Can Keir Starmer save the Labour Party?

‘It is a sign of the speed and sure-footedness of Keir Starmer’s ascendancy that it now seems inconceivable that Labour could have elected anybody else. It is easy to forget that in the aftermath of the election on December 13, some pundits thought he might be crushed by the Corbyn machine’

Dominic Sandbrook

Grim as this summer has been, it is a cheering thought that it could have been worse. For somewhere, in a parallel universe only slightly different from our own, Rebecca Long-Bailey is the leader of the Labour Party.

Was her victory inevitable all along? Perhaps. Despite the shock of the general election result, the Labour membership had drunk too deeply of the nectar of Corbynism to turn back. As one of the architects of the party’s Green New Deal, Long-Bailey had an unassailable head-start among the keenest activists. And her only senior rival, Labour’s former Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, was simply far too dull to inspire much enthusiasm.

But since Long-Bailey’s coronation on April 4, nothing has gone right. Her appointment of Jeremy Corbyn as Shadow Foreign Secretary made headlines of the worst possible kind, while her evasive non-apologies for Labour’s anti-Semitism went down like a lead balloon with Jewish leaders. The polls have been terrible, while her first performances in the Commons—even in its strangely deserted and silent incarnation—were little short of disastrous. To put it bluntly, she looks nothing like a Prime Minister. And no matter how many missteps the Government makes, its 25-point opinion poll lead seems utterly insurmountable.

Back in our own universe, of course, things haven’t turned out like that at all. It is a sign of the speed and sure-footedness of Keir Starmer’s ascendancy that it now seems inconceivable that Labour could have elected anybody else. It is easy to forget that in the aftermath of the election on December 13, some pundits thought he might be crushed by the Corbyn machine. In contrast to his more flamboyant rivals—Jess Phillips, anyone?—he kept his head down and said virtually nothing of interest to anybody at all. But in politics, saying nothing is often the best thing you can do. And in retrospect, Starmer’s reluctance to court headlines simply showed that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Although ideological enthusiasts never like to admit it, the public are rarely wrong about politics. Only months after taking over a Labour Party in a shockingly battered, bitter and demoralised condition, Starmer is already the most popular Leader of the Opposition since Tony Blair, and for good reason.

While Jeremy Corbyn conformed absolutely to the stereotype of the privately educated, half-witted left-wing dropout, Starmer is a walking tribute to working-class self-improvement. The son of a toolmaker and a nurse, he passed his 11-plus and went to Reigate Grammar School. A successful barrister before becoming Director of Public Prosecutions, he is a manifestly clever and methodical man. He is boring, but he is not ridiculous. You can readily imagine him chairing a Cabinet meeting, greeting foreign leaders at a summit or chatting to businessmen in a boardroom. It was impossible to picture Corbyn in such settings, except as the punchline to some cruel joke.

Starmer’s early steps as Labour leader have been so careful, so considered, that he is in danger of making the job look easy. His undemonstrative style makes the contrast with Corbyn explicit, even before you listen to what he says. His immediate apology for Labour’s indulgence of anti-Semitism may not have killed the issue off forever, since the party is still waiting for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, but it has probably inoculated him personally against criticism. And perhaps above all, his initial Shadow Cabinet appointments were mostly impeccably judged. Almost all of Corbyn’s cronies were cast out, replaced with younger, fresher faces such as Anneliese Dodds, Lisa Nandy and Nick Thomas-Symonds, who appear remarkably capable of impersonating normal human beings. For the first time in years, Labour’s front bench looks a genuinely serious proposition. Even the only misstep—the appointment of the hapless Ed Miliband as Shadow Business Secretary—might be excused as an act of charity. And Long-Bailey was very swiftly despatched after sharing an article containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

Perhaps the most striking novelty, however, has been Starmer’s tone. Ever since the European referendum in 2016, the atmosphere of our political life has been relentlessly, unsparingly hysterical, driven by the outrage machines of social media. Corbyn was perfectly suited to channel this mood, having spent his entire life luxuriating in a lukewarm bath of student-union resentment. But even as the coronavirus spread, the economy imploded, the press went mad about Dominic Cummings and mobs ranted and raved about Britain’s statues, Starmer remained as boring and lawyerly as ever.

