Keir Starmer's leadership needs an urgent course correction

Figcaption Keir Starmers Leadership Needs An Urgent Course Correction
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

I t makes sense for those who want to see Labour return to power to examine the lessons of Tony Blair’s electoral victories: he was, after all, the only Labour leader to have won an election in half a century. Not such a surprise, then, that Keir Starmer has asked Peter Mandelson for help, according to reports at the weekend. As one of the strategic architects of Starmer’s successful leadership campaign, however, I believe that after a year in the job he appears to have learned the wrong lessons and needs to alter course.

Blair understood the need to bring his party together and to keep them on his side; it was not until his second term in office that he broke with the Labour membership over the Iraq war abroad and public service reform at home. “We cannot protect the ordinary against the abuse of power by leaving them to it; we must protect each other. That is our insight, a belief in society, working together, solidarity, cooperation, partnership. These are our words. This is my socialism, and we should stop apologising for using the word.” That was his first conference speech, a few months after being elected as leader of the Labour party. The first commitment on the famous pledge card of the 1997 election was to abolish the assisted places scheme and use the money to reduce class sizes for five- and six-year-olds – precisely the kind of antagonistic politics designed to appeal to the party faithful (and so widely used by Jeremy Corbyn).

The contrast with Starmer is stark. In his first year as leader, he has provoked a completely unnecessary war with the party’s left. The fact that Starmer received more votes in 2020 than Corbyn polled in either 2015 or 2016 showed that the Labour membership recognised a different approach was needed. Some 40% of those that voted twice for Corbyn voted for Starmer. His campaign correctly assessed that Labour members were never the baying mob that much of the press made them out to be and that they could be persuaded to back a different approach. A full-frontal assault on the membership was both unnecessary and avoidable.

It was obvious enough to the public that Sir Keir Starmer QC, a distinguished former director of public prosecutions, is not Jeremy Corbyn. It was therefore strategically foolish to expend so much political capital making that negative point rather than positively defining the new leader of the party. The political logic appears to be that Corbyn is despised in “red wall” seats and so the new leadership would benefit from politically spanking him. All it has done is to remind the public of Labour’s divisions and to keep the conversation stuck in the past. As the former deputy leader Tom Watson pointed out during the Corbyn years (to cheers from Labour’s right), you “don’t enhance your brand by trashing your record”.

When Starmer attempted to expel his predecessor from the Labour party, his office gleefully briefed that it would be his “clause IV” moment. But this is a spurious analogy. There was a democratic vote on the new clause IV; it was an act of persuasion, not the brute application of formal power. The message was that Blair had the courage of his convictions, would confront vested interests, and was prepared to take risks.

Whether in his keynote speeches or in weekly jousts at prime minister’s questions, Blair attacked the Tories with gusto. Those attacks may have started on competence but never ended there: Blair was always careful to move on the argument to the Conservatives’ underlying values and free-market ideology.

Starmer has instead let focus groups define his strategy, which is to go easy on the government, rather than developing a clear message of his own. This is profoundly naive: the public will always say they dislike politicians “playing politics”. Letting randomly selected members of the public set the political tone is followership, not leadership. And going easy on the Tories was not the inevitable answer to a dislike of incessant squabbling during a national crisis. Starmer could have set out what a Labour government would do differently and why.

A successful political project must have an intellectual core. It demands an analysis of the present moment and a way forward for the country in the years to come. In his acceptance speech and every major speech thereafter, Blair set out the values, principles, and positions of the New Labour project that would carry the party into government and define the way in which they governed for 10 years.

In contrast, just as Ed Miliband had before him, Starmer has attempted a clumsy embrace of “blue Labour” and the politics of faith, flag and family. Parts of its analysis are compelling – that people crave strong relationships, a feeling of belonging, and dignity at work – but overall it points out problems and not possibilities. It is a political dead end. If Starmer were to depart as leader tomorrow, he would not leave a trace of a meaningful political project in his wake.

What’s more, Boris Johnson’s great appeal is his perceived lack of artifice; what Westminster sees as buffoonish comes across to many as sincerity and authenticity. Attempting to manufacture a connection with the electorate by wrapping Labour in the union jack plays straight into Johnson’s hands. Starmer’s innate problem was always that he would lose to Johnson on the who voters would “rather have a pint with” test. It would’ve been better to emphasise his integrity – not pretend to be someone he wasn’t – and question Johnson’s honesty. Instead, his team have torpedoed his defence and left him open to being defined by the Tory party and rightwing press.

Meanwhile, the Tories themselves have been let off the hook for their disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic and for their dire Brexit deal, which has led to a slump in exports. And the government can now point to a stunning success in the form of its vaccines programme. The partnership between AstraZeneca, Oxford University and the government could prove to be a template for industrial policy. And the latest proposals to dismantle the internal market in the NHS show a government that is prepared to be more pragmatic and less ideological than many might have imagined. All these are signs that power won’t be handed to Labour on a platter at the next election.

In last year’s leadership contest, it was right for Labour members to vote for a change from a political project that had hit the buffers. Starmer was the candidate blessed with the most intrinsic talent and he still has it in him to turn things around. But a radical change in his approach is now needed if he is to become a great leader of his party and the next prime minister of this country.

The country cannot afford for Starmer to waste another year being hard on Labour and soft on the Tories. If that was not the strategic intent, then he must ask himself how it became the outcome. It’s not what the opposition is there to do. It’s not what a country dealing with a terrible death toll, a deep recession and the disruption of a hard Brexit needs. As the polls show, it’s a journey to nowhere. Starmer must mend his relationship with his party and confront the Tories. That might sound like obvious advice. But it seems that it still needs saying.

  • Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics

Ultimele News