BY SCOTT CRESSWELL
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, then Shadow Brexit Secretary, pictured in 2017 at an event at Chatham House.
At the 2019 election nearly two years ago, Labour suffered one of its worst defeats in its history. It won just 202 seats and lost nearly 8% of the vote from 2017. Whoever was going to succeed Jeremy Corbyn was not going to have an easy ride, but Sir Keir Starmer’s conference speech is proof that the party is changing before our very eyes.
When he became leader in April 2020, Starmer took over a party whose membership was mainly Corbyn-dominated and many of the left-wing politics, such as free internet broadband and mass nationalisation, were internally popular. He took over a party that had suffered its fourth consecutive electoral defeat, and apart from fiercely challenging and destroying anti-Semitism within Labour, nobody knew what Keir Starmer stood for, or even who he was.
This year’s conference could have so easily been a disaster and early on, many thought it was. Starmer was absent as the Corbynistas and the left rallied around their former leader and accused Sir Keir of “propping up the rich”. Starmer’s controversial decision to scrap the current One Member One Vote system for electing a Labour leader was shelved. The resignation of Andy McDonald from the shadow cabinet was something of a blow also; he claimed Labour was “more divided than ever”.
Yet, Keir Starmer’s speech was probably the most convincing speech of any Labour leader since before 2010. Starmer is serious about wanting Labour to win. The party has only won five elections since 1970. As the fuel crisis deepens, the problems of Brexit become more apparent, and Boris Johnson’s incompetence becomes all the more evident, Starmer’s speech gives him the image of a Prime Minister. Labour has always had a fetish for distancing themselves in opposition from their achievements in government. It happened for much of the early eighties when the resurgent Bennite left was highly critical of the premierships of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. It happened again in the 2010s. Miliband distanced himself from New Labour, despite working for Gordon Brown for thirteen years, and Jeremy Corbyn had absolutely no desire to be a serious Labour leader, let alone Labour Prime Minister. Keir Starmer is different; he is the most promising Labour leader since Tony Blair.
Len McCluskey, former General Secretary of Unite the Union, was on TV saying that Starmer had fallen prey to the right of the party and that he is now effectively their puppet. His comments are an offence to Starmer. He’s no Corbynite. I think as time passes, he is becoming more a Kinnock figure in the sense that his views have shifted not because he’s ditching his principles, but because he’s adjusting what Labour stands for so he can win power and change lives. The hecklers from the left during his speech played right into his hands. The Corbyn era is over. Labour is no longer talking to its own members, but the country.
The BBC’s Lewis Goodall mentioned that Starmer’s speech had elements of Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, and Harold Wilson in it. These three leaders from the past hold the most important advice for the future. In 1964, Wilson talked of “the white heat of the technological revolution”, something Starmer himself mentioned with AI robotics. In 1985, Neil Kinnock had no choice but to confront his party over Militant Tendency, but also to re-energise Labour about winning elections. In 1997, Tony Blair made his famous “education, education, education” speech, along with the famous soundbite “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Starmer came close to nearly mentioning Blair’s name, something still idiotically a risk.
The main question now is can Keir Starmer win the next election? In order to win a majority at the next election, Labour would need to gain 127 seats and a swing as large as the 1945 election. British politics rarely allows for something of this scale to happen. However, be under no illusion that the mountain that Starmer has to climb is as tall or treacherous as Neil Kinnock’s. When he became leader in 1983, Labour was nearly 15 percentage points behind the Tories, and only had less than a million more votes than the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Starmer has no third force to worry about; the Liberal Democrats aren’t going anywhere, and the gap between the two main parties is 11.5 percentage points. Of course, he still faces a challenge, and the tragedy of politics is that he may put the blood and sweat required, but it will be another who reaps the rewards of electability and power. In the end, that’s politics…
Image - Flickr (Chatham House)