I’m no leader (2)

Time for a post-NEC-voting-reform, post-RLB-sacking, post-David-Evans update to my earlier post, in which I was – if not cautiously optimistic – at least just plain cautious about Keir Starmer’s leadership.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

which is going to dominate?

pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet.

pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other

Well, he hasn’t actually broken any of those pledges, so there’s that. But he’s avoided doing so by, essentially, avoiding saying anything at all. The people who backed him, though, have been well rewarded. Not looking good.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were … an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example.

How real – and how substantial – is the “soft Left”, and how strong is the Right? The answer to the second question can be gauged from the number of times “Labour” commented on education in the voice of Rachel Reeves, or Lucy Powell, or basically anyone but the inconveniently left-wing and independently-minded Shadow Education Minister. The answer to the first lies in the number of memorable and substantive statements you’ve heard from Starmer, Anneliese Dodds and Nick Thomas-Symonds. The various Blairites, rentagobs and Blairite rentagobs who are currently paying their dues in the second line must fancy their chances; I would.

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). …

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions …

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.

  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.

  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

I’d file this one under “inconclusive but not hopeful”. There hasn’t been a lot of kicking-off, but Starmer certainly seems to be quite relaxed about (say) shadow ministers attacking Rebecca Long-Bailey for being close to the unions or Ed Miliband for being insufficiently business-friendly. Just do it anonymously, eh, there’s a good Wes.

Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy … On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

Two months on, I’d revise this paragraph in a couple of ways, both pessimistic. Starmer does have a strong motivation to stake out ideological territory distinct from New Labour; what I wonder now is whether he has the ability, either as an original thinker or purely in terms of there being any ideological territory to stake out (see above re: soft left). On the other hand, picking a fight with the Left qua Left may not be necessary; all Starmer needs to do is to delegitimise part of the Left, and then justify any action against the Left as a move against that particular element, which we’ve all agreed to be beyond the pale. And if this involves building up a rare and remediable failing on the Left into a sin that’s both widespread and unforgivable, with the inevitable consequences of false positives and malicious reporting, well, you can’t purge a party without breaking eggs.

Here are some more general Qs and As.

How do you think Keir Starmer is performing as leader of the opposition?

Dreadfully. Look at the state of the Tories, look what they’re doing to the country – under any other leader we’d be twenty points ahead!

In all seriousness, Keir Starmer is not performing as leader of the opposition – he’s offering the government no opposition at all, to the point of strenuously refusing to offer any alternative direction (on the pandemic, on Brexit… even on hospital parking charges). His strategy is transparently to pitch for Tory voters – as a competent leader who would deliver the government’s policies but do it properly – and gamble that the Left will have nowhere else to go.

The trouble is, as of 2020 Tory voters don’t seem to care much about competence; the government’s key policy – a hard Brexit – is one that’s basically impossible to “do properly”, except perhaps in the sense of damage limitation. And if people are voting in their millions for the Let’s Cut Our Own Hands Off! party, are you really going to win them over with a platform of Let’s Take Care To Sterilise The Blade?

So far, to judge from the solidity of the Tory lead in opinion polls, it’s very much not working; it looks as if all Starmer’s managed to do is bring back a lot of 2019 Lib Dem voters – and they could easily be replaced by equal or larger numbers of Labour deserters if the Lib Dems go for the gap in the market and pitch for the Left vote.

Do you feel that Starmer has made the Labour party more or less electable?

We don’t know, but there are good reasons to be sceptical. The narrowing of the Tories’ poll lead is a fact. It’s also a fact that Labour aren’t closing the gap – quite the reverse. Another inconvenient fact is that Labour had similar and better poll figures – and the Tories had similar and smaller leads – many times between 2015 and 2019; if our memory stretches back further than a year, we may recall that the previous leader’s critics treated the fact that Labour was trailing by 5-10% as evidence of how poorly the party was doing and how urgently it needed a change of leader.

