“He won’t win of course.” My friend, a Keir Starmer supporter, was talking about the next general election.
Their hope was that Starmer would at least spare Labour from turning into a glorified protest movement, content to shake its fists at the dastardly Tories but with no realistic hope of forming a government. Ever.
With that job done, some bright young star of the future could finish the job of turning Britain, or more likely a rump England and Wales, back into something resembling a sensible modern democracy instead of a place where a bell ringing in central London matters more than the number of people sleeping rough on its chilly streets.
This is a narrative that started on election night. The scale of this defeat means it could take a generation for Labour to get back, opined the BBC’s breathless commentators, looking at the awful numbers on screens in front of them. Swings and such like.
It’s a story that ignores the fact that the electorate has never been more volatile. Party allegiances that were once fairly constant are now constantly shifting.
You only need to look at the seats that gave Boris Johnson his majority to see that writ large. If the earth can shake sufficiently to turn places like Redcar and Sedgefield blue, it can shake enough in five years to produce the opposite result.
The real reason it might take a generation, maybe longer, for Labour to win is that the party seems to be taking its cue from the 1990 England football team. That’s the one that went to Italy and got all the way to the World Cup semi-finals, where Gazza blubbed and nearly everyone south of Hadrian’s Wall and east of Offa’s Dyke loved the lot of them even though they ended up in the third place play off that no one cares about. They lost that too.
Losing gloriously is so much easier than winning, and it lets people get all misty eyed and gooey, while dreaming about what might have been.
The alternative is that Labour starts to think seriously about those people on the streets, and everyone else it’s supposed to care about, realises that Brexit turning into an almighty screw up presents an opportunity, and elects someone capable of capitalising on that.
Is Starmer that person? The knives are already out, and this is just the start of it. If he wins he’ll have five years in which every decision he’s ever taken and everything he’s ever done will be poured over in exhaustive detail in search of something that will probably looks like small beer when compared to Johnson’s multiple indiscretions.
If there’s not enough mud to stick, no matter. His opponents will dream up a few nasty fictions and then fire up the social media muck spreaders.
But a concerted outpouring of hard boiled spite is what every Labour leader faces. In Starmer’s favour is that he looks the part.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him walking into Downing Street – unlike with Jeremy Corbyn. We shouldn’t underestimate how important that is.
You can hardly say that of his chief opponent, Rebecca Long remind-me-where-the-hyphen-should-go Bailey.
She’ll let the party bask in the warm fires of self-righteousness while allowing Boris Johnson free rein to screw up as much as he likes and then screw over much of Britain in the process.
Labour members need to remember that they are being asked to choose the potential next prime minister. That means picking someone who can convince people who don’t necessarily think like them to vote for their party. Or at least not to vote against it.
A conversation that really struck me in the run up to the election campaign was one I had with an NHS ambulance driver. He was a personal enough bloke, perhaps in his 50s, and he told me he’d never voted before. He was intending to change that by putting an X in the box for the Tories to stop Corbyn. None of the arguments I tried on him worked, perhaps because they sounded hollow even to my own ears.
That’s right, an NHS worker voting for the first time – not so much for the Tories, but against the Labour Party and against its leader.
Labour can win the next election. But to do that, the party doesn’t so much have to win that driver over as much as it has to not scare the crap out of him. Someone like Starmer could pull off that trick. But will Labour let him?
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