Opinion: The challenge ahead for Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer is not the great orator Neil Kinnock once was. The recent Labour Conference was the first chance Starmer had at directly addressing his party as its leader, in over 18 months, and tension in the Brighton Centre was palpable. The 90-minute speech contained the usual forced gags and odd pauses, and it is safe to say that Starmer lacks the booming Welsh tones of his 1980s predecessor. However, just as the 1985 Conference was the springboard for Kinnock to rid Labour of a toxic far-left colour, so was the 2021 Conference for Starmer. What was present in Brighton, and is now being reflected in the polls, is a Labour leadership starting to claw back of decency, credibility, and – maybe just – electability.  

After a heartfelt introduction from Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Starmer began his address by welcoming Louise Ellman back into the Party. Having been a Liverpool MP for 22 years, Ellman resigned shortly before the 2019 Election in the wake of the antisemitism scandal. Many on Labour’s left, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, viewed Ellman’s claims of an anti-Jewish agenda with scepticism. They called it factional manoeuvring, a witch hunt, and anything but a real case of discrimination or harassment – the EHRC statement begs to differ. Keir Starmer raises his children in the Jewish faith of their mother, making it clear throughout his leadership campaign that tackling antisemitism was one of his top priorities. Whilst the rest of his speech was sporadically interrupted with booing, more frequent and more encouraging were the long ovations. Starmer talked at length about bringing dignity back to the workplace; what Labour meant for his family growing up and the need for real change within the Party. He even responded to the hecklers constantly trying to interrupt him with “Shouting slogans or changing lives, Conference?”.

Behind the scenes, Labour itself is changing. The conference passed several motions to prevent the kind of entryism 2015 saw. Future leadership candidates will need backing from 20% of MPs, up from 10%, and party members of less than six months will not be able to vote in leadership elections. These rules should help ensure that more popular, mainstream and capable candidates emerge; and would have prevented the election of Jeremy Corbyn had they been enforced six years ago. Naturally, members of Corbyn-supporting Momentum (already losing influence on the Party’s National Executive to moderate groups like Labour First) were quick to deride the changes as anti-democratic. Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth reminded BBC News of Harold Wilson’s old adage: “this party is like a bird, it only flies with a left wing and a right wing”. However, when the left wing has spent the last year desperate to compare Starmer unfavourably with an electorally-disastrous Jeremy Corbyn, and even Boris Johnson, you can forgive the current leadership for trying to outmanoeuvre them.

For many voters across the North of England and Midlands, it was Jeremy Corbyn who lost it for Labour in 2019. Ambiguity over Brexit, seen as unpatriotic, and drastictically radical economic policy; this was one step too far for the traditional Labour heartlands, by-and-large ‘small c’ conservative. In his book Despised, Blue Labour thinker and trade unionist Paul Embery argues that “the modern left despises the working class”. Judging by 2019’s election results, the feeling appears to be (at least partially) mutual. In last year’s online Conference, Keir Starmer addressed those sentiments head on. Rhetoric around the family, local communities, armed forced and Union Flag – which many would consider Corbyn’s missing piece – were all used. The public will never give Labour a mandate to govern if they can’t find a place for patriotism in progressive politics.

Yet herein lies the ultimate challenge for Starmer. Within minutes of that speech, the comments began to blow up. Supporters of the previous leadership were quick to snap back at him, such was the immensity of his divergence from cultural Corbynism. When in a statement last September, broadcasted on BBC1, Starmer appeared in front of a British flag, some were swift in their condemnation. Labeled as a ‘Red-tie Tory’ by his critics to the left, they rapidly drew reference to Sir Keir’s knighthood and the supposed privilege inherent to it. These were the same people baying for his resignation at a Conference fringe event led by Richard Burgon, Lloyd Russel-Moyle and Zarah Sultana, all Corbynite partisans. In a piece for the Church Times, Starmer spoke of ‘Christian values’; ‘buzz-words straight from the Tory playbook’ according to one twitter user.

Nonetheless, these are values that Starmer needs to appeal to, if he wishes to win back red wall voters. Similarly, Starmer taking the knee for the controversial BLM movement was met with wide criticism from those same exact voters. We all know that a country proud of itself isn’t mutually exclusive to one committed to social justice. The England football team have been taking enormous steps to show that, greatly increasing support for taking the knee, but politicians flitting so quickly between token gestures of patriotism and talking about real social issues only makes both seem disingenuous. Keir Starmer is a fundamentally capable MP, was a more than capable lawyer, but still has come to be caricatured as a ‘woke elite’ by the right, and an ‘establishment crony’ by the far-left. He must, somehow, appeal to the Labour Party’s socialist, liberal and conservative traditions, as well as to the wider public, whilst still staying true to himself. What Starmer risks doing is trying to be too many different things, do too much, for a far too wide range of people.

The answer? Focus on the current government’s failings and lay out a sensible, centre-left alternative; move away from talk of a ‘culture war’ and focus on the real economic difference Labour could make for millions of families. By and large, the average Brit cares less about the future James Bond’s gender and more about whether they can put food on their table. Whilst identity politics lately seem to loom over everything, Starmer is making some progress in regards to the latter. The ‘new deal for working people’ proposes statutory sick pay, raising minimum wage to £10 an hour, a ‘buy British’ plan for public contracts, higher taxes for multinationals, outlawing fire and rehire and strengthening trade unions. There are also plans to reverse the Universal Credit cuts before replacing the system with one ‘better’. This definitely isn’t the Blairism that many on the Party’s left have denounced, but Keir Starmer’s conversations with Peter Mandelson are certainly reflected in the improvement in Labour’s policy communication.

Will Keir Starmer succeed? I think we’ll have to wait to really know. Boris Johnson’s catastrophic early handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit proved an easy target for Labour to rally against, but there was a real slump in the polls for Starmer throughout 2021, up until Conference. It is all well and good pointing to the Tory bogeymen and scapegoats, but it remains to be seen how well Labour can patch up its divisions before the next election, and crucially deliver a manifesto reflecting the country’s needs. About a year ago, the Financial Times ran a piece saying that though Starmer was ‘credible opposition’, what Labour needed to offer was a ‘credible alternative’.

Whilst his movements against Militant were widely praised by Labour moderates of the 1980s and ‘90s, Neil Kinnock lost both general elections he contested as leader of the Labour Party. For all those who think Britain deserves a change – left, right and centre – let’s hope Keir Starmer doesn’t repeat that feat.

Photo: Official portrait of Keir Starmer, June 2017 by Chris McAndrew // CC BY 3.0

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