The change will be taken as a sign that the party is perhaps ready to move on, shift its priorities and compromise with a basically right-wing electorate that rejected it so decisively in December. Yet Starmer’s challenge comes not only from the right but the left, with which he faces four years of attrition if he means to make Labour a credible contender for power.
Starmer’s victory will be the beginning of a long and hazardous road. He is obviously the best candidate for the job (of those standing, that is; I’m leaving aside the fantasy of a Blair comeback), but I’m not sure he’ll make it.
First, where’s the passion? I don’t mean Starmer’s. Impassioned isn’t his style, and if he tried to fake it, he’d look stupid. He’s the guy you need on your side in a courtroom: sure of his arguments; a firm grip on the evidence; a forensic, agile mind. He doesn’t need to wave his arms around. Quietly but firmly, he will expose Boris Johnson’s waffly Oxford Union debating style for the sham it is.
No, I mean where is party member’s passion for him? I don’t see anyone selling “I heart Keir” memorabilia; I doubt they’ll be singing “Oh, Sir Keir Starmer” at conference (though it scans rather well). The love is not there, is it? Compare Starmer to Jeremy Corbyn, the magic granddad who would make the hardest old-school tanky socialists shed a tear at his long walk to freedom (aka political oblivion). Or compare Starmer to Tony Blair. It may be difficult to credit him now, when so many would be delighted to see him extradited to The Hague to stand tail for war crimes, but Blair was also once the subject of adulation. There were tears of joy on that bright May morning back in 1997, when Blair declared: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” The nation was transfixed by 101 “Blair Babes” entering the Commons (it was a less woke era).
In other words, Starmer’s victory may be broad, possibly winning on the first round; but the enthusiasm will not run deep. There is no army of Starmerites willing to die in a ditch for him. He has no Momentum and Corbynistas, but instead the grudging respect of those who soberly realise he is their last great hope of winning another election. Starmer has electability, in other words, but not the charisma to inspire a fanbase. In that respect, he is in a far weaker position than Johnson, who – unfathomably to the rest of the population – is adored by the Tory grassroots.
All of the above, Starmer cannot much help. What he might have avoided, however, is his own unforced error, of pledging to retain much of the baggage that lost the party the last few elections. He is, in fact, no Blairite at all. In his “10 pledges”, Starmer says he would still increase income tax on the top 5 per cent of earners, abolish universal credit and nationalise rail, mail, energy and water. He would also introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act to end “illegal wars”, increase trade union power and give full voting rights to EU nationals. He is also a (quiet) supporter of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Green New Deal.
Any or all of these policies might be wise, radical (in a good way) and eminently in the national interest – but they did bomb at the last general election. Of course, Starmer may sincerely believe in them, or he may be deliberately tilting towards the left in order to clinch the leadership. That is what Neil Kinnock did in 1983 – but it proved a poor basis for a man who had to spend the next decade dragging his party back to the centre, to claims of betraying the working class.
The difficulty, which Blair has warned about, is that in winning the leadership election by appealing to the instincts of his party membership, Starmer will have left himself in a trap. If he sticks to so much of the 2019 programme, as he has pledged to, he risks a further lethal defeat at the hands of the Tories come 2024. Yet if he doesn’t stick to the programme, his party will rebel, and Corbynites will foment leadership challenges. Labour will once again revert to its natural default state: civil war. His party will simply stop him trying to win the next election, one that will arrive, poignantly, in the centenary year of the first Labour government.
Starmer might have had little choice but to pander to the left and defend his time in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and he will certainly have his victory, but he has built himself a terrible elephant trap.
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