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Keir Starmer: Will he be Labour’s responsible revolutionary?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Photo: Aaron Chown - Credit: PA

Keir Starmer has made an encouraging start as Labour leader, says JOHN KAMPFNER, but soon he will have to outline where he wants to take his party, and the country.

When you are trying to galvanise voters and the most commonly-used adjective to describe you is ‘forensic’, then you may have a problem. Except now.

Keir Starmer’s initiation as leader of the opposition has been like none other. The pandemic is deeply political, but also devoid of politics. It has deprived him of an opportunity to set out his vision, yet it has provided him ample possibilities to juxtapose his competence with the buffoonery of the prime minister.

Opinion polls so far reflect a warming to the Labour leader, but it is slow rather than spectacular.

The Conservatives’ net disapproval is 17 points, whereas Johnson’s own is a mere seven points – further evidence that the extent of his incompetence has yet to hit home with the public.

Popularity for the opposition at this stage of the cycle means next to nothing. The converse, however, would have been a disaster.

Imagine Starmer failing to make headway during a crisis in which the sitting government had shown itself to be deficient in almost all areas?

Imagine him not shining after the student-union Labour politics of the past five years and the worst general election performance since 1935?

It is instructive to see how quickly Jeremy Corbyn has been forgotten. Some are still clinging to his maxims, but pretty much everyone else has moved on. But to what?

This month’s election post-mortem by the umbrella group Labour Together made salutary reading. It outlined the many reasons for Labour’s humiliating defeat – Corbyn’s lack of credibility, a manifesto smorgasbord of promises and of course Brexit.

It talked of a mountain to climb to win back voters who have felt forgotten for more than a generation. Everyone has taken what they want to hear from that.

Starmer is biding his time. He has no choice. Britain may be gradually coming out of lockdown, but it is still many months away from approaching normality. He is seeking to heal old wounds, such as the anti-Semitism controversy; he has made some quiet but smart appointments to his team, bringing in people as chief of staff and head of policy who are respected on all sides of the party.

He is picking away – forensically – at Johnson’s bumbling performances in the House of Commons. Prime Minister’s Questions, particularly early on, devoid of the braying of MPs, has played to his strengths.

His dilemma, says Lord Stewart Wood, a key adviser to Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, is when to move on from Covid. ‘The minute he talks about the future he draws a line under the past, and the pandemic has shown Johnson at his worst.’

And yet he’ll have to move on because by 2024-25 the disasters of 2020 will be a distant memory. ‘Keir needs to win the peace,’ Wood adds.

Two factors will determine his success. One is wholly in his hands, the other only in part.

He can and must continue to undermine any pretensions Johnson might have to be a credible incumbent in Number 10.

And he will have to get onto the front foot, making speeches – impossible until now except to an empty hall and when attentions are elsewhere – when the moment is right, setting out future policy direction and tone.

He will not be able to blame the Tories for austerity because Johnson will have opened the sluice gates.

If he tries to out-spend the government, he will be denounced as irresponsible. If he trims, he will alienate and appear grey and heartless.

The mood in the parliamentary party is one of relief. Just by not being Corbyn, Starmer has won people over.

Labour MPs say a number of their Conservative counterparts are quietly impressed by him. It is often forgotten, however, that Brown was also popular at the beginning – because he wasn’t Blair. And because he also dealt well with initial crises. Remember ‘he’s not flash, just Gordon’?

Jon Cruddas, one of the party’s most respected MPs, talks of Starmer’s chance ‘to reimagine a Labour project which isn’t Corbyn or Blair’.

One of Labour’s legion of problems is that Corbyn and Blair are divisive lodestars. As many party activists define themselves in their loathing of the one as in their adoration of the other.

The bit in the middle is arguably where Labour’s soul is located, and yet it has rarely held sway.

Labour, Cruddas argues, has always been a coalition. He cites David Marquand’s ‘progressive dilemma’ – uniting the working-class base with its more middle class, younger supporters.

This differences between these groups, particularly on social issues, has been successfully weaponised by the populists.

It has become a commonplace to draw a distinction between the so-called Red Wall – the largely working-class voters of the north and Midlands who were seemingly beguiled by Johnson in the December election – and young metropolitan voters exercised more by the fate of statues of slavers than about bread and butter issues.

Now, with so little else to show for, Johnson’s team are hoping to stir up a succession of identity-politics controversies in order to smoke out Starmer. Are you with Churchill or against him?

This is straight out of the textbook of Donald Trump. Starmer has navigated his first and fairly obvious trap with efficiency, agreeing with the principle but not the manner of the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol.

As an experienced and smart lawyer, the Labour leader has dealt with trickier conundrums than that. Moreover, the traditional versus woke interpretation of the election is over-done and over-simplified.

The more intriguing questions for the new era of politics are these: is competence being prized again? And if it is, does it equate to centrism? Does it have to be bland? Is it capable of exciting voters? Did Social Democracy and Christian Democracy, New Labour and One Nation Conservatism – denounced as hollowed out, inauthentic – disappear for good, or are they returning?

Or turn the question around. Can competence coincide with risk-taking radicalism, a politics that is pragmatic but not incremental?

This is the challenge across the western world – from the successors to Angela Merkel in Germany, to president Macron in France, and of course Joe Biden, if he wins in the US.

Leaders such as these need to find a way of introducing radical change to their respective societies, while portraying that change as both essential and non-threatening.

How to be a responsible revolutionary? These questions will determine the fate of Starmer and his version (in so far as it can yet be divined) of Labour.

Johnson is an extraordinarily lucky politician. The coronavirus crisis coming right at the start of the electoral cycle gives Johnson time to rediscover that freewheeling spirit that appears (for reasons I have never fathomed) to go down well with voters. ‘Covid, oh yes that was a bit of bummer, but we dispatched those pesky little germs didn’t we. I couldn’t have done it without you, you wonderful and brave British people,’ he will thunder to rapturous applause a year or two hence.

By then the virus will be a distant memory. The damage wrought by Brexit will never be proven, because its disastrous effects will have been subsumed by the pandemic.

Starmer will need to show patience and resilience. This is a long haul, but it seems that Labour has chosen someone with the personality for such a task. Forensic he certainly is, but he will need also to fire up the imagination. Cruddas speaks for many when he says: ‘He is so far playing a difficult hand well.’

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