When Britain awoke on 11 December 2019, it was greeted by a 78-seat Conservative majority and the worst result for Labour since 1935. The once-moderate party of Clement Attlee with the welfare state and NATO, Harold Wilson with comprehensive education and equal pay, and Tony Blair with the minimum wage and human rights, had been taken over by its fringe and dragged away from the average voter.
Their philosophy of greed and envy towards wealth and success was rejected by the traditional, post-industrial working classes, most notably those in Labour’s precious heartlands, such as the mining towns whose jobs were decimated in the 1980s by Toryism.
The immediate aftermath of the election was a precarious moment for Labour’s future. The advocates of Jeremy Corbyn and his policies claimed it was mainly down to Brexit, even though the evidence shows that both low-skilled, Leave-supporting and high-skilled, Remain-supporting areas became more Conservative, highlighting a shared opposition to his leadership.
In the leadership election, Keir Starmer had to walk on a tightrope between these two competing views within the party. His victory meant that Labour was saved from a double-figure defeat and now enjoys similar heights in the current polls. His caution brought Labour back from the brink.
Starmer’s strategy has drawn resentment from those who previously wielded power. This has often focussed on the way in which he won the leadership, where he pledged to ‘retain the radicalism of the last four years’ – making 10 pledges very similar to Corbyn’s policies on nationalisation, tuition fees and tax rises.
His response is that his views have changed with the evidence: the economy is vastly different to the pre-pandemic context. Whether this is sufficient for someone who once called Corbyn a friend or not, his critics ignore the reasonable pledges he remains committed to like free social care, tackling climate change and restoring trade unions.
Corbyn was unsuitable for the role of prime minister, a view vindicated by his latest interview where he suggested ending military aid for Ukraine. The party that helped create NATO cannot be home to modern-day appeasement. If – as Starmer’s allies claim – they served under Corbyn to stop the party being permanently taken over, I am willing to accept this.
As a brilliant recent article outlines, Liz Truss as Prime Minister would preside over plans rejected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2-3% public sector pay increases far below inflation, and a 6.6 million NHS backlog. If defeating that requires changing some principles, is that so terrible?
Sitting at the heart of the vicious opposition to Starmer is the moment he showed real leadership, removing Corbyn’s whip after he claimed the anti-Semitism scandal was ‘dramatically overstated’. The reality is that this was no easy decision, and for somebody often perceived as boring or hesitant, has caused him real difficulty.
Similarly, his decision to initially support the government on the pandemic and slowly build his case seemed unwise during the lows of last summer. Now, having forced Boris Johnson’s resignation over rule-breaking, and promising to resign if found guilty himself yet being proven innocent, his grasp of strategy should not remain in doubt.
Despite this, Labour have struggled to take advantage of the Conservatives’ moment of greatest weakness. While Starmer and Rachel Reeves have done well in some respects – decrying Truss’ ‘magic money tree’ was a brilliant way of turning the tables – there still remains a whiff of inner turmoil and unelectability.
There has been a dam of indiscipline in the parliamentary party, with regular briefings against different camps, and with the public sector strikes it has burst. Starmer is cutting through to voters with his call for growth after 12 years of stagnation and policies are now forming, so he should not be as reluctant to defend workers in disputes.
I think it is clear that Starmer is the best – and only – person who can bring Labour into government. He is competent, compassionate, and believable. You can picture him waving in front of the doors of 10 Downing Street. But saying what he was against did not get Neil Kinnock into government against John Major in 1992.
It is no longer enough for Starmer to define himself by what he is against – but what he is for. For Blair in 1997, it was his pledges on the quintuple of smaller class sizes, faster sentencing, lower NHS waiting times, welfare-to-work, and low taxes. Starmer must find his own clear, concise narrative for the kind of country Labour would like to build.
Blair’s ‘third way’ philosophy was about using the state to guide the knowledge-driven economy in partnership with businesses. While the Conservatives have underinvested in skills, the far greater problem today is that many places – like the old mining towns – do not have good-quality, high-paid jobs to keep their young people.
There is now much stronger evidence in favour of a bigger ‘levelling up’ agenda than either Ed Miliband or Corbyn had as leader. This intellectual movement has brought Labour into power in Germany and Australia. By being clear about which of his predecessor’s ideas he still believes, Starmer can bring his party together and win here.