Offered chance after chance to whip himself into a lather, he declined every time. At Prime Minister’s Questions, he calmly pointed out the government’s failures to find personal protective equipment, organise mass testing and protect care homes. As the Cummings furore dominated the headlines for day after day, he frowned and furrowed his brow, but conspicuously refused to indulge himself in weeping and wailing. And perhaps most revealingly of all, his response to the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was meticulously crafted. The statue should have gone a “long, long time ago”, he told LBC, but it was “completely wrong to pull a statue down like that”. On Twitter, Corbyn’s old enthusiasts were aghast. In the real world, most people were nodding in agreement.

So far, therefore, Starmer can reasonably claim to be Labour’s most effective Opposition leader since Blair. He is certainly the first who looks vaguely normal, though perhaps that is not saying very much. It is true that he is very dull, not to say wooden; but most voters are a bit dull. Political dullness is much underrated. The duller the politician, the less likely he seems to do something spectacularly stupid. And as a result, supposedly dull dogs have a surprisingly good electoral record, from Clement Attlee in 1945 to John Major in 1992.

But there are some obvious caveats. First of all, Starmer faces a steep electoral mountain. With Scotland apparently irrecoverable, he will need to win back working-class voters in the former Red Wall while still retaining Labour’s strength in university towns and inner cities, which will not be easy. And even then it will be tough to overturn Boris Johnson’s majority in a single election. The key, as always, will be to make inroads in provincial towns and suburbs, the Worcesters and Nuneatons. But here Starmer has a problem: the Labour Party itself.

Although he has moved quickly to win command of the party machine, Labour’s strident voter-repelling culture is harder to fix. After the disaster of 1983, it took 14 years and two rebranding exercises before the electorate were prepared to trust Labour again. So if Starmer really wants to win, he should pick a headline-grabbing fight with the party’s Left, as Neil Kinnock did with Militant in 1985. And he should surely consider overhauling the party’s tired image. Given how toxic Blair has become, it would probably be unwise to use the words “New Labour”. Even so, a new Labour Party is precisely what many voters need to see before they even consider returning to the fold.

Here too, though, Starmer has a problem. While he has done well so far by saying very little, it is telling that he has not produced any kind of overarching narrative. At some basic level a political party is a story, offering an account of Britain’s past, a portrait of its present and a vision of its future. Competent managerialism is not enough. Even Corbyn had a vivid story, even if most voters rejected it as implausible, misleading and positively poisonous. But so far Starmer seems to have no story to tell. Who is he? What does he think has been happening to Britain? Where does he want to take us, and why?

Perhaps Starmer’s biggest challenge, though, is simply the job itself. Being Leader of the Opposition is a famously thankless task, since you have enormous prominence without the slightest power. One obvious trap is to play exclusively to your base. Corbyn did that and paid the inevitable electoral price, as did three successive Tory failures, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, between 1997 and 2005. Another is to slip into a kind of joyless Milibandish negativity, constantly moaning and groaning that Britain is hell on earth. And if Starmer wants to know where that leads, he needs merely to glance across the Shadow Cabinet table.

But even avoiding the traps may not be enough. By many measures, Neil Kinnock was an excellent leader of the Labour Party. He stood up to the Left, electrified his party conference and worked hard to win over supporters in the arts and the media. He modernised his party’s image and overhauled its manifesto. And without entirely abandoning his working-class Welsh roots, he visibly evolved and grew as a public figure, becoming more serious, more sober, more statesmanlike. But Kinnock still lost—twice.

For Starmer, the unpalatable truth is that there is only so much a leader of the Opposition can do. More than any other figure in British politics, he is at the mercy of events. You can find plenty of people on the Left convinced that Boris Johnson will implode, a post-pandemic recession will drive Britain to the Left and the Tories are heading for a repeat of the 1997 blowout. But they are often the same people who predicted defeat for Johnson a year ago. And what if they are wrong again? What if Boris never quite loses his shine, the economy begins to recover before the next election and the government manages to keep its act together?

In that case, Starmer could easily find himself looking at another five years in opposition. And for a man who clearly prides himself on his sense of control, it must be frustrating to know that there is nothing he can do about it.

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