaullists, the nearest synecdoche to Britain’s Tories — are falling apart over how to relate to the nationalist-populists and may face oblivion.

Sounds familiar? Here it feels like we are one step behind, with Starmer now burnished as a Macron without the swagger to keep the centrist show on the road.

While France reveals a centrism that is down, it isn’t necessarily out. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni shows that right-wing populists are capable of centrist adaptation, and the socialist left is not immune either — the “popular front” in France includes those inveterate elite moderates, the Parti Socialiste, albeit they are not in the driving seat.

But the main point stands — all across the continent, the governing orthodoxies of the last two generations no longer win votes.

Except, it seems, in Britain where the grim, shirt-sleeved Starmer mendaciously promising “change” on the front of Labour’s manifesto is nailed on to be moving into Downing Street come July 5.

The non-centrist left has a much more shrivelled presence in Britain than in France. No equivalent to Melenchon’s France Insoumise, no tradition of a mass Communist Party. The electoral system corrals all opinion under the banners of one or another governing bloc.

But here too the tectonic plates are at least wobbly. The Tories, divided, blundering, chaotic and corrupt as they are, no longer look like safe hands for liberal centrism’s future.

And Starmer’s party is drifting downwards in the polls and facing serious challenges from the left in at least a few places. So the ruling orthodoxies may be in a better place than in 2019 when Corbyn’s Labour explicitly challenged them, but they are scarcely embedded after a further five years of failure.

Let’s consider the main lineaments of this centrism.

First, it is committed to capitalist globalisation, to a world open to the free flow of capital and goods, if not labour. Second, it prioritises the reified market above all in common with all neoliberals but offers an increasingly threadbare welfarist tinge to take the sting out of the consequences. Third, it champions a form of social liberalism which protects, indeed fetishises, individual identity markers as a banner of progress at the expense of class politics.

And finally but perhaps most importantly, it aspires to maintain a world hierarchy embodying the first two values, with the third as a form of polemical alibi when needed, against all comers.

It often does so in violation of international law, and by force. Liberal centrism may mean several things, but war is undeniably one of them.

We know that on the most important questions of all, the genocide in Gaza, the war in Ukraine and the impending conflict with China, Labour represents no change with Tory policy at all. It is the unified bipartisan policy of the British Establishment.

And it is true on the economy, too, the area where previously one could identify differences between governing parties, however small on occasion. The problem is that centrism has run out of money, at least according to its own inner logic, and all must abide by its fiscal rules.

Thus Starmer disclaims any intention of prolonging Tory austerity yet pledges to maintain the cruel two-child benefit cap. He rules out increasing taxes which bear on working people, which is supportable, but also abstains from raising any revenue from the wealthy or big business, via either a wealth tax or an increase in corporation tax.

Such measures would upset the markets, and the free flow of capital into Britain, he and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves reason. They have also drawn from the experience of the miserable Liz Truss that those same markets — the bond market above all — will tolerate only so much debt from the British state.

So, hog-tied by neoliberal pieties and explicitly scornful of redistribution as a policy, he puts the whole weight on economic growth, the only remaining route to increasing social spending.

Yet here he has been rumbled. Once he had discarded the £28 billion a year green new deal — it has now shrunk to something less than one-quarter of that size — for the reasons identified above he has no shots left in the locker.

Boosting workers’ rights, planning reform, and a gigafactory here or there are all fine in their own terms but they will not shake off enough extra spare funds in the near future to resource anything very much. A serious state-led investment programme is not going to happen.

Now, centrist liberalism has been in political trouble for two big reasons — endless wars, and the consequences not just of the 2008 crash but of the effort to reconstitute the system more-or-less as was afterwards by the prevailing powers.

It is beyond clear that Starmer represents a continuation of the problems, not any likely part of a plausible solution.

His manifesto, lavishly illustrated with pictures of himself, is a long-winded and vainglorious way of revealing as much — not so much the longest suicide note in history, as Gerald Kaufman dubbed Labour’s 1983 manifesto, as the longest kabuki play.

This is not because the Starmeroids are particularly stupid or any more malevolent than they need to be. It is because the centrist moment is passing.

That is why the far right’s breath is hot on Macron’s neck. And here? That noise is Nigel Farage clearing his throat on the edge of the stage, modestly suggesting that as a first step, he might be prepared to take up the leadership of a Tory-Reform lash-up. Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick may contest the crown, but simper before Farageism.

Reform’s owner has made it clear that 2029, the assumed date of the general election after this one, is his target. Power passing into the hands of authoritarian nationalist-populists giving a nativist veneer to capitalist exploitation is at that point far from impossible.

So centrist liberalism is in the last chance saloon without enough change for even a final round of drinks. A left front analogous to that in France would provide an alternative and give democracy a fighting chance. The elements of it are certainly extant, but the means of assembling it and giving it meaningful expression seem elusive.

The Financial Times has identified the drama. Its columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote last week that after the election Starmer will likely “stand supreme as liberal democracy’s most secure leader … He not only carries the dreams of a country demanding change but the hope of all who fear what follows if he fails.”

In spite of the look of steely determination on the manifesto cover — or perhaps because of it — depending on Starmer does not feel at all reassuring.

“Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to,” if we’re sticking with the Fab Four. Help!

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