This week in Brighton, the opposition leader must show that he has what it takes to liberate his party from the battle between competing forms of political nostalgia
Keir Starmer embodies an unusual, and unusually cruel, political paradox. To be fair, one can, with reasonable ease, envisage him as prime minister: not thrillingly so, but performing the task with considerably more competence, attention to detail and aplomb than Boris Johnson. It’s just that it is becoming all but impossible to imagine the Labour leader ever being elected to that office. Which, let’s face it, is a bit of a snag.
You can be sure, for instance, that Prime Minister Starmer would have managed to turn up to Joe Biden’s Covid summit last week (in contrast to Johnson, who was meant to be the sixth speaker at the president’s long-awaited gathering of world leaders on the pandemic but, shamefully for the UK, was a no-show). At last week’s Tortoise ThinkIn on New Labour’s record, Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, was right to say that “you can close your eyes and think of Keir Starmer being on the doorstep of Number 10. Don’t underestimate that. That’s a really important attribute for him.”
The trouble is that this particular attribute is nowhere near enough for an opposition leader trying to haul his party from the abyss of four successive general election defeats – the last of which was its heaviest since 1935. At Labour’s conference in Brighton, he looks more like a bemused former director of public prosecutions, dismayed and a little baffled by all the mayhem – which is, essentially, what he is – than a ferociously focused tribal leader ready to deploy political shock and awe to shake some sense into his decaying, inward-facing movement.
One detects in Starmer a sort of daintiness: an implicit belief that the nobility of public service should not be overly contaminated by the grubbiness of politics. Alan Johnson invites us to imagine the Labour leader in Downing Street. But, as a former union leader and senior cabinet minister, he knows better than most that you only get your shot at statesmanship if you have already excelled at the brutal trade of political machination. And, in this respect, Starmer has thus far revealed himself to be something of a wide-eyed ingénu; apparently persuaded that his basic decency, forensic skills and managerial experience as DPP will do the trick.
The Labour Left has never trusted him, even though he won the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn in April 2020 by promising not to “trash the last four years” or “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. The greater threat is that Starmer’s own natural supporters have been losing faith in him – especially since the Tories’ unexpectedly strong showing in the May council elections and Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election. As one shadow cabinet member put it to me: “The more I get to know him, the more I like him, and the less I think he has the cunning and killer instinct to make it. Keir’s tragedy is that he really does think that being reasonable is enough to win.”
The same figures in the party hierarchy also ask: if not now, when? An opposition leader could scarcely contrive more propitious circumstances for his first real party conference (last year’s gathering was a digital event that barely grazed the national consciousness). A severe petrol shortage, troops on standby to drive tankers, the energy industry in crisis, inflation rearing its head once more, the migraine of Brexit still pounding… if not quite a winter of discontent, it certainly deserves the shorthand “autumn of adversity”. And yet there has been little sign in the first days of Labour’s conference that the party is prepared or able to exploit this political opportunity.
Quite the opposite, really. As Talleyrand observed of the Bourbon dynasty, Labour often seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It remains a captive to history, and to a battle between competing forms of nostalgia.
On Saturday night, Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, let rip with a vicious stream of anti-Tory consciousness: “I’m sick of shouting from the sidelines, and I bet you lot are too. We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute pile… of banana republic… Etonian… piece of scum… that I have ever seen in my life.”
That pretty much covers the bases, I suppose. Pressed on this vituperative outburst by the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Starmer would only say that “Angela and I take different approaches and that’s not language that I would use” – a pitifully weak response, and a reminder that, since his botched reshuffle in May, Rayner has essentially been running a party within a party, making no secret of her ambition to seize the top job as soon as possible. Rubbing salt into his successor’s wounds, Corbyn told LBC that she had nothing “to apologise for. She speaks from the heart, she’s saying it like it needs to be said.”
Across the decades, Rayner’s remarks also echoed Nye Bevan’s legendary attack on Conservatives in July 1948. “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction,” he said, “can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”
Clement Attlee remonstrated with Bevan about his “singularly ill-timed” remarks, a distraction from the all-important establishment of the NHS. Delighted Tory activists set up their own “Vermin Club”. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader of the party (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather), believed that Bevan’s outburst “did much more to make the Tories work and vote… than Conservative Central Office could have done,” and suspected that it played a significant part in Labour’s defeat in 1951.
Yet, as Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, writes in his fine biography of Bevan, he “said it because he meant it. This is what makes the speech so controversial. For it offends against a very British notion of fairness.”
The same is true of Rayner’s vitriol. As she made very clear to Sky’s Trevor Phillips yesterday, she has absolutely no intention of apologising for her “street language” – or not until the prime minister apologises for just about everything he has ever said. And here we encounter Labour’s oldest and deadliest pathology: the belief that being (as you see it) on the “right side of history,” representing ideological virtue, and ranging yourself against all those who are not so enlightened, essentially liberates you from the task of public persuasion that is, in truth, the formidable essence of all true politics.
Rayner may protest that she was referring specifically to Johnson and his senior colleagues. But that is not how it will sound to the millions of voters who switched to the Conservative Party in 2019 (not least in the so-called “Red Wall”). What they will hear is the self-appointed leader-in-waiting calling them “scum”. What they will see is the present leader conspicuously unable to rein her in.
