Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Self-isolation and social distancing are new concepts that we’ve all got used to – at least for the time being. Both were clearly at the forefront of the minds of the Labour Party members when they delivered Keir Starmer the leadership of the Labour Party. A role that the experienced Queen’s Counsel fulfilled more than adequately in the courtroom-esque quiet of the locked-down Parliament last week against the Government’s number two.
Starmer is the first knight to be Leader of the Opposition since Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1964, a position Sir Alec held for 10 months. Co-incidentally, that’s almost the same length of time Jeremy Corbyn held the leadership for before the coup against him in 2016.
Labour’s anti-Corbyn wing must be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself to either precedent. Time will tell if “Don’t Leave, Organise” is a minor irritant or a new Momentum. Knights seem to be in fashion at present, with Sir Keir not the only one leading an opposition party; he joins Sir Edward Davey, currently acting Co-Leader of the remaining 11 Liberal Democrat MPs.
But back to the matter at hand: self-isolation and social distancing. A couple of months ago, I wrote that choosing for Starmer would be a reactionary choice, an order of ‘tediously woke’ comfort food for Labour’s upper-middle class London membership after Corbyn.
He certainly isn’t the choice of leader that you’d make to try and appeal anew to the traditional – even tribal – Labour voter across the North of England who finally broke with the party at the last election. At the vanguard of Labour’s reactionary Remain wing, Starmer is the metropolitan Europhile’s dream candidate.
He was elected because he shares the views of the membership who elected him – a membership that has self-isolated itself from a vast mass of Labour’s traditional electorate; a membership that it would seem doesn’t care, let alone understand, what it needs to change in order to win back the North.
The impression I’ve been getting since 2017 from London Labour members is that Corbyn had become increasingly socially toxic – particularly over the issue of anti-semitism. His lack of action had become indefensible. It must have been difficult to defend him in conversation over supper with Caroline and Seb, in a brasserie nestled somewhere amongst those inner North London postcodes.
Starmer is exactly who you want to be your party leader in order to avoid your right-on pals from socially distancing from you. If you’re a wealthy Londoner, he’s just like you. He represents Holborn & St Pancras (his seat neighbours are Corbyn and Emily Thornberry); a barrister schooled in Surrey. A bencher at Middle Temple, social uber-liberal, who worked internationally on human rights cases.
Starmer’s election by those who wanted ‘one of us’ provides the Conservative Party with a golden opportunity to cement the gains of 2019, and keep Labour pinned down where it feels at home – in its new heartlands of central London, the middle of major cities and the University towns. Once we move beyond Coronavirus, and we will, there will be big choices for Boris Johnson, his team and the party. But we cannot move away from the course of which we set in ‘levelling up’ and repaying the trust the electorate placed in us.
In choosing Starmer, Labour have doubled down on the mistake Conservatives made in 1997, thinking it was a high watermark for ‘the other lot’ and things would ‘return to normal.’ Astonishingly, the party has failed to lean from its rnear annihilation in Scotland in 2015, and the ‘dead cat bounce’ of 2017, which was swiftly reversed two years later.
Labour have not learnt that once support has gone, if you don’t change fast, it doesn’t come back. It wasn’t the socialism per se that was the primary reason people turned away from Labour in the North – the electorate could see Labour’s policies were unaffordable and often contradictory – it was much more basic than that. It was the self-isolation of Labour’s London elite who had social distanced to such an extent that they cannot any longer even have a conversation on the same level with people who’d voted Labour for generations.
Following Ed Miliband, (MP for Doncaster, who lives in Dartmouth Park, NW5), Islington North’s very own Jeremy Corbyn, and now Starmer (remarkably, Miliband’s actual MP) – Labour have now chosen three Leaders in a row who live, literally, within a couple of tube stops of each other.
It’s clear where Labour’s heartlands now is, and it’s no-where near the terraced cottage in which I typed today’s dispatch. Nor is it even spiritually in the former mines, Methodism and manufacturing industries of County Durham and the North. Labour’s heart is now in the self-styled trendy bits of the metropolis. If we Conservatives stick to the plan, that’s exactly where Sir Keir and his self-isolated socially distanced comrades will remain.