Former BBC broadcaster GAVIN ESLER was so disillusioned by the UK’s main political parties he joined a new one. So can the new Labour leader Keir Starmer tempt him?
Most mornings in a London park I used to bump into a fellow dog walker. I’ll call him Joe. He’s a working class Glaswegian, a rough diamond, well-informed and straight-talking. When I reported for the BBC from some faraway country or conducted a political discussion for Newsnight Joe would always give me his critical assessment. Joe had stopped voting altogether because ‘they never listen’. And Joe – well informed, concerned about the state of the country, yet disengaged – was one of the first people I remember using the phrase ‘politically homeless’.
I had never considered joining a political party. I liked and admired some politicians not because of their policies but because many are decent, hard working, public spirited people – and that includes those from Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and also politicians I met in Ireland, Germany and the United States.
Then, just over a year ago I finally did try to find a political home and ran as a Change UK candidate in the European elections. Part of the attraction was that as a political party Change UK didn’t really exist. We had principles rather than a programme. We wanted to break the mould of Britain’s brain dead politics, but we had no detailed manifesto and a tiny organisation. Yet we all wanted to come together to stop the damage that Brexit would undoubtedly do to our economy and to our increasingly divided British society.
I believed in 2016, and believe even more strongly now, that Brexit may eventually bring the United Kingdom as it is currently constructed to an end. England is certainly going in a very different direction from Scotland and Northern Ireland. None of the ‘established’ political parties seemed willing or able to do anything about this, hence Change UK.
Well, we all remember how that ended. The party won no seats in the European elections and faded away, and by last December’s general election the idea of changing British politics through a new centre party was dead. Instead the worst of our failed British system of politics was reborn.
The Lib Dems – the ‘established’ party of the centre – must take much responsibility for this. They committed a profound strategic error in giving the Tories the election they sought. And we all remember how that ended, too.
The Lib Dems were punished by voters for this mistake – and others – while Labour were punished for their years of internal hatreds, posturing and talking to themselves, and the Conservatives got their 80-seat majority.
And so in 2020 we have returned to the brain dead politics of the past, and people like Joe and I are left feeling politically homeless, while ‘the system’ that I had hoped to help change appears unassailable. By unassailable I mean that Boris Johnson won that overwhelming majority of 80 seats on just 43% of the popular vote.
That means 57% of British voters did not vote for his government. And yes, I’m aware that a minority of the popular vote resulting in a thumping majority in parliament is ‘just how the British system works’. But I’m even more aware that the British system increasingly does not work for most of us.
An Edelman Trust Barometer poll of 28 rich countries found that when it came to trust in the institutions which make up ‘the system’, Britain came second from bottom, just ahead of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That survey demonstrating the collapse of trust in British institutions was published in the relatively good times of January 2020 – before the UK faced the worst public health crisis for a century, before predictions of the worst economic contraction since the 1700s, and before the prime minister set us on course for a no-deal Brexit, a version of leaving the European Union which was never even discussed during the 2016 referendum campaign.
The profound loss of trust in Westminster politics and the British system of government comes as there are, once more, moves in Scotland towards a second referendum on independence. The State of the Union, known, at least for now, as the United Kingdom, is therefore fragile.
So what are we – the politically homeless – supposed to do about it? Well, we could join an existing political party, and try to fight from within the antique creation known as the two-party first-past-the-post system. But anyone nowadays joining the Conservative party is publicly endorsing a Tory leader who even his political allies are now coming to realise is not up to the job.
Anyone joining the Lib Dems must be content in a party which the Westminster system all but guarantees will have a leader who will never be prime minister.
That leaves the prospect of joining the Labour party. Some new recruits have already done so, and good luck to them. Labour’s new leader is a much more impressive figure than his predecessor.
Keir Starmer’s weekly eviscerations of the part-time PM at Prime Minister’s Questions are a joy to behold. We have at last someone serious in showing up the intellectual vacuum behind the performance art known as ‘Boris Johnson’.
But so what? Such performances may be morale-boosting, but they are not enough. The problem with the Labour party in 2020, is, unfortunately, the Labour party itself. That’s not just my opinion. It’s the opinion expressed in a devastating report from a group called Labour Together. This organisation was set up by MPs, trade unions and activists from different Labour traditions to try to stop the internal feuding and backbiting. It includes highly-regarded MPs like Ed Miliband, Lucy Powell and Shabana Mahmood and the group established a 15-strong panel to look into the abyss of the catastrophic December 2019 election defeat.
What the report found was incoherence and strategic dysfunction, lack of clarity and lack of leadership, a party beset by ‘factionalism’, ‘internal arguments’ and ‘division’ with ‘a mountain to climb’ to avoid yet another election defeat in 2024.
To re-work an old phrase of Theresa May’s, Labour’s report suggests that British voters in December 2019 had the choice between two nasty parties. One was the empathy-free zone of the Tories, the other was the Labour party itself, riven – as the report lays bare – by personal animosities and disconnected from the reality of life in modern Britain as experienced in many traditional Labour areas. The most telling sentence is this one: ‘It would be a mistake to believe that a different leader, with Brexit no longer the defining issue, would in itself be sufficient to change Labour’s electoral fortunes.’
A new leader, then, is not enough on its own. The good news for Labour is that Starmer can use this cold shower of common sense to get a grip on the party. He has promoted a top team which is more inclusive, smarter and better qualified than the nodding donkeys currently around the cabinet table.
But he will need to outline a strategy and a vision which does more than rely on blundering Boris to keep blundering. Starmer might be winning praise from those in what might be termed the old ‘centre’ of UK politics – where much of the Remain passion burned brightest – but he will need more than that. Much more.
Labour has almost been wiped out in Scotland. No amount of winning back so-called Red Wall seats in northern England or the Midlands will put Labour back in power without the party also reviving north of the border.
An under-reported comment shows Starmer recognises this. In April, as he was confirmed as Labour leader, he wrote a short column in the Daily Record. He referred to the man he was named after, the Scottish founder of the Labour party, Keir Hardie: ‘Labour’s pioneering leader, Keir Hardie, was not a supporter of nationalism but of home rule for Scotland within the UK. I said during Labour’s leadership election that I want to build a future on the principle of Federalism. We will establish a constitutional convention in opposition that applies that principle of Federalism and a new settlement for the UK. I want to see Scotland use the powers it has got. I also want it to have more powers itself.’
Maybe Starmer can stop the infighting, and reinvent a One Nation Labour Party of broad appeal, to emerge from the shambles of the Johnson years. But it may be too late, not just for Labour but also for Britain.