In any case, talking about electability in 2020 is academic; electability is about what happens when an election is called. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn went into the 2017 election campaign trailing by 20%, and finished it neck and neck with the Tories. Labour under Tony Blair went into the 1997 election campaign leading by 25%, and finished it leading by 10%. This suggests that what we need at the next election is either a barnstorming campaign that overturns all the conventional wisdom and breaks through the Tory hold on the media, or for the Tories to discredit themselves so thoroughly beforehand that Labour is already seen as a safe pair of hands, and consequently goes into the campaign (with its inevitable barrage of hostile media coverage) with a huge lead.

I see no sign that Starmer has any interest in the first of these, or that he has the capacity to make it happen. Presumably he’s banking on the second, but it hasn’t happened yet – and Starmer isn’t doing anything to help bring it about. If anything, he’s helping to maintain the credibility of the government. His unwillingness to make political capital out of two of the greatest self-inflicted national disasters in British history – the pandemic and a hard Brexit – is genuinely puzzling and raises the question of whether it’s the will that’s lacking or the ability.

Do you have any concerns?

Starmer’s campaign statement and his ten pledges explicitly pitched to the Left of the party and promised that the direction set by Jeremy Corbyn would be maintained. We’re now starting to see how much those words were worth.

Starmer and his entire front bench team seem to be determined to say as little as possible, and to avoid actually challenging the government at all costs. The one principled and independent-minded member of the team was sidelined and then sacked on basically sectarian grounds – the Steve Reed case suggests that what mattered was not taking a consistent stand against antisemitism but getting rid of a potential internal critic, while hanging the label of antisemitism on the Left. The worst of the Labour Right have been appointed to second-rank positions – ready for promotion when the Left has been driven out or beaten into submission, presumably; however junior or marginal they are on paper, the likes of Reeves and Streeting have been welcomed with open arms by the media outlets which never quite accepted the Corbyn leadership. Organisation is key, as both Blair and Corbyn knew. The appointment of old Blairite David Evans and the rigging – sorry, democratisation – of the members’ section of the NEC suggest how Starmer sees his leadership, and how seriously he takes the job of uprooting the Left.

My only consolation is the fact that Starmer quite clearly isn’t Tony Blair – he may have Blair’s ruthlessness but he’s got none of his charisma or his genuine originality – which suggests that his transformation of the party is doomed to fail. I just hope he doesn’t do too much damage to the party – or let the Tories to do too much damage to the country – in the mean time.

One Comment

  1. Blissex
    Posted 14 July 2020 at 10:48 | Permalink | Reply

    «His strategy is transparently to pitch for Tory voters – as a competent leader who would deliver the government’s policies but do it properly»

    I just read a good summary of this:

    https://leftfootforward.org/2020/07/im-an-ex-tory-election-candidate-whos-joined-labour-because-of-keir-starmer/
    “I want someone who’s relatable, competent – and yes, conventional enough – to not scare off voters in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency; the ones Labour must reach in order to win, barring a Scottish revival for the party.”

    That “conventional enough” means “thatcherite enough” for J Rees-Mogg’s affluent, tory voters.

    «or for the Tories to discredit themselves so thoroughly beforehand that Labour is already seen as a safe pair of hands»

    That “discredit themselves” has proven to mean, for the past decades, “let house inflation fall”. And if a governing party lets house inflation fall “Middle England” voters will throw the bums out to punish them, in a reflex of rage, and will remember it for a long time.

    After the 1990s huge house price crash voters even if disgusted with Tony Blair did not switch to voting Conservative, their vote did not change much, they were no longer trusted on house prices. Even after New Labour let the 2008 house price crash happen the Conservatives did not get a majority, as so many voters still remembered the 1990s house price crash, and switched to voting LibDem instead; only after gaining a record of 5 years of pumping up house prices did the Conservatives get a majority.

    Given this it is amazing that J Corbyn’s Labour got 40% of votes in 2017, and pretty much the same as the largest number of voters Labour ever got.

    «Starmer’s campaign statement and his ten pledges explicitly pitched to the Left of the party and promised that the direction set by Jeremy Corbyn would be maintained. We’re now starting to see how much those words were worth.»

    Well, a lot of politicians give very different messages to their internal party member voters, to be nominated, and then once nominated switch to a very different message to the potential voters outside the party, to be elected.

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