DEBATE: Sir Keir Starmer’s election to the Labour leadership will make the Labour Party fit for government once again.

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Image Description: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand.

FOR (Samuel Burns) – Starmer’s Labour Will Be A Force To Be Reckoned With

Have no doubts – Keir Starmer’s opposition will be the most united, professional, and effective Labour party we have seen in a decade.

Leading the labour movement requires uniting its three component parts. That includes the trade unions, its activist members, and its electoral base, represented by its MPs. Starmer has already demonstrated an ability to bring these together that eluded his two predecessors, Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband. Corbyn’s popularity among the unions and party membership catapulted him into office, despite the vociferous opposition of fellow MPs.

Miliband’s election saw party members and MPs favour his brother, David, with key union endorsements narrowly winning him the leadership.  Starmer, by contrast, won the backing of the nation’s largest union, Unison, the support of the overwhelming majority of party members, and, crucially, that of Labour MPs, with over twice as many parliamentary endorsements as his nearest rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Leading the labour movement requires uniting its three component parts. That includes the trade unions, its activist members, and its electoral base, represented by its MPs. Starmer has already demonstrated an ability to bring these together that eluded his two predecessors.”

With unity comes competence. Starmer is already drawing on a roster of parliamentary talent neglected during the Corbyn years. Sharp backbenchers like David Lammy, Jim McMahon, and Rachel Reeves are now on the front-bench. Plus, ministerial experience makes a comeback in the welcome return of Ed Miliband. Unimpressive members of the left inner circle like Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon are out. And yet while talented graduates of the Corbyn shadow cabinets – such as Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner – are staying in.

Furthermore, Starmer’s experience running the CPS marks him out as a far better manager than his predecessor. Expect a revolution in the basic competence and communication abilities of the Leader of the Opposition’s Office and party HQ. Plus, Starmer will replace nepotistic appointments and Unite cronyism with meritocratic hiring. Starmer’s style, of reassuringly measured and responsible leadership, has already begun to shine through in the qualified support he has given to the government over the coronavirus crisis.

Starmer and his team would certainly form a capable government and will present a formidable opposition to Boris Johnson. But, does he have the vision to convince the public Labour deserves to be in power?

Sharp backbenchers like David Lammy, Jim MacMahon, and Rachel Reeves are now on the front-bench. Plus, ministerial experience makes a comeback in the welcome return of Ed Miliband. Unimpressive members of the left inner circle like Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon are out.”

It is much easier to identify what loses an election than what wins one – as Corbyn’s leadership shows. Pointing to positive polling on new Labour policies is to miss the wood for the trees when it comes to the toxicity of extreme left politics. The cultural gap between the ordinary British voter and Britain’s far left is hard to underestimate. People who unironically talk about “political education” and go on Stop the War marches spout ideas repulsive to the general public but represent a set of niche cultural interests that, for most people, are simply inexplicably weird.

Starmer is a thoroughly normal man who has had a real career, rather than fifty years of political jobs and pointless fringe advocacy. Irrespective of where he sits on nationalisation or top tax rates, he represents a return for Labour to the healthy cultural mainstream of British life. Jewish groups’ cautious optimism that he can put an end to Labour’s disgraceful antisemitism scandal shows the beginnings of that cycle of restoration.

‘Normality’ – socialism without the cranks, perhaps – is not enough. Starmer belongs to the party’s ‘soft left’ tradition, broadly comfortable with Labour’s new anti-austerity politics. Much of this resonates with the public: free university tuition and public railways have proven themselves good politics. But liberal critiques of tax-and-spend social-democratic politics still apply. He will need to avoid the pitfall of Labour’s unfocused laundry-list spending plans of 2019.

People who unironically talk about “political education” and go on Stop the War marches spout ideas repulsive to the general public but represent a set of niche cultural interests that, for most people, are simply inexplicably weird.”

For voters to back Labour’s plans for massive public investment, they will need to suggest more imaginative uses than buying energy companies. Hence, Labour needs a new focus that is more than just rebuilding public services. Starmer’s two rivals for the leadership, Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, contributed thoughtfully to the campaign on climate change and regional growth respectively. Both are messages Labour should develop – Starmer’s inclusion of both women in his shadow cabinet augurs well for this.

The unexpected main achievement of Corbyn’s tenure was in recognising anti-austerity politics as a fresh and powerful message when his leadership rivals offered little more than re-fighting the 2010 and 2015 elections. But this teaches us how ephemeral such a political moment can be: Brexit, in turn eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic. What will labels like ‘Brexiteer’ or ‘anti-austerity’, until recently important, mean in a world recovering from locked borders and unlimited government crisis spending? Forecasting the politics of 2024 is almost impossible.

