Keir Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey is a Blairite moment in British politics

Boris Johnson intended to fight for a second term by building the widest possible coalition among voters of all classes and regions. Now Starmer has shown he will be fighting for the same ground

John Rentoul
Sunday 28 June 2020 18:47
Keir Starmer says 'I’ve made it my first priority to tackle anti-Semitism' as he sacks Rebecca Long-Bailey

It would be wrong to gloat. Mustn’t do it. And generally I don’t. But just for a moment, let’s celebrate the end of the paranoid, reactionary, self-righteous politics of the people who ran the Labour Party for the past five years. It was all over the moment Jeremy Corbyn announced he was standing down, but this was the week they knew it.

I don’t want to rub salt into the wound, because that would sterilise it and help it heal, but the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey was one of those rare moments of shocking leadership. For those of us who think a broad-based egalitarian government would be a good idea, it has been a long time since a Labour leader has surprised us with such moral clarity.

It does not diminish Keir Starmer’s decisiveness that Long-Bailey brought it on herself. By refusing to delete her tweet praising Maxine Peake’s interview, with its antisemitic implication that Israel was to blame for the death of George Floyd, she made Starmer’s choice clear. Indeed, it makes the triumph of reason all the sweeter that the other side contributed to its own defeat with such a misjudgement.

And I say this in no spirit of Blairite triumphalism. Or not much, anyway. One of the reasons I was always hopeful during the five years of darkness on the left was that I thought Corbynism would not survive Corbyn. Whoever became leader after him would not be so locked into the world view shared by his inner circle.

In particular, I thought Long-Bailey was both pluralist and competent in ways that Corbyn was not. This week, an anonymous ally of Starmer’s in the shadow cabinet damned her with faint praise as “diligent”, but I think she was better than that. At the time of the negotiations with Theresa May’s government over Brexit last year, she impressed civil servants with her grasp of the complexities of a possible cross-party deal.

But this week she condemned herself. She said, after she was sacked: “I completely agree with the need for us to intensively rebuild our relationship with the Jewish community and the wider electorate.” But by her actions she had proven that she did not.

And if anyone did want to rub salt into the wound, it was Starmer himself, who today, Armed Forces Day, launched a “Labour Friends of the Forces programme”. I hesitate to call this Blairite politics, although it was something Tony Blair was good at: taking positions at odds with voters’ assumptions about your party in order to show you share popular values. The contrast with Corbyn, who would rather not have a military at all, was loudly unspoken.

It is not the first time Starmer has done it. A month after he was elected leader, he won the front page of the Conservative (and especially pro-Johnson) Telegraph with an article saying we owe it to the VE Day generation, “many of whom protected our country in its darkest hour”, to protect them from coronavirus in care homes.

Most successful parties do it, and it is one of the things Boris Johnson is good at too. Recent research suggested that his promise of 50,000 more nurses for the NHS was twice as important as getting Brexit done in winning over red wall seats last year.

Johnson served notice that he intended to fight for a second term as a Tory Blairite, building the widest possible coalition among voters of all classes and regions. Now Starmer has shown that he will be fighting for the same ground. This is a Blairite moment.

That is not to say Starmer is a Blair replicant. One of the most tedious charges against the Blairites is that we think Blair did nothing wrong, or that his prescriptions stand for all time. I am partisan enough to think that he should have had longer in office – outlasting Margaret Thatcher’s 11 and a half years would have been fitting – but I fully accept that the party had to find new ways of advancing the cause of social justice; it’s just that I don’t think Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Corbyn got it right.

Nor by proclaiming this a Blairite moment am I claiming that a divisive style of politics cannot be successful. Thatcher showed that it can be, and Corbyn came close to winning in 2017. My argument would be that a divisive approach can succeed only when the other side is weak. Corbyn had a chance of winning only because Theresa May was so inept. One of the many things I have learned in the last five years is that the argument against Corbynism is not that it cannot win, but that it should not.

Thankfully, now it won’t. By Starmer’s skill, and the weakness (derived from rigidity) of the higher nomenklatura of Corbynism, the eternal Blairite verities have been reasserted. Or, if we wanted to avoid being triumphalist about it, we could call it a return to normal democratic politics, in which the two main parties try to situate themselves close to the midpoint of the electorate’s values and then to lead the nation towards either left or right.

It would be wrong to gloat, because five and more years have been wasted, but it would be all right to be secretly pleased with the way Keir Starmer is leading Labour.

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