In July 1995, Tony Blair flew halfway around the world in his attempts to detoxify the brand of the organisation he had just taken over. The Labour leader decided that he needed to do whatever it took, wherever it took, to convince those with power and influence that his party had shed the extremism of the Foot years. And so, he obeyed the summons from Rupert Murdoch to meet him on Australia’s Hayman Island.
Twenty five years on, flight shaming and other societal changes would preclude a similar voyage by Keir Starmer. But in many other respects the strategies that both men have devised are not dissimilar: spend the first period dispensing with all that is bad. Understand voters for what they are, not what you wish them to be. Define yourself and your party as much by what you are not, as what you are.
These strategies are designed to please the people who matter. They may even succeed in their own terms. But do they suck the blood out of the body politic? And in so doing do they sow the seeds of eventual disillusion?
Three years after taking over his party, Blair had won a historic landslide, sweeping away nearly two decades of Conservative rule. Many lessons have been learned from that era, two in particular: use your hegemony quickly and use it well. Blair was far too cautious in office; he had the chance to change Britain in his first term, but he baulked at the biggest reforms.
And don’t go to war on a false prospectus.
Blair’s early-period strategy, his how-to-guide for gaining power, is rarely challenged, however. The circumstances are not as replicable as they might initially seem. Starmer will have to wait longer than Blair, and his chances of achieving anything close to his majority are next to impossible. Just to get over the line, even as a minority coalition administration in 2024, would mark an impressive turnaround in Labour’s fortunes.
And most importantly, while victory might continue to reside in the centre ground, the political instincts of voters have changed over time. They want passion. They want to believe in something. They may even suspend rational judgement in that pursuit.
Starmer is playing a long game. The opinion polls are showing modest but unimpressive gains. For the moment, he is focusing his attention on methodically slaying all the shibboleths of the old regime.
It should always have been relatively straightforward to deal with the anti-Semitism allegations. For reasons of pragmatism as much as principle, Corbyn should never have found himself in that mess.
Starmer has been mindful not to fall into the elephant traps of identity politics, finding a careful choice of words to say as little of meaning as possible on statues and the Rule Britannia!-Proms nonsense – issues that matter intensely to people who care about such things, but little to everyone else.
For the moment, it is all about patriotism. The message from his – “We’re under new leadership; we love this country as you do” – empty-hall online party conference speech this week was as straightforward as it can get. He has put down a marker. The Corbyn era is dead and buried. Labour lost because it deserved to lose.
The politics of trimming gets you only so far, however. On Europe, Starmer is adopting the tired Blairite approach of triangulation. Identify the two poles and plonk yourself in the middle. Or more accurately, confine yourself to platitudes if you have to say anything at all. He has taken to emulating the mantra of “getting Brexit done”, insisting that the government should be focused on tackling Covid rather than “banging on about Europe”.
Even when Boris Johnson and his ministers declared their intention to break international law with the Internal Market Bill, Starmer confined himself to urging him to get the EU trade deal done. His US counterpart, Joe Biden, showed far more anger about the repercussions for Northern Ireland than he did.
This is, to be fair, solid defensive politics, closing down Labour’s many lines of vulnerability. Starmer has quickly de-fanged the Tories’ attempts to portray him as a metropolitan Remoaner. Johnson has yet to land an effective blow. They have tried ‘opportunist’, ‘elitist’, ‘rabid leftie’. None of them have worked. The PM’s interspersing of fury and pranks to denounce the opposition leader have only accentuated his status as national buffoon.
Covid, as I have been chronicling in my studies of Germany, plays to the strengths of decision-makers who are solid, competent and empathetic. Otherwise known as Angela Merkel and a few other (mainly female) leaders. It has pitilessly exposing the limitations of the flippant performative politics personified by Johnson and fellow populists Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
Yet, sad to say, this trend is probably being over-stated. In any properly functioning society, competence would feature as a vital component – indeed perhaps the most vital component – of leadership.
Britain’s embrace of Johnson, long before he became prime minister, when he was a showman mayor of London and diplomatically embarrassing foreign secretary, suggests that we are not quite there yet.
They wanted ‘values’ and someone who cared about the same things as they did. Bizarrely, they convinced themselves that an old-Etonian clown was just that person.
Even more bizarrely, and dishearteningly, in a normally functioning country any prime minister who has presided over this disproportionate death toll and a succession of crisis-management failures would have seen their polls plunge to historic lows. Instead, Johnson’s have slipped, but no more than an incumbent in their first year.
And that is the warning for Starmer. If he thinks he can win next time around simply by juxtaposing his reassuring aura of seriousness with Johnson’s buffoonery, he will have missed a golden opportunity.
At the moment he could be likened to a football manager having to field a weakened side with several players injured, hoping for 0-0 draw. He should realise that this kind of approach gets you to mid-table and no further.
To say all this is not to denounce Starmer, nor to declare his strategy necessarily mistaken. It has probably worked as well as anything could in these bizarre pandemic times.
He has been deprived of a real, in-person platform for voters to get to know him. For that reason, he is right to focus on the spring-clean, eradicating the negatives. He is thinking hard about how to win back the so-called ‘Red Wall’, while not alienating urban voters who are now Labour’s bedrock.
He is smart in identifying that people are looking more for values than for specific policies – after all, Corbyn’s War and Peace-sized 2019 manifesto was not short of the latter.
Phase one is surely drawing to a close. Phase two is riskier, but it is time to take more risks. Labour has been plagued by two extremes – the childishness of the Corbynites and the defensiveness of the Blairites.
Starmer talks incessantly of “uniting” the Labour Party, but he has to explain what he is actually uniting them behind. Patriotism, fine. Solid social values (a platitude but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), fine. But then what?
Competence is a necessary attribute, particularly for leaders from the centre left, who are always judged more harshly than those on the right. But it is insufficient. At some point he will have to reinject some spirit into the Labour project if he is to see off the clown.