Keir Starmer’s biggest test is still to come
PUBLISHED: 18:27 22 June 2020 | UPDATED: 18:27 22 June 2020
Labour activist MARTYN SLOMAN on the Labour Together review of the 2019 general election - and why Brexit will be a bigger test for Keir Starmer’s leadership.
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Immediately after the calamitous 2019 election defeat a group of Labour Party activists gathered round Ed Miliband and undertook an analysis of the result; the group had been around for some three years as ‘Labour Together’. At the time the title was an oxymoron: Labour was most certainly not ‘together’. I took a cynical view that the Labour Together post-election report was an attempt by a faction to bid for control, led by some ambitious people on the soft left who had recognised the need to distance themselves from Jeremy Corbyn.
I’m delighted to say that my mood has changed. Those of us in the mainstream centre can breathe a huge sigh of relief. Not only did Keir Starmer coast to an easy victory in the leadership election but he has been able to promote people to his Shadow Cabinet on ability – including, incidentally, Ed Miliband himself. So, to quote from the hymn, dare we sing “the strife is over, the battle done”? Chance would be a fine thing. It is worth looking seriously at the Labour Together report as it gives us a good indication of the challenges that lie ahead for the new leadership team.
The first thing to say is that, worthy as it is, it the report tells us little we didn’t already know. Woeful leadership, a manifesto that promised everything, and ambiguity on Brexit reinforced each other to deliver a catastrophic result. True believers in the Messianic properties of Jeremy Corbyn, including many in my own constituency in north Norfolk, will point to media hostility and the difficulty of managing contradictory strands of opinion on Europe, but they are in a tiny minority. Indeed, they are increasingly sounding like an apocalyptic cult who cannot come to terms with the fact that the end of the world did not take place on the day the prophet predicted.
Recognising the nature of a problem and doing something about it, however, are two very different things. Much of my career was spent in management training and I often used the following illustration: a criminal was serving five years in Wormwood Scrubs for aggravated burglary; he decided to do an Open University degree in criminology; he’s going to carry on thieving, but at least he now knows why he’s doing it. This is Labour’s problem: we need no less than a radical shift in our behaviour to appeal to a changing electorate. Where the Labour Together report is strong is that it points unequivocally to the central dilemma. To quote: “The roots of our 2019 loss stretch back over the last two decades. In that time, we have seen a steady realignment of our politics through long-term changes in the relationship between our party and voter coalition, including political alienation, demographic change and cultural shifts.” In crude terms, it’s no longer enough to knock up the council estate on the night; there is no longer a working class out there waiting to galvanised using the vocabulary of the 1970s. The real challenge is the long-term one of developing credible policies which can win back the old Labour voters, whose loyalty go back generations, while consolidating support amongst the progressive well-educated younger voters with no traditional political roots.
Keir Starmer and those around him are well able to see this. The new leader can enjoy a surge in popular ratings simply by not being Jeremy Corbyn and by displaying thoughtful competence when facing a bombastic Prime Minister. The real test, however, will not come in constructing a position on the pandemic, where the politics are straightforward, but in articulating a considered and convincing response to EU withdrawal. This will involve fine judgement if this coalition of old and new Labour is to be rekindled. New European Readers will be watching nervously, but with some optimism.
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