British Labour in Power: A Center-Left Party that Hates the Left

Elections UK Election
British Labour in Power: A Center-Left Party that Hates the Left

The “Victorian-era diseases” are back. In the United Kingdom today, scabies, measles, rickets, and scurvy are again ravaging the poor, some of whom, armed only with a pair of pliers and an iron will, have taken to extracting their own teeth in the absence of accessible dental care. A fifth of the population lives in poverty, reliant on food banks and billionaire superstars like Taylor Swift, who recently donated a bunch of food to charities located along the route of her Eras Tour.

Unemployment is on the rise in today’s Britain. Many of those who do work are stuck in poorly paid, insecure jobs. The retirement age threatens to rise as life expectancy begins to fall. Come the winter, hundreds of thousands will return to their local “warm hub” — a library, church hall, café, or community center — to huddle up among strangers and enjoy a warm cup of tea, because they can no longer afford to keep the heating on at home. Those are the lucky ones, as homelessness is soaring.

The UK exports arms to Israel as it commits war crimes against the Palestinians, just as it exported arms to Saudi Arabia as it pummeled the population of Yemen into disease, hunger, and death. The country’s seas are littered with the corpses of dead migrants, thanks to its cruel and ineffective asylum policies, and its rivers, owing to private ownership and deregulation, are literally filled with shit.

The country is a sewage-soaked, disintegrating mess, but, if the polls are to be believed, change is afoot. A nebulous, poorly described sort of change, but change all the same. The leader of the Labour Party and knight of the realm, Sir Keir Starmer, is set to wade into the sludge to become prime minister with a massive parliamentary majority, in the process ousting a Conservative Party gone strange after 14 long years of power. If only he didn’t hate his constituents.

In order to get here, standing on the brink of power, Starmer has repeatedly and shamelessly lied to the public. He once promised to end the “two-child limit,” a cruel piece of Tory legislation which means families with more than two children do not receive welfare benefits for their “extra” kids. He promised to get rid of university tuition fees, to increase income tax for the country’s highest earners, and to nationalize key public services. He promised to spend £28 billion a year on green industries to help stimulate growth.

He has since watered down or entirely turned his back on each promise.

Labour’s recently published manifesto does make some pledges. It says the party will not impose austerity, nor will it raise taxes “on working people,” while, at the same time, committing to programs that will require additional public spending. This, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has noted, is a square to be circled.

Starmer is at pains to present Labour as “pro-business and pro-worker,” and, to his credit, that’s half-true. As shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who is set to become the Labour government’s chief financial minister, assured business leaders at a recent conference, “I hope when you read our manifesto, or see our priorities, that you see your fingerprints all over them.”

Labour has, meanwhile, repeatedly betrayed its popular base by watering down commitments to protect workers. Such a decision for a labor party would be inexplicable, were it not stacked full with corporate lobbyists linked to fossil energy, fast-fashion, and arms companies.

Starmer has shown a remarkable ruthlessness and disdain for democracy when it comes to the management of his party. While he warmly welcomes right-wing Tory defectors and anoints Israeli lobbyists to stand as candidates in the election, he has purged the party of left-wingers on the most spurious of grounds — a sympathy towards the plight of the Palestinians is often enough to see a person banished.

Israel’s war on Gaza has shown Starmer at his most morally repugnant. He has publicly backed Israel “cutting off power, cutting off water” to Gaza, and, for months, he steadfastly refused to call for a ceasefire. Eventually realizing that not everyone shared his enthusiasm for genocide, he attempted to appease voters by stating that he would recognize a Palestinian state, but, naturally, he softened that commitment less than a month later. The UK’s subordination to the United States is more important than the lives of Palestinians, which, perhaps, also explains his unerring commitment to Britain’s nuclear arsenal and its status within NATO.

Plenty of people want a better Labour Party than the one Starmer has instituted, pining, perhaps, for the party of old. Clement Attlee’s post-World War II Labour government, after all, imposed radical social reform, ultimately leading to a dramatic rise in living standards and the creation of new public services, the most important being the National Health Service (NHS).

Attlee’s Labour is understandably celebrated for its achievements in government, but the awkward truth of its legacy is that it is built upon the brutalities of imperialism. Britain’s post-war welfare state was only possible because of migrant workers who came to the UK from across the empire. It was possible because of uneven trading arrangements, in which colonies sold to Britain at below-market prices and, conversely, bought from Britain at above-market prices.

The Attlee government is remembered for its role in decolonization, but it was as brutal an imperial manager as any other. It fought a series of wars against revolting colonies, while it conceded independence to India only because it recognized its own weakness following World War II. Independence, which was granted hastily in 1947, was painted as a grand act of liberal altruism, but, in reality, the manner with which it was undertaken led only to unthinkable violence.

The following year, in another British colony, a militant left-wing movement was stirring. British Malaya had been a vital source of tin and rubber as the empire sought to recover from the war, but its people had grown tired of foreign exploitation. Hoping to quash a simmering communist revolt, the Labour government imposed a state of emergency upon Malaya in the summer of 1948, effectively cracking down on civil liberties and sparking more than a decade of war.

The British state, led first by Attlee’s Labour and later by the Tories, brutally sought to protect its colonial interests in Malaya under the pretense of fighting communism as part of the Cold War. To that end, it purposely induced starvation by destroying crops with the herbicide Agent Orange, interned people into concentration camps, and massacred unarmed civilians.

Long before Starmer, Attlee was utterly committed to Britain’s euphemistic “special relationship” with the United States, as he saw that it benefitted British interests. It is within this context that he secretly green-lit the development of British nuclear weapons in 1947, allowed for the establishment of American military bases on British soil, and played a leading role in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He sent troops to fight in the bloody Korean War at the behest of the Americans, in a situation with a parallel decades later, when Labour leader Tony Blair sent Britain to war against Iraq in alliance with the US.

The Labour leadership has long held deep Zionist sympathies, though, again, its stance was formed to serve the interests of the empire. As the British historian John Newsinger has pointed out, Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, once neatly declared, “A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state.” It was, thus, the Attlee government that officially recognized the State of Israel in 1950. Seven years later, Labour Friends of Israel was formed to lobby on behalf of Israel, and in 1964 the committed Zionist and Labour leader Harold Wilson was elected prime minister.

There has, of course, always been a tension within the party regarding its stance on Israel, but, as in Starmer’s party today, the leadership has long been known to resort to dirty tactics to silence pro-Palestinian dissent.

Labour, for as long as it’s been a party of government, has always been an uneasy alliance of groups with wildly divergent interests. Its history is marked by a tension between its socialist and imperialist tendencies, and that tension remains evident today. Starmer and his acolytes, disagreeable as they may be to the party’s progressive contingent, can hardly be described as aberrations within the context of the party’s history.

Should this election play out as the polls suggest it will, people around the UK will soon rightly celebrate the collapse of the Tory Party. But, while Keir Starmer’s Labour may be an improvement, it is unlikely to be enough in the face of the many crises the country faces. Should Starmer’s bland, colorless centrism fail, the far-right is eagerly waiting in the wings. As France and Emmanuel Macron are presently learning, what follows the failure of centrism may be something much worse.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin