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Artillery Row

Socialism with Starmerite characteristics

The coming-out party of the Labour moderates had distinctly totalitarian vibes

To Manchester, for the launch of the Labour manifesto and the dawn of what some of the more excitable newspapers were warning was going to be a one-party socialist state. There was more hugging than I’d expected. It’s a while since I read 1984, but I have the impression that hugging was rather frowned upon in Oceania. 

We were at Co-Op headquarters, a modern building with a huge lightwell in the middle. At the bottom, chairs had been set out and a little stage had been built. From the balcony hung bright banners: “Cut NHS Waiting Times”, “Deliver Economic Stability”, “Freedom is Slavery” (I may have imagined that last one.)

Waiting for the show to start were candidates, aides and activists. They greeted each other with enthusiasm, and tales from the campaign trail, and hugs. Off to one side, Conservative hate figure Sadiq Khan was in deep conversation with Conservative hate figure Sue Gray. If they hugged, I missed it. 

But the tone was tangibly different from the Tory manifesto launch on Tuesday. That was characterised by the kind of handshakes people give each other before one of them sets off to lay down their life in a futile gesture. Here it was all happiness.

The audience was so excited that when John Healey, the defence spokesman, led the shadow cabinet to their seats, he was greeted with a “whoop” of delight. It seems hard to imagine this has ever happened to him before. But these guys are now superstars, the tribunes of a better tomorrow. Rachel Reeves waved upwards at the people leaning over the balconies.  

Before we got the main event, there were a series of warm-up acts. First Angela Rayner, beaming: “We have changed the party and with this manifesto we can change Britain.” Then Richard Walker, boss of frozen food giant Iceland. A year ago, he was trying to be a Conservative MP, now he was onstage ahead of the Labour leader. Can a seat in the Lords be far away? The secret police that will presumably be part of the one-party state should keep an eye on this one: he’s flipped once, he can flip again. 

After the Traitor Walker, we got a series of people whose lives were currently miserable under the Tories. There was Daniel, a graduate living in a one-room flat in East London with his partner and two children, because he can’t afford more. Nathaniel, a 38-year-old with terminal cancer. Could his life have been saved, he asked, if he hadn’t had to wait so long for treatment? Listening, Work and Pensions spokeswoman Liz Kendall looked on the edge of tears. Who would want the burden of having to fix these problems? 

The manifesto is simply titled “Change”. It is full of pictures of the leader in action poses, pointing at things, meeting police and nurses, smiling with groups of voters, possibly announcing tractor production figures for the next five years. Here he was meeting Volodymir Zelensky at Normandy, just around the time that, as we now know, Rishi Sunak was complaining to ITV that he’d only been able to watch four TV channels as a teenager. 

Still we were waiting to hear from the man himself. There was a video now, with more action poses. Words, or one word, over and over again, flashed up on the screen over the images: “Change.” “Change.” “CHANGE.” It popped up everywhere. There were small changes, big changes, bold changes. It was all change. 

And then he was there, the leader himself. Jacketless, his sleeves rolled up, ready for action. This is a look his team stumbled upon when his conference speech was interrupted by a protestor last year, and they like it. It’s on the front of the manifesto, Starmer, hands in pockets, staring out. It’s less Kim Yong-il than headmaster who’s caught you sneaking into school late, but perhaps the one-party state is starting small. 

Almost immediately, he was interrupted by another protestor, this one a woman at the back of the audience, holding a small piece of cloth with the slogan “Youth Deserve Better.” She was bundled swiftly out. “We gave up being a party of protest five years ago,” Starmer said. 

A truth of politics is that success makes you successful. Had Sunak been interrupted by a protest on Tuesday, it would have been another example of things going wrong for a guy who finds that things keep going wrong. But things are going right for Starmer, and a heckler wasn’t going to change that. 

His was a speech short on promises and heavy on reassurance. Peace, bread, land, sure, but only when it can be paid for. He made a virtue of his caution, his dullness. “There may be some people here today who say: where’s the surprise?” he observed. “Where’s the rabbit out of the hat? To which I say, if you want politics as pantomime, I hear Clacton is nice this time of year. Britain needs stability, not more chaos.” The next few years may be a thin time for sketchwriters. 

Or will they? Almost everything Starmer said was greeted with rapturous applause, until he was asked about his predecessor, a victim of early purges, now being expertly photoshopped out of party history. “Jeremy Corbyn has been expelled from this party!” Starmer declared. “That’s how much change we’ve brought about.” This was applauded, but less enthusiastically. One candidate could be seen clapping in such a way as to make no noise. In the socialist one-party state, it’s always worth thinking about who might be in charge after the next revolution.

And after that, Starmer went off the stage, to cheers, applause and embraces. If you want a picture of the future, imagine hugs — forever.

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