What will top Keir Starmer’s on-going ‘worry list’?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the government's handling of A-Levels a 'fiasco' on Twitter; P

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the government's handling of A-Levels a 'fiasco' on Twitter; Photograph: Jacob King/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

MARTYN SLOMAN on why Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey are unlikely to feature on the new leader's list of concerns.

When I worked as a training director one of my tasks was to help people in the organisation settle into the demands of a new job – a form of one-off mentoring. The best advice I could give them was to write a very short list, no more than three or four items, setting out what they saw as the most demanding immediate challenges. This was not a 'to-do' list of tasks; it was about identifying the underlying worries that would keep them awake at night. I would urge them not to agonise over the list but, importantly, to produce a similar list at regular intervals – ideally once a fortnight. All previous lists should be kept in the same drawer or electronic folder.

This exercise allows the individual to see how their perception of their job changes: many challenges which seem insuperable at the time will have, for one reason or another, disappeared. Such a practice also builds confidence as the changing list demonstrates progress. I always made one other point to the new post-holder: you can never know anybody else's list looks like: if you guess you will be wrong. In particular, there will be always be something nagging away in your boss's mind of which you are totally unaware.

Every profession or activity thinks they are a special case and that generic approaches to management don't apply to them. They are wrong. The 'worry list' is good practice and is equally relevant to politics. Keir Starmer, unlike virtually all his post-war predecessors, has had plenty of exposure to best management practice and I know, from first -hand experience from my days working in a professional institute, that the Crown Prosecution Service was a well-run organisation which took management and education seriously. So, it may well be that Keir Starmer has such a list tucked away in a draw in his North London home as I write. Since, to emphasise one of the points already made, we can have no idea what really worries him, any discussion of its contents is no more than speculation. However, such speculation is not without interest.

Let's start with the most likely components of the list – remember it's a 'worry list' not a 'to-do' list. My guess is 'dealing with anti-Semitism' will be at the top and will remain there until the Equality and Human Rights Commission reports and appropriate action against offending individuals has been taken. Thereafter there will be a great deal of ongoing work to rebuild trust but, challenging as the tasks will be, once a clear lead has been given there will be plenty of people willing to undertake them. 'The mess that is HQ and the Leader's office' would surely have been there at the start but has now been addressed: in particular the organisational issues can be left to the new general secretary. It is amazing how much difference good appointments can make in removing items from the list.

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My guess is that 'Jeremy Corbyn' was not likely to have appeared on the worry list at any stage. He became a spent force very quickly after the 2019 election and 'Corbynism' has been shown to have no enduring substance: it was an ephemeral product of slogans and rallies. Similarly, I doubt if Len McCluskey's name will make an appearance: irritating he may be, but his huff and puff will not blow any houses down.

One item that will appear at some time will be the name (and possibly names) of an underperforming member of the shadow cabinet. It is far too early to predict who this might be, and hopefully the problem may not arise too some time, but its eventual emergence is inevitable. Dealing with underperformance is the one thing guaranteed to keep any conscientious manager awake at night; it is never easy to deal with but cannot be avoided.

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The immediate political imperative facing Labour and its leader is to recover credibility and to rebuild trust. This will take time. The task for the longer term is, to quote from the excellent recent Guardian podcast interview with Peter Mandelson, to 'create and construct a political project as modern social democrats who want to take the best of Labourism and the best of Liberalism and apply a whole new set of ideas for running the country for the 21st Century' . This project is wide-ranging with diverse elements in a post-Covid world: dealing with job losses on a scale unprecedented in post-war years; the need for a new social contract for the care of the elderly; the widening gap in educational opportunities. Without doubt some of the new Leader's team will shine but some others will fail to deliver – at this stage none, of us, including Keir Starmer himself, knows who will fall into which of these categories. Whatever emerges, hard conversations and sleepless nights lie ahead. That is the price of progress.

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