A new Labour leader has been installed after an historic electoral drubbing blamed upon a too radical manifesto and an unelectable leadership, taking control of an intensely divided party in opposition to an emboldened Conservative government. At first glance, Sir Keir Starmer’s challenges in 2020 echo Neil Kinnock’s in 1983, however, closer analysis highlights both leaders’ vastly different electoral, partisan and historical contexts, meaning Kinnock’s solutions may not be applicable to Starmer and assessing these will be essential for Labour to return to government.
Labour’s 2019 electoral catastrophe eclipsed its 1983 disaster by seven seats to become its worst result since 1935. Labour’s 1983 and 2019 manifestos were both perceived as too radical and unrealistic to be electable, with the former dubbed the ‘longest suicide note in history’ with promises including nuclear disarmament and its five year economic plan, and the latter’s promises of free broadband and a four day working week similarly failing to win the argument. Kinnock and Starmer’s solutions here are greatly similar, distancing themselves from their predecessors’ radicalism by advocating more gradual change and maintaining policies adjudged as more popular (e.g. Starmer maintaining rail renationalisation).
Kinnock and Starmer’s electoral challenges, however, drastically differ. Whilst Labour predominantly lost middle-class suburbs (e.g. Bristol East) in 1983, its Northern working-class vote of industrial and mining communities held firm. By contrast, Labour’s London-centric liberal metropolitan image of 2019, alongside its indecisive Brexit approach which alienated its typically Brexit-supporting Northern working-class voters, saw Labour lose seats previously deemed unthinkable, including Leigh, which had voted Labour since 1922, and Tony Blair’s former Sedgefield seat, which returned its first Conservative MP since 1931. Whilst Labour’s Northern working-class vote had declined over time, losing these once strongholds signifies a crisis eclipsing Kinnock’s, particularly having been recently decimated in its former Scottish stronghold. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which YouGov stated motivated 35% of past Labour voters to vote otherwise in 2019, was so toxic within working-class communities compared to Michael Foot’s that Starmer may enjoy greater flexibility in distancing himself from his predecessor and regaining electoral support than Kinnock. Nonetheless, Labour’s cataclysmic defeats in 1983 and 2019 illustrates the electorate’s significant lack of trust and similarly to Kinnock, Starmer must quickly address this.
Starmer, like Kinnock, must also unite a Labour Party heavily divided between its hard-left and moderate factions. Kinnock’s tough stance against the entryist ‘Militant tendency’, hard-left socialists who effectively formed a ‘party within a party’ and controlled Labour’s youth wing, enabled him to gradually move Labour towards the centre. Whilst Militant still held influence, notably controlling Liverpool City Council where they famously issued redundancy notices to 30,000 staff after setting an illegal budget in 1985, Kinnock’s persistent defiance, exemplified by his 1985 conference speech, majorly restored confidence and Labour’s electability.
Momentum, who have similarly formed a ‘party within a party’, heavily influenced Labour’s youth politics and adopted entryist tactics alienating moderates, most notably through deselection, have already shown resistance towards Starmer’s leadership, having supported his leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey. Like with Kinnock, Starmer has already sought to reduce their influence, evident in his shadow cabinet appointments, but Momentum’s greater influence over Labour, having been fundamental to Labour’s substantial membership increase and its 2017 and 2019 election manifestos, especially the ‘Green New Deal,’ means Starmer must incorporate Momentum unlike Kinnock did with Militant or risk terminally dividing Labour. Starmer, therefore, needs to accommodate Momentum policies and individuals, albeit presented less radically, and shake off their associated liberal metropolitan image and divisiveness that cost Labour its working-class support, a more delicate task than Kinnock, but certainly not less achievable.
Nevertheless, Starmer’s internal party challenges extend further than Kinnock’s; in particular, Starmer must tackle anti-Semitism allegations more effectively, which leading figures, particularly Corbyn, were adjudged to have woefully dealt with, destroying Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community and leading to the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigating it for racism. Taking strong and decisive action is essential for Starmer to restore the Jewish community’s and the electorate’s trust, with Kinnock’s stance against Militant possible inspiration for what may be required.
Additionally, the Coronavirus pandemic will define Starmer’s leadership unlike anything that defined Kinnock’s. Whilst the Falklands War contributed heavily to the Conservative’s 1983 landslide, its influence was greatly reduced upon Kinnock’s accession as Labour leader. Starmer’s leadership, by contrast, will be dominated by Coronavirus’ short-term public health and long-term socioeconomic impacts, including potentially the worst recession since the Great Depression. Starmer’s response, therefore, could go heavily towards restoring trust and electability, particularly among the less affluent working classes. Nonetheless, his response will not entirely determine his electoral prospects, and as Kinnock proved, addressing Labour’s systemic faults will be equally essential.
Sir Keir Starmer has an immense task restoring Labour’s trust and electability, made more difficult by coronavirus’ constantly evolving nature. That aside, Starmer’s reflections upon Kinnock’s leadership and its similar challenges can greatly inform his approach, particularly in uniting Labour’s significant divides. Nonetheless, Starmer’s and Kinnock’s leaderships originate in very different contexts, with Starmer’s Labour needing to regain Northern working-class support that formed the bedrock of Kinnock’s, and take more decisive action against antisemitism within Labour, something Kinnock never needed to confront. Ultimately, whilst Kinnock’s and Starmer’s challenges seem similar, the Labour parties they lead significantly differ, and so their responses to their challenges must differ. Whether Starmer can outdo Kinnock and win an election, however, remains yet to be seen.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Rwendland