Tory activists are ConservativeHome’s special subject, but we don’t always find them easy to read. So we’re doubtless taking a chance by seeking to interpret the mood of Labour’s. However, we will have a go.
The party members and others who voted in its leadership contest know that Jeremy Corbyn failed. But they are not yet at that stage of the political cycle at which they look for a leader who can not only win back lost voters but also gain new ones. Furthermore, many still expect Boris Johnson, with his near-landslide majority, to win another term in 2025 or so.
They have therefore plumped for brains, which Corbyn lacks; for competence, which his inner circle fell short of; for articulacy, which Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite continuity candidate, didn’t manage, and above all for keeping the Labour family together. That means Keir Starmer.
If the usual swings and roundabouts apply in 2025, the Conservatives will go out and he will come in. But these should arguably have applied last year – which saw a Tory Government take office for the fourth election running. Which illustrates the double-headed electoral challenge confronting Starmer and his party.
Right at the start, he must grapple with a short-term and a longer-term problem. The short-term one is that Brexit upended the norms, allowing Boris Jonhson to present the Tories, in a move of stunning audacity, as the change option last December.
The longer-term one is that the EU referendum and its aftermath intensified an anguish gnawing away at established parties of the left throughout the western world. They have changed from being the party of the workers to the party of woke.
At the last election, the Conservative lead among C2DE voters was bigger than among their ABC1 counterparts. The most damaging factor in this transformation for Labour has been its permissive stance on immigration. The most contemporary one is the party’s troubles over an issue of preoccupation only to a tiny minority of voters: trans.
Its heartland is no longer the manual workers of the industrial provinces, but the public sector managers, media workers, and right-on lawyers of north London – especially in that slew of seats running southwards from Enfield towards the Thames. This is Starmer country: his own Holborn and St Pancras seat nestles there.
He is likely to do nothing to make the party more uncomfortable with two sources of voter strength in which the capital abounds: ethnic minorities and younger people. But it needs a leader of exceptional agility, imagination and appeal to make it the natural choice for the rest of the country in 2025.
The party was handed over to Tony Blair, Labour’s biggest post-war election winner, in workable condition for government. Neil Kinnock had gradually seen the hard left off, and taken control of the party. He had also junked the worst parts of its policy platform. Blair’s task was to smarten the rest up and sell it to the people.
By contrast, Starmer is not in control of Labour – not yet, anyway. His supporters have no clear majority on its National Executive Committee. He inherits a Corbyn-flavoured economic programme that was well judged in 2017 but which over-reached last year.
Above all, he is no Blair, running in opposition to his party’s recent history, and with a different flavour to its usual leaders. Blair’s father was once a Conservative Association Chairman. By contast, Starmer’s parents named him after Keir Hardie. He is from a particular slice of what was Labour’s natural demographic: the working-class south.
And if Johnson bears a weakness of journalists (namely, a greater facility for the broad sweep than for grinding detail), Starmer’s story to date suggests a weakness of lawyers: a preoccupation with detail and a tendency to caution. It served him well, though Labour not so well, as the Brexit story ran on.
The anti-semitism saga provides a classic illustration. Starmer has Jewish family connections, and will understand the issues. But he kept his head down: not until Corbyn’s leadership was effectively dead and buried did he denounce its record. That is either moral cowardice or impactful timing or perhaps both.
It is certainly all of a piece with his durable, workmanlike first speech as Labour leadership yesterday. He said that the party has a mountain to climb and added that “where that requires change, we will change”. A bolder leader would have scorned that evasive qualification.
The NHS. The welfare state. SureStart. Equalities legislation. His speech ticked Labour boxes but didn’t even try to open others. There was nothing much to push the patriotic buttons of the provincial working class or the Unionist ones of many Scottish voters: and how after all can Starmer win a majority without Scotland?
If all this sounds like writing him off at the start, we should add that it ain’t necessary so. The old saw about oppositions not winning elections but governments losing them applies, and the Coronavirus has the potential to shake British politics up on a Brexit-like scale.
But Starmer will have to be more than a kind of North London John Smith if he wants to do more than profit from others’ mistakes and misfortunes. One source who has worked with him told ConservativeHome is that his reflex response when presented with a problem is “leave it to me”.
After which, he goes away and unwinds it patiently and systematically – as a good lawyer does. But he won’t be able to do so much himself now, and will need to reach beyond the Labour tribe, and the history of engagement with civil liberties that he pushed during the leadership campaign. (By the way, there was nothing much about “the climate crisis” from him yesterday.) Above all, he will need to surprise. Does he have it in him?
And how should his leadership begin? In 2001, Iain Duncan Smith was deprived of a platform for his ideas, immediately after his election as Tory leader, by 9/11. He found himself having to respond to it in Parliament.
Starmer has an even more troublesome problem as ponders the Coronavirus. This time round, the Commons isn’t even sitting.
Some Conservative MPs believe that he’s less formidable in Parliament than his c.v would suggest. But he is undoubtedly a methodical inquisitor, and the Government’s record and performance on the Coronavirus is right for his kind of orderly skills.
So expect to see Starmer push soon for a recall. He will have a point. The Commons should not be suspended for a moment longer than necessary: not with strategic choices of this magnitude to be made; not with emergency powers so sweeping on the statute book.
The time has come for Ministers to look hard at what can be done virtually and what can’t be. Starmer won’t win the next election by making the case and nor is it the ideal launching pad for him. But it would be a bit of a start. And he may be encouraged by this thought: after Corbyn, the only way is up.