And Starmer himself showed this weekend that he has not absorbed the lessons even of Labour’s recent past. He is quite right that his party needs a new system for leadership elections if it is to avoid another extinction level event such as Corbyn’s victory in the contest of 2015, and that such adjustments to the inner wiring of a party are best dealt with in the early stages of a leadership.
Indeed, rule changes can be a powerful symbol of an opposition leader’s determination not to allow its past to wreck its future, dramatising his readiness to put election victory ahead of political heritage. But, as Charles Clarke, another former Labour home secretary, said on Sky News yesterday: “You’ve got to prepare very fully and very comprehensively. You can’t just bounce it on everybody.”
Starmer’s predecessors understood this better than he does. Urged to press ahead faster with his One Man One Vote (OMOV) reforms in 1992-93, the late John Smith offered the following politically incorrect metaphor: “Two bulls, one young, the other a good bit older, are in a field, eyeing up some cows on a hillside. The young bull suggests to the older bull: ‘Let’s run up the hill and shag one of them!’ The older bull had a better idea: ‘No, let’s walk up the hill and shag the lot of them!’”
To translate: by setting up the Union Links Review Group, consulting constantly with the party general secretary, Larry Whitty, and (finally) winning over John Prescott, Smith secured the OMOV reform in September 1993.
Likewise, Tony Blair’s rewriting of the party constitution’s Clause Four in April 1995 – ditching its demand for the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” – only looked like a bolt from the blue. In practice, Blair had discussed it behind the scenes at great length for months with party grandees, and only made his move when he was confident of victory.
Compare and contrast Starmer, who sprung his proposals upon the party on the very eve of conference and had to suffer the embarrassment of their significant dilution by the National Executive Committee. He got his way on the threshold of nominations required to allow a leadership contender into the race (20 per cent of MPs, up from 10 per cent), but had to ditch his plan for an electoral college that would have put the Left at a structural disadvantage. In as much as this episode leaves any lasting impression, it will be of a leader not fully in control of his party, and sorely lacking in political savvy.
The deeper question is whether there is really a Starmer Project binding all this together, beyond a touching belief in the triumph of the sensible and the power of rationality. Self-evidently, Labour has to move beyond the jurassic leftism of the Corbyn era and all the damage it did to the party: and this is a huge undertaking. It is less than two years since the party was utterly vanquished at the polls – and there are still plenty of Labour politicians who believe that the 2019 election represented a “moral victory” for their ideology and (as has been heard in Brighton) activists chanting: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.”
The more seductive danger, however, is the notion that what Starmer needs to do is simply to reheat Blairism: modern values in an even more modern setting, so to speak. As it happens, I have good reason to think that he does not believe that New New Labour will be enough, nor even a good starting point for his party’s recovery. Why should it be? What worked in 1997 is scarcely likely to be straightforwardly applicable to the dramatically different context of 2021: post-crash, post-Brexit, post-digital revolution.
The trouble is that Starmer has conspicuously failed to come up with a dynamic, future-facing alternative. His 14,000-word Fabian Society essay is neither the Gettysburg Address (only 272 words) nor, as some have claimed, a literary war crime. Its fundamental flaw is that it could have been written by a New Labour apparatchik in the early 1990s. In its emphasis upon “contribution”, “fair play for fair work”, “resetting the relationship between the government and business” and “hard-working families,” it reveals only that Starmer remains trapped by the rhetoric, slogans and analytic categories of the past. Not a single sentence of the pamphlet communicates the ferment of new and impatient thinking.
“I want Labour to once again be Britain’s bricks and mortar,” he writes, “a symbol of solidity, reliability, shelter and the prospect of building something new and better.” As cosy as that sounds, it is electoral strychnine.
To stand a chance of getting into power – and it has only happened twice in the past 40 years – an opposition party must exude kinetic energy, restlessness and what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now”. Starmer must present an irresistible alternative to the empty carbs of Johnson’s populism.
That involves a lot more than promising an ever-lengthening list of “new deals”, reassuring business, not frightening the horses. Indeed, it means moving beyond the Blairite formula of social justice matched by economic efficiency; almost certainly to an emphasis upon security, resilience, intergenerational justice and the amelioration of inequality.
The next Labour government – assuming there is one – will have swallowed the bitter pill of electoral reality and accepted that the old coalition that brought it occasionally to power (working class voters and the liberal middle class) was shattered by Johnson in 2019.
It must seek a new configuration of voters, making very hard choices in the process about what, precisely, constitutes “fair taxation”; and moving beyond the old dichotomy between fiscal prudence and prodigality. It will have to promise huge investment; and it will have to be willing seriously to annoy some sections of the electorate to pay for that. Can one detect such a strategy apparent in Brighton, even in fledgling form? Not remotely.
On Wednesday, Starmer will deliver what is inevitably being billed as “the speech of his life”. So it may be, and the bar of expectation is so low that it will probably be hailed as some kind of success. But the challenge facing the Labour leader is not one of oratory. It is one of culture, ambition, and a readiness to escape the competing nostalgias that still hold the party in their grip.
As a minimum, it would be nice to have a serious opposition to take on this shambles of a government. Until then: thank God for Marcus Rashford.
Photograph by Hollie Adams/Getty Images