For an opposition, when you can’t attack, organise
Not since the Conservatives’ 2001 leadership contest ended on September 11 that year has such an election been so overshadowed by wider events. Whoever succeeds Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader later today will likely find it impossible to take the fight immediately to the Tories. Parliament won’t sit for weeks and when it does return might well be in a muted form, the country as a whole is in a state of suspended animation, and criticising the government in the middle of a crisis – before the full facts or outcome are known – is a politically precarious business.
Not that Labour could have foreseen this; the election has been an extraordinarily convoluted and lengthy affair. When it began, the UK was still a member of the EU, Wuhan was still a city open to Chinese and foreigners to move about it, and the US House of Representatives had yet to send Trump’s impeachment articles to the Senate. It seems an age ago. It is.
So if taking to the offensive is off the table for the first few weeks at least, where then are the places where the new leader can and should make their mark? Here are a few thoughts.
The Shadow Cabinet
Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet was marked by two features. Firstly, those in it – after the 2016 leadership challenge anyway – were there because they were fully accepting of his leadership. And secondly, it was against his style to sack anyone on performance grounds.
In truth, those two points had quite a lot of overlap. In the 2016 No Confidence vote that Corbyn ignored, he only won the support of 40 MPs, and even fewer openly endorsed him in the subsequent leadership election. Tellingly, a large proportion of those that did ended up in the Shadow Cabinet.
Assuming Starmer does win, his first task will be to reconfigure and strengthen that core parliamentary team. This should not be a difficult task. Some, like Diane Abbott – still Shadow Home Secretary, if you hadn’t noticed – and John McDonnell have already indicated that they will return to the back-benches but several more could join them if the new leader wins a strong enough mandate. There is talent elsewhere in the PLP with which to replace them.
The Party Machine
This is a bit harder. The party leader does not make the most senior appointments to Labour’s professional staff, the NEC does – and the new leader will not necessarily have a majority on that. In truth though, that may not matter. The EHRC report into Labour’s antisemitism problem will land at some point. If that proves critical of Labour’s internal structures, processes and/or personnel – and the prima facie evidence suggests it could well – it would surely be impossible for the NEC to refuse to make changes if the Leader demanded them, though no doubt the Leader would rather they didn’t have to.
I don’t have nearly enough knowledge of Labour’s machine across the country to say whether it’d be advisable to seek to make changes there too, other than that if it is a good idea then it’s a good time too.
Oppositions nearly always have a long time to develop policies and Labour has an especially long one now. Against a Tory majority of 80, there is no prospect of an early election for which a manifesto will be needed, and with the Covid-19 epidemic raging, there’s no space in which to develop them publicly anyway (and besides, that very crisis could well overtake any policies developed precipitously). The new leadership team – Leader, Shadow Cabinet, and leading advisors – in reality don’t need to come up with anything concrete until at least the Party Conference in September.
Even on Brexit, which is time-constrained and so something on which Labour does need a credible position fairly quickly, by far the easiest line to push is to demand an extension in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. That will keep Labour Remainers relatively happy and, if the point is made early enough, potentially appear to push the government into something it will almost certainly have to do anyway. After that, by far Labour’s best option is not to advocate any particular line but to pick holes in the government’s actions (or inactions). There will be a debate to be had about Rejoin but that can be put off until about 2023, assuming there is still an EU worth rejoining.
The natural instinct of an opposition will always be to attack: it’s in the nature of adversarial politics. However, against a popular (for now) government in the middle of a major crisis, this is not the time; not without solid, hard, relevant facts anyway – which may or may not exist. So in the absence of the opportunity to sack it to the government, the next best thing is to prepare for when you can.
To that end, Labour could learn a lot from William Hague’s tenure as Leader of the Opposition, providing it picks the right things. Hague inherited a much worse position than Starmer (or Nandy or Long-Bailey) will: Blair’s popularity in 1997 was deep-rooted, the economy was on the up and the Labour government was a novelty.
After an initial attempt to contest the centre-ground, he rightly recognised that he was engaged in a forlorn task and so had to settle for a core-vote strategy, defend what he had and gain where he could. That isn’t the relevant bit for Labour: ten years into Tory-led governments, the pendulum should be far more ready to swing than it was in the late 1990s. No, the most significant aspect of Hague’s tenure was a major overhaul and modernisation a Tory Party organisation; a reform which significantly streamlined its running, improved its capacity for decision-making and –implementation, and campaigning. Ultimately, that would significantly benefit David Cameron in 2010.
My outsider’s impression of the Labour machine is that its complex organisation and many committees, and its love of meetings, procedures and resolutions are not necessarily an aid to its cause. Again, a review early in a parliament off the back of a leadership election mandate would be the time to do something about that.
The election result today will be a minor news item, the result announced in a very low-key manner. That alone tells a story. Labour might have been indulgent in taking three months to elect a leader but come 2024, that won’t matter. Nor will much of what they say over the next few months, which will be ancient history by then and probably little noticed even at the time given what else is going on – unless it’s a serious gaffe. But that doesn’t mean Labour need let these months when politics as normal is suspended drift by; there is much to do.