The challenges ahead for the new leader
Labour has a new leader. And soon a new Shadow Cabinet. Starmer will not be short of advice, most of it unasked for. Momentum have already started. Would that Starmer gives them the answer Attlee gave Harold Laski: “A period of silence from you would be most welcome.” If not, perhaps a link to this tongue lashing from Alan Johnson would do.
So let’s join in.
Should he go for unity – healing a divided and demoralised party? Magnanimity in victory is attractive. It is a welcome break from – and much nicer than – the “If you’re not one of us, you’re a traitor” approach of many Corbynites. It keeps those who might complain pi**ing inside the tent; gives yet others time to manoeuvre themselves into supporters, conveniently airbrushing away previous views. It allows him to claim that he is building on Corbyn’s successes. (You must remember them, surely? There was that one seat Labour took off the Tories last December. Putney voters – if no-one else – agreed that he had won the argument. From such tiny acorns does a winning party emerge.) After all, even the credulous and deluded have votes. If such cynical generosity keeps those voters on board, who’s complaining.
Crucially, it gives him time to decide how to position Labour in these abnormal times and their aftermath. Any necessary bust-up with the nutters and anti-Semites can happen more publicly and strategically when people are paying attention. After all, some of the toughest leaders started cautiously: Mrs Thatcher’s early Cabinets (let alone Shadow Cabinets) were full of people who hardly considered themselves her supporters.
Or he could follow the Boris Johnson route: get rid of any who do not sign up to the Starmer project, publicly, ruthlessly and early on, make it clear that he is the winner, in the party and on the NEC, he’s in charge, unity will be on his terms and anyone not liking this can head for the exit. He will likely never be as strong as he is now, not until he wins an election anyway. Party members – and many who are not – are desperate for a credible opposition rather than an embarrassing excuse for one. That goodwill and sense of relief cannot be banked for long. Use it or lose it. He has the perfect opportunity to do this over anti-Semitism, where a very public casting out of those who have morally degraded the party is long overdue. (There is no worthwhile unity to be had with racists, Jew-baiters and Holocaust deniers.)
But he can also do it for more strategic reasons: stamping his authority on the party will give him the freedom to move past the Blairite/Brownite divisions – ancient and irrelevant history to most voters, if not to some Momentum groupies. It will allow him to ignore those junior MPs – barely alive at the time – nourishing their ill- informed grudges about the evil Thatcherite-Blairite governments. It will allow him to adopt policies from a wider menu than previously, even policies which might be viewed by many as socialist rather than centrist.
The more credibility and authority he has as leader, the more he is seen as getting rid of those who brought Labour to its worst election defeat since 1935, the greater his room for manoeuvre over the substance of Labour’s offering. Paradoxically, the Left’s best chance of having some of its policies adopted arises the more it is seen as having lost its grip on the party. (Whether the Left understands this is quite another matter.) Labour needs to move on from arguments about whether policies are Blairite or not, about whether Starmer is the new Kinnock or Blair or Wilson, about whether he accepts the neo-liberal consensus or not.
We are living through the birth pangs of a new settlement. Regardless of the social and economic consequences of Covid-19, Labour needs to think hard about what it is for in a world likely to be – at the time of the next election or even the one after that – very different from what it was when Labour leaders last thought about such matters. It is at least a decade since there was any evidence of fresh thinking within Labour. “Radical” in the Labour lexicon should not mean a rehash of whatever was fashionable on the left pre-Thatcher but something fresh and relevant to voters’ concerns in the world they live in.
Above all, Starmer needs to quash Labour’s perennial tendency to cry betrayal at any accommodation with voters, with the practicable and realistic, with the good rather than the perfect, with reality.
In February 2017 I wrote this:
The usual objection to leaving him [Corbyn] in place until the next General Election is that this would destroy the Labour party. Well, yes. But maybe this is necessary if a real, worthwhile Labour is going to survive and prosper. If the result is in line with recent polls it would be Corbynite Labour that would be destroyed. It would be his offering which would be rejected and be seen to be rejected by the electorate.
The Left could not shout betrayal. They could not complain that the people had not had a chance to vote for it. They could not mutter about stitch ups by union leaders behind closed doors. They could not moan about coups by the MPs. They could not blame defeat on breakaway parties (there is no Gang of Four and SDP to undermine them) or on a divided party or the dreaded Blairites. They could try and no doubt would. But such cries would not have much force. The Left would have had their chance. They would have failed.
And their defeat would have been inflicted by the people, the very people on whose behalf the Left often claims to speak. They would own the defeat. And that defeat, that failure would free up a new leader to do the hard thinking needed, to be ruthless rather than sentimental about the Left’s rubbish ideas and nauseating tolerance of illiberal violent groups, to build a Labour party that reaches out and listens to those whose votes it seeks. It would allow a leadership candidate to speak some hard truths to the membership. If a decent Labour is to survive, it has to be built in the wake of a clear message from the electorate.
So let Corbyn stay. Let him lead Labour to a crushing defeat. Let the Left he represents fold up its tents and disappear into the night. And let’s hope that there are enough decent people left with the courage and determination necessary to build a left of centre party fit for the 21st century.”
It was written 3 years too early. But it’s happened now. Keir Starmer has a magnificent opportunity, like the leader he was named after, to recreate a Labour Party fit for this century. Perennial one-party rule or governments without credible oppositions are bad for democracy. Whatever one’s personal party preferences, we all need a viable opposition. Let’s hope Keir Starmer succeeds and we now get one.