Starmer has a long time, then, to develop ideas and test messages. Yet, his carefully calibrated, pitch-perfect leadership campaign has taught us that he is an astute campaigner. Labour’s new leader knows how to read his electorate and neutralise his opponents’ attacks. The Tories would be right to worry.

AGAINST (Robert James) – Starmer will not make Labour electable once again

In a predictable turn of events, Sir Keir Starmer turned a commanding lead throughout the Labour leadership context into a respectable victory.

For my part, I endorsed Keir last term as the strongest contender to take on the role. I felt then, as I do now, that he was the best option to restore the party’s much-tattered credibility. Despite this, I do not believe capable of taking the Messianic leap to make Labour electable once again.

Obvious allusions to Neil Kinnock aside, I believe that a Starmer leadership will only pave the way for a realistic Labour ‘government-in-waiting’ sometime in the 2030s. In my arguments in favour of Starmer, I spoke of his recognition of electoral hurdles in Labour’s path as a point of praise. Starmer realises that the path to power required winning back voting blocs not just in the north of England but in Scotland too. This was, I felt, encouraging to Labour’s future prospects.

A Starmer leadership will only pave the way for a realistic Labour ‘government-in-waiting’ some time in the 2030s.”

Yet in Scotland, where the question of not only Brexit but also independence looms large, will the cautious Keir make any significant head waves? His easy association with the second referendum movement may go some way to winning a few Scottish Remainers. However, the SNP’s current dominance over this demographic makes this currently a futile exertion.

Further, his commitment to fudge the issue of Scottish independence by ‘refusing to impose a view’ on Scottish Labour seems equally unpromising. Scotland proved a key power base for Labour in the Blair years. Hence, winning it back would give the party a much-needed injection of vitality. Under Keir, however, this prospect remains distant. And what of the return of Ed Miliband to the Shadow Cabinet? Let’s not forget that he oversaw the virtual collapse of Scottish Labour. Thus, Labour’s chances of reemerging from the Scottish political wilderness seem slim.

Starmer realises that the path to power required winning back voting blocs not just in the north of England but in Scotland too. This was, I felt, encouraging to Labour’s future prospects. Yet in Scotland, where the question of not only Brexit but also independence looms large, will the cautious Keir make any significant head waves?”

More broadly, Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet could well prove a further barrier to assuming government. Of course, this is not to say that the new cabinet offers nothing in the way of potential. The appointment of David Lammy to the Justice brief may yet prove astute. There is similarly much to say of the apparent education focus of the new Labour front bench. The former lecturer, Oxford’s own Anneliese Dodds may prove an inspired choice for Shadow Chancellor.

Still more encouraging in this regard was the election of Angela Rayner. Rayner, a former education secretary and champion of a ‘national education service’, should thrive as deputy leader. Yet, Keir’s Shadow cabinet risks over-shadowing him. Appointing strong, charismatic party juggernauts like Lisa Nandy and Rayner to senior positions risks relegating the uninspiring Starmer to second place in his own party.

Labour are loathe to ignore such a risk. Last year 2019 demonstrated just how presidential British elections have become. Now, weak leadership will spell a political death sentence. Moreover, Starmer’s decision to include Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry and Ed Miliband to his top team speaks painfully to his own lack of direction. Starmer has shown he is more concerned with consensus and compromise than clarity. He prioritises holding fractious party together to offering anything cohesive to the British public.

Keir’s Shadow cabinet risks over-shadowing him. Appointing strong, charismatic party juggernauts like Lisa Nandy and Rayner to senior positions risks relegating the uninspiring Starmer to second place in his own party.”

Worse still, is the stain of Corbynism. In fairness to Starmer, this would have tarnished any leader. Deeper divides than Brexit threaten the Labour party, which is clearly factionalised between the Momentum radical Corbynites and the New Labour moderates, many of whom refused to even vote for the former leader in 2019. Starmer sits uncomfortably between the two. While on the one hand, he is tarnished New Labour and the attempted coup on Corbyn in 2016, on the other come his close associations with the Corbyn cabinet and the disastrous 2019 election.

If Labour wishes to win back those they lost, and they must if they are ever to get back into power, they must move forward. The mark of Corbyn runs deep, however. It will take time for the party to rehabilitate their image. Frankly, Starmer doesn’t have the staying power.

Starmer’s decision to include Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry and Ed Miliband to his top team speaks painfully to his own lack of direction. Starmer has shown he is more concerned with consensus and compromise than clarity.”

Can Keir Starmer take the party back into a position of electability? No. But could he pave the way for someone who could? It’s certainly possible. For now, it’s the best that Labour can hope for.

Image Credits: Rwendland @ Wikimedia Commons

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