There may be months left for the race to run, but Labour historian FRANCIS BECKETT explains why he has the confidence to call the result of the party leadership already.
Forgive the bold prediction but, barring accidents, Sir Keir Starmer will be declared Labour leader on April 4, and will set about trying to become prime minister in May 2024 – a task which may not be as Herculean as it looks.
Clear early leaders in Labour leadership elections generally end up winning. Neil Kinnock in 1983, John Smith in 1992, Tony Blair in 1994, Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 were all early leaders.
In the 2010 contest, though David Miliband was the bookies’ favourite, he never held more than a fragile lead.
Going in to the contest, there was no shortage of senior Labour figures saying it had to be a woman this time. But people don’t vote that way; they vote tribally. A Blairite would vote for almost any man rather than Rebecca Long-Bailey. A Corbynite would vote for almost any man rather than Jess Phillips.
Starmer is almost the identikit leader just now, right down to his name. It has a title – he’s Sir Keir – which is reassuring for those on the right who worry that their leader might not be weighty enough. But his parents called him Keir after Labour’s most revered figure, Keir Hardie, which will reassure the left.
Starmer has made his preparations. Before he was officially a candidate, I met one of Labour’s most talented organisers who intended to leave Labour HQ to work full time for Starmer’s campaign. A YouGov poll early this month had 36% of Labour’s members supporting Starmer, 13 points ahead of Long-Bailey and 14 points ahead of Phillips.
He has positioned himself where Labour’s soul is, which is neither in the Blair nor the Corbyn camps, but on the ground staked out by Clement Attlee in 1945, and redefined by Neil Kinnock in 1983.
Kinnock had been a member of the left wing Tribune Group, but found himself outflanked by a new, sharp-toothed left, led by Tony Benn and organised with a rod of iron by a clever, energetic, ruthless young man called Jon Lansman. After 1994, Labour’s traditional right similarly found itself outflanked by Tony Blair.
Starmer’s is the Labour Party of wealth redistribution, of nationalisation as a tool but not as a dogma, of slaying the “five giants” in Beveridge’s landmark 1943 report: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness – the party that unashamedly calls itself socialist, but avoids defining the word too rigidly.
Emily Thornberry occupies the same ground. As shadow foreign secretary, she regularly showed up foreign secretary Boris Johnson for the lazy buffoon he is, and it must seem a bitter irony to her that the buffoon is now prime minister while she has to struggle to stay on the ballot paper for the leadership of the opposition.
She made it through the first round, getting just enough MPs and MEPs. Now comes the task of getting sufficient nominations from Constituency Labour Parties, then trade unions or affiliated organisations.
Thornberry was damaged by the Corbyn strategists’ decision to keep her away from broadcasting during the election.
When foreign affairs were in the news, they persisted in fielding some minor figure, for fear of allowing the fluent and always well briefed Thornberry to display her passion and formidable grasp of the issues.
Now that Clive Lewis has fallen at the first hurdle, Thornberry joins Starmer, Long-Bailey, Phillips and Lisa Nandy in the race.
Long-Bailey might have been the favourite if the election defeat had been less devastating. As it is, being Corbyn’s anointed candidate is a millstone about her neck. Of course it will win her votes from the true believers, but she needs more than that.
The more pragmatic of those who voted for Corbyn are already migrating to the Starmer camp, and he is making it easy for them with statements like this: “We have to be bold enough to say the free market model doesn’t produce, doesn’t work… the trickle-down effect didn’t happen. We have to rebuild an economic model that reduces inequality and protects working people.”
Long-Bailey may have publicly given Corbyn 10 out of 10 for his leadership, but she has wisely refused to allow Corbyn’s strategists Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy anywhere near her campaign. “She thinks they’re toxic,” an informed source told me.
There may be a late surge of new members and supporters joining the party to vote for Long-Bailey, but people are also joining to support Starmer or simply to oppose Corbyn’s candidate.
Phillips and Nandy are both, for the moment, defined by their resignation from Corbyn’s front bench and their support for Owen Smith’s challenge to Corbyn’s leadership in 2016.
Despite brave noises from Corbyn’s true believers, last month saw Labour’s worst defeat since the 1930s – worse than Michael Foot’s in 1983. And in 1983 the Conservatives were led by Margaret Thatcher, who was always on top of her brief, always prepared, always well groomed, always formidable, respected by friends and foes alike. In 2019 they were led by Boris Johnson.
There was a clear majority in the country for Remain – and a clear majority of votes cast in the election were for Remain parties, if you include Labour, which promised a second referendum.
Out of all that, Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats somehow contrived to give us five years when Johnson can do whatever he likes, and a Brexit which a clear majority of voters do not want.
How did they do that? I think the election was lost on one day in June 2018, when Corbyn and his staff met the Board of Deputies of British Jews to try to agree a way forward on tackling anti-Semitism. The then Board president, Jonathan Arkush, told me that he did not want Corbyn to be forced out as leader, and he did not think Corbyn was an anti-Semite. Corbyn, Arkush told me, could be “part of the solution, not part of the problem”.
The Labour leader welcomed the Board delegation courteously, sat them down – and then clammed up, leaving almost all the talking to his communications chief Seumas Milne, who became animated on the subject of Israel, accusing it of ethnic cleansing.
The Board went away with the sense that Corbyn was uninterested in the issue. Not long afterwards Arkush was calling Corbyn an anti-Semite.
Come the election, I talked to a prominent Jewish lawyer – a thoughtful, liberal-minded man who had voted Remain. Surely, I said, he could not bear to vote for Johnson? He looked at his shoes and said: “Well, I voted for Mike Freer.” Freer was his Conservative candidate in Finchley and Golders Green. He could not even vote for his Lib Dem candidate Luciana Berger – because her party might briefly support a Corbyn premiership in order to secure a second referendum.
The effect of the anti-Semitism row went way beyond the Jewish community and the so-called ‘bagel belt’ of North London seats with a high proportion of Jewish voters. It is not only Jews who are disgusted by anti-Semitism.
Voters felt that Corbyn would not engage with the issue. He left the handling of it to aides like Milne and Karie Murphy. Officials gave the impression of giving ground inch by inch, reluctantly and with bad grace.
So if I were Starmer, my top priority would be to engage with Jewish concerns. It means doing what Arkush told me he had hoped Corbyn would do: making it his issue.
Corbyn also failed to engage with Brexit, and the need to do that has not gone away – in fact it will get more urgent. Corbyn always gave the impression, when he had to talk about Brexit, that he really wanted to talk about something else – which he probably did.
A harder task will be to convince the right and left of the party that sitting in their dugouts shouting “traitor” and “loser” at each other is not an election-winning strategy, and will not deliver socialism.
Starmer is carefully positioning himself as the candidate who can do that, gently chiding everyone for being rude to each other. I predict he will have a carefully balanced, female-heavy top team.
I would not be surprised to see Long-Bailey as shadow chancellor and Yvette Cooper slotting back into her old role as shadow home secretary, while Thornberry keeps the foreign affairs brief.
Can the supertanker be turned around in time for an election in May 2024? Normally you would have to say: no, the gap is too big. It will need two parliaments to turn that round.
But these are not normal times. Corbyn, through incompetence rather than malevolence, made himself the problem. He was poison on the doorstep. A new opinion poll for the Independent says that voters liked the party’s policies on issues like nationalisation, climate change and taxation until they were told they were linked to Corbyn.
Many voters hated Brexit – but not as much as they feared Corbyn. Many Labour Party people are looking to Keir Starmer as the man who can give socialism a human face.