Barely three months into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, there was speculation of a coup if Labour lost the Oldham West and Royton by-election. Yet 13 months into Keir Starmer’s leadership and the seat Corbyn held in 2019 is now quietly accepted as a lost cause for Labour.
This is because the Blairites have got what they wished for. Having long complained that Labour wasn’t being right-wing enough, that the leader wasn’t enough like their hero, they now have a man in charge who is advised by Tony Blair, and supported by Peter Mandelson. They haven’t got a leg to stand on.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Criticism of Jeremy Corbyn was often framed by the fantasy narrative that Labour is actually the natural party of government, cruelly denied its rightful status by some ‘hard left’ saboteurs. The most memorable manifestation of this analysis was the refrain that “any other leader would be 20 points ahead” of the Conservatives, a claim popularised by Tony Blair himself.
Corbyn was the source of Labour’s problems, we were were told, and airlifting him out would unleash floods of support for the party. So how did that work out? Under its current insipid leadership, the party languishes in the polls, consistently 10-points adrift of the Conservatives. To use Blair’s metric, we are 30-points shy of 20-points ahead.
Labour is firmly back on the trajectory from which it briefly departed when Corbyn became leader. A downward one. Corbyn, whatever other criticisms can be made of him, gained seats and increased the party’s vote share in 2017 — for the first time since 1997. He did this amid total hostility from the party bureaucracy — which has since been exposed as actively working against the prospect of a Labour government. Eight months after Corbyn became leader, there was a leadership challenge that Keir Starmer supported, with Labour MPs subsequently saying they intended to “break him as a man”.
Now Labour has a leader who is prepared to renege on his campaign promise of party unity in order to prosecute a factional war on the Left. Starmer’s commitment to unity in his leadership campaign appealed to a party rank and file that had joined Labour to make the world a better place, not fight with other members. And the Left was willing to work constructively with him, given the promises that were made in his campaign. The “10 Pledges” were widely interpreted as an intention to maintain the popular aspects of Corbynism, conveying a platform that could be described as “2017 plus”: his pitch to deliver radical policies in a supposedly more competent and “forensic” manner.
Starmer even went as far as issuing a warning in a leadership contest hustings against “oversteering” away from Corbyn’s agenda, which polling has consistently shown represents the centre of gravity of public opinion. He proceeded to surround himself with aides who are said to have unfavourably described his own 10 Pledges as akin to The Communist Manifesto.
No surprise, then, that instead of policies that capture the public’s imagination and cut through in any defining sense, Keir Starmer has announced new premium bonds. Has he offered any coherent analysis of the country, or come up with policies that might address the many issues it faces? Not that I’ve noticed. And why is he now so shy of mobilising the Left of the party?
Effective political campaigns mobilise the base and move the middle, but Starmer has sacrificed Labour’s new base of young voters, the low-waged and precarious workers — the real “working class” — in a flawed pursuit of older homeowners and Tory voters in the so-called “Red Wall”.
While he fails to “move the middle”, the party bleeds support and resources. It is yet to replace the financial benefits of an enthused mass membership organisation with donations from wealthy backers, something the leadership’s reorientation of the Labour Party was supposed to attract. The finances are in an even more precarious state given Unite’s decision to cut £1 million in funding after concerns over the direction the party has taken, commenting: “Keir and his inner circle are just not listening. There’s a lot of anger from the people who knock on the doors and man the phones. They don’t want to be taken for granted.”
With the hiding places for Starmer running out, the latest throw of the dice from advocates of Blairism 2.0 is to blame Labour’s lack of progress on “Long Corbyn” — a rather tasteless play on “Long Covid” suggesting that the party’s misfortune is a hangover from its previous leader. Proponents of this theory primarily consist of Ghosts of Blairite Past, such as former Labour MPs Denis MacShane and Mike Gapes, the latter a former candidate for Change UK. The failure of this briefly relevant and much-hyped party should serve as a stark warning about the limitations of Nineties centrism, and the need for Starmer to ignore New Labour grandees in favour of seeking to meet the demands of the current moment.
Despite Starmer being afforded the luxury of space to articulate a new purpose for the Labour Party, he has thus far failed. The foundations of his political project amount to little more than trying to convince the public he should be in charge because he’s not the guy currently in power. Even though the other guy’s approval ratings are much better than his.
Labour needs to rapidly re-energise its membership and appeal to its new base. Without doing so, it will not expand the electorate enough to compete with the demographic reality it is confronted with. The largest subsection of voters is no longer aspirational young families, as it was in the Nineties, but older homeowners who vote Conservative — many of whom wouldn’t consider voting Labour even if they were more Right-wing than the Tories.
So Labour’s focus has to be on expanding the electorate. This means going beyond merely portraying itself as more competent managers of an economic system that’s failing so many, and putting forward an alternative. Being bold, courageous and propositional. Policies in 2017 seemed radical to a political class that had for so long narrowly defined the terms of debate, but what Labour offered was popular and as a result it defied expectations.
Labour badly needs a leader that is prepared to unite the Left by restoring the whip to Jeremy Corbyn, and who has the courage to speak directly to the country’s issues. The party’s prospects at the next General Election will depend on Starmer’s ability to dictate the terms of debate around the future of Britain. Right now he’s failing to set the political agenda, and is instead splitting his time between desperately trying to appease the most reactionary elements of the media on the one hand, and on Westminster bubble stunts on the other — like shopping for wallpaper in John Lewis.
If he can’t figure out why he wants power, and how to communicate why him being in power would be good for the country and will improve people’s lives, then he should resign and make way for someone who can. Otherwise, his sole purpose as leader is to function as a useful idiot for the Blairites who briefly lost control of the Labour Party and as a result were more prepared to destroy it than allow a Left-wing leadership to succeed.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe