April 8, 2020

At last the Labour leadership race is over and the two candidates who started as run-away favourites duly won. The voting was effectively over within two weeks of ballots opening, and campaigning stopped weeks ago. The results were a foregone conclusion.

Keir Starmer was victorious because he was the best candidate to take Labour to at least some sort of electoral respectability. His campaign was planned, professional and aimed at Labour members exhausted by repeated defeats. That, for now, is enough to give him a mandate that will last beyond the exceptional politics of the coronavirus crisis. His actions in the first few days of his leadership are already indicating that this professionalism maybe the hallmark of a new era. In this he has been helped by the weakness and division of his opponents within the party.

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For the Left this is a cataclysmic moment similar to 1983 when it was blamed for the party’s disastrous performance against Margaret Thatcher. The left had a choice in 1983: move to the centre and support the new leadership or remain outside. Although some Bennites decided to support Neil Kinnock the rump remained defiant — and out of power for 30 years. Now John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and their acolytes face the same choice. Already Momentum has issued its clarion call to supporters to watch and judge the new leader. The message was sent to its supporters over the weekend:

“We have to be there to hold him to account, make sure he sticks to his promises and advances the socialist cause in the party.”

It has a core of support of around 30% of the membership who voted for Rebecca Long Bailey but in all three internal elections it was substantially weakened. For the leadership Long Bailey was beaten in both the affiliates section (trades unions) and the registered members (newly joined for this election) not just by Keir Starmer but by Lisa Nandy.

This failure was compounded in the election for deputy leader. Since 2015 the left has unified around single candidates and slates to win elections. Not his time. It was split between support for Angela Rayner, nominated by Momentum, and Richard Burgon, supported by McDonnell. Rayner won her victory; Burgon was beaten into third place.

The lack of unity and failure of the machine was best seen in the elections to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee — centre candidates won all three positions. Along with the replacement of the three parliamentary Labour Party representatives, selected by the shadow cabinet, there will be a switch of at least eight votes on the NEC. As in 1983 the Left will lose its power base and the world of Labour politics will change. As Momentum weakens so two centrist groups — Labour First and Progress — have announced that they have formed an umbrella organisation, Labour to Win, and pledged to support the new leadership in the future.

What will Keir Starmer do and how quickly? Historically, Labour leaders focus on two aspects of leadership: management and policy. Neil Kinnock was the example of a leader who used the party machine to attack Labour’s internal dissenters and show the electorate it was serious. It was his courage in the Eighties that paved the way for New Labour in the Nineties. He brought in new, younger management of the party, most notably in the form of Peter Mandelson as Director of Communications in 1985, but also promoted young new MPs such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and most of the future New Labour government.

With the NEC under new control the obvious move is the replacement of the General Secretary and other key officers. When Labour is in opposition, the power of the General Secretary is substantial and the cooperative balance between it and the leader’s office is crucial for the internal management of the party. It is very hard to see how Starmer could work with the incumbent, Jennie Formby, and he needs his own person in place. Formby has been locked into a partnership with Len McCluskey, Karie Murphy (formerly Executive Director of the Leader’s Office), and other Unite acolytes of the Corbyn regime. The influence of Unison — which is a bigger union and supporter of Starmer’s campaign — may soon be brought to tell.

The first item will be cleaning up anti-Semitism. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been summoning evidence from a wide range of Labour members to get into the history of this mess, going back to when Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. There are pending legal as well as political consequences. Labour has to show not just contrition for the past; it has to reveal its managerial and political failures and then prove that it has a defined route to ensure they are never repeated. Action has to happen immediately and be visible.

Beyond that it is a managerial blank canvas for candidate selection, financing and the most important issue which is how to manage a party of 550,000 members as a coherent political force. The new managerialism should mean that there is a new professionalism. Perhaps in the next election Labour’s website will not crash as everyone tries to get the results.

Then there is policy development. Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher shows how she spent her four years in opposition developing new policy for the Conservative Party to get her agenda ready for government after 1979. New Labour between 1994 and 1997 was devoted to policy development, which gave it a template for governing.

The current crisis has turned all the normal political rules on their head with more spending, huge government debt, more state intervention in running key sectors, and more state subsidies to keep people employed. No Labour government would have dreamt of these measures. Waiting for politics to return to normal will take time but there are four years before the next election to create a coherent vision for a Britain that may be a very different place after this crisis.

The new shadow cabinet is a good start. Just like Neil Kinnock and Harold Wilson when they became opposition leader, Starmer has promoted a new generation based on available talent. Losing Barry Gardiner (63), Jon Trickett (69) and Ian Lavery (57) for Lisa Nandy (40)  and Anneliese Dodds (42) and Nick Thomas-Symonds (39) is both a generational shift and a talent upgrade. Making Angela Rayner the face of the party and keeping Jonathan Ashworth, who has shown total command of the health portfolio, are both strong moves. The creation of a Covid-19 committee within the shadow cabinet is the right way to focus on the problem.

Yet in this febrile moment of crisis how can policy can possibly be developed  for an election in 2024? It was George H W Bush who in 1988 worried about the ‘vision thing’, or his lack thereof. Starmer is not a man who exudes the vision thing but he does exude the ‘leadership thing’. He doesn’t appear to be Blair or Thatcher, both of whom drove British politics in radical new directions after winning power. His appointments already show he is geared towards talent, competence and rigour. In this he resembles Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, who created teams of the best available talent in opposition and managed them in power.

As questions are asked about the handling of this crisis by current ministers and advisers, Starmer and his new team can convey a greater sense of competence and cohesion. Policy will follow but for now professionalism might just be enough.