23 March 2020

Leading his party out of the crisis: the conundrum facing Keir Starmer

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What you say at the start matters. At his first outing at Prime Minister’s Questions as Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair chose to adopt a consensual approach by welcoming moves towards peace in Northern Ireland, thereby helping define himself as someone who could reach across the political divide.

Blair’s predecessor but one, Neil Kinnock’s first public pronouncement after becoming leader in 1983 was rather less sure-footed, demanding the return to Greece of the Elgin Marbles. History will testify to the success, or otherwise, of that particular intervention.

Gordon Brown is remembered as having had a successful first few weeks as prime minister, from June 2007, before it all went horribly wrong. But in fact, at Brown’s first exchange with then Leader of the opposition, David Cameron, the former chancellor betrayed an uncharacteristic lack of confidence, explaining that he could not give a direct answer to Cameron’s question about the proscription of a terrorist organisation because “The Leader of the Opposition forgets that I have been in this job for five days.”

The frank admission was quickly forgotten but at the time it raised a doubt in my mind about how the next few years were going to go.

With less than a fortnight until Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader is elected, the question of how to introduce oneself to the public must surely be going through all the contenders’ minds. The task of putting one’s stamp on the public debate at an early point is already a difficult task for any new leader who’s taking the reins in the wake of a catastrophic general election defeat – just ask Kinnock. Add to the mix the unprecedented crisis the country is currently facing and the circumstances of the transition could hardly be less favourable to the eventual winner.

After all, what can Keir Starmer (or Rebecca Long-Bailey or Lisa Nandy – but for the sake of brevity, let’s assume the winner will be called “Keir Starmer”) do or say that will reflect the otherworldly zeitgeist in 2020 Britain?

Normally, a newly elected leader would be expected to please his party supporters and members by going immediately on the attack, fulfilling the promises Starmer made during the long campaign to hold Boris Johnson to account by aiming a laser-like lawyer’s focus on policy detail. He may well bring that approach to the government’s ongoing struggles with containing the coronavirus, but it is a tricky path to go down. When the public are anxious and desperate for reassurance, how will a constant and effective stream of attack on the government go down? When the perceived public mood is to park party political point-scoring because it’s a tad less important than the immediate task of staying alive, how can Starmer do the job he’s about to be elected to do?

He may decide that pledging qualified support to the government during this crisis is the best policy for now, just as Blair chose to begin his tenure with warm words over Northern Ireland. The difference is that Blair was able to return to the political Punch ‘n’ Judy show pretty shortly thereafter, to good effect. Starmer won’t have that option, unless he really thinks that four years away from the next general election, turning a pandemic into a party issue is a winner.

What are his alternatives? The first thing he should be assured of is that Labour elects its leaders for life. That may sound strange given how many it’s got through in recent years, but the fact is they can remain in the post as long as they like, irrespective of electoral performance. Brown, Ed Miliband and Corbyn were all established as sure-fire election losers a few months into their leaderships, but none of them was ever in real danger of being removed against their will. Only those who have won three elections in a row are told to sling their hook, and Starmer is a long way from that right now.

So he needs to take advantage of that guarantee of tenure. If his hands are tied with respect to attacks on the government, he needs to show his mettle by addressing the Labour Party itself. There is no downside for him to be seen to be taking a new broom to the leader’s office and to party headquarters. The Left will complain if he dispenses with the services of Karie Murphy and Jennie Formby, Corbyn’s chief of staff and Labour’s general secretary respectively. But the Left always complain when they’re not in charge so Starmer might as well give them something to complain about from the start.

Such a show of strength would impress those few members of the public who, by that time, will still be paying attention rather than scouring the supermarkets for toilet paper and microwave rice. It would be seen as a legitimate course of action for a new Leader of the Opposition to pursue, and one that had no impact on the government’s efforts to control the virus or the Labour Party’s job of scrutinising such efforts.

Second – and this is a task that is better attempted while everyone’s attention is elsewhere anyway – Starmer needs to start laying the ground work for the inevitable policy U-turns he will have to make in the next few years. Because most of the membership, including those who voted for him, still have a soft spot for Corbyn, Starmer felt he had to promise that all of the flagship policies under the previous regime would remain under his own: nationalisation, free university tuition, increasing corporation tax for all those evil people who employ workers.

Given he’ll be safe as houses until at least the next election (and probably the one after that, even if he loses in 2023/4), he can start to ditch some or all of this baggage. But he needs to do so in a way that has at least the appearance of democratic legitimacy. So expect some kind of “wide-ranging review” along the lines of the one Kinnock used post-1987 to justify ditching the party’s stance on unilateral nuclear disarmament.

What Starmer needs to accept – and probably does – is that there is no way he can drag Labour back to a sensible, election-winning platform without the ferocious opposition of Corbyn supporters. And he can’t maintain his current policies while enjoying the support of the vast majority of his parliamentary party. If he’s going to start to edge the party even a touch closer to a sane policy platform, he needs to start the process now, when the attention of the electorate is sensibly elsewhere.

If he prevaricates now, in the earliest days of his leadership, if he tries to please both wings of the Labour Party as well as the electorate – an electorate that has just rejected his policy platform in the most dramatic and conclusive fashion imaginable – then he will have missed an opportunity that will not come again. Not that his job will be at risk as a result, but the job he actually wants – that of prime minister – will be even further out of his reach.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.