No exit: Ed Miliband waits to enter the hall to address supporters in London on 13 November. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The choice before Labour

Ed Miliband’s big conundrum. 

The febrile events of the past week at Westminster have wounded Ed Miliband deeply but not fatally. The Labour Party is very reluctant to topple its leaders, even when it knows it is destined to lose a general election, as it was under Michael Foot in 1983 and Gordon Brown in 2010 but is not in the present circumstances. Yet so fragile is the confidence of Labour MPs and so jittery is their general mood that one issue of the New Statesman seemed to shake the very foundations of the party and precipitated a leadership crisis.

It is nonsense to suggest that the Labour leader is a victim of a conspiracy led by the right-wing press. It is true that much of the press despises him and the Labour Party; but as our political editor, George Eaton, reported in last week’s issue, many Labour MPs have lost confidence in their leader. This fuelled the feverish speculation about Guy Fawkes Night plots and mysterious letters. Had they not been briefing, there would have been no crisis.

Labour MPs accept that there is no obvious successor to Mr Miliband. Nor is there anyone waiting and willing to strike. Alan Johnson, popular and such a gifted communicator, does not seek the highest office. David Miliband has left the House of Commons and is in exile over the water in New York. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are playing a longer game. And it seems too early for the leaders of the gifted generation who entered the House in 2010 – Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves. The party accepts that it has no alternative but to fall in behind Mr Miliband and fight the election with him as the figurehead of a movement of progressive reform.

Mr Miliband is a good and honourable man but many of his MPs believe that he is floundering. Yet they also understand how vital it is that Labour wins next May’s general election. If the Tories win or were to continue in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the consequences could be lethal for the British Union and for UK membership of the European Union. The poorest would suffer most. Food banks would proliferate. The ethos of public service would be further eroded. The marketisation of our lives and society would continue apace.

The ludicrous events in the Commons over the European Arrest Warrant demonstrated again the ineptitude of David Cameron’s government. The Tories are disunited and expected to lose the Rochester and Strood by-election to the UK Independence Party on 20 November. Nigel Farage’s party has divided the right as the left was divided by the split in the Labour Party and the creation of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s, clearing the ground for Margaret Thatcher to carry out her grand counter-revolution. Support for the Liberal Democrats has collapsed. However, in such propitious circumstances, Labour is going backwards. In its northern English heartlands and in Scotland, many of its core supporters are giving up on the party. Or they are simply refusing to vote. Many progressives now prefer the Greens, with their robust anti-austerity message.

Mr Farage, the Ukip leader, in his interview with Jason Cowley on page 22, says: “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe . . . Increasingly what we’re finding is the people that come from the Labour side . . . don’t think anyone’s on their side.”

Mr Miliband challenged and defeated his elder brother, David, for the leadership because he believed only he could effect the change that Britain needed. He is nothing if not resilient and has that little chip of ice in the heart that characterises all politicians of serious ambition. Indeed, it is a sense of destiny that sustains him even now, in his darkest hours, as many despair of him.

Yet he cannot continue to bear so much of the burden alone. Labour needs to harness the talents and skills of its frontbenchers, including the admirable Jon Cruddas, Mr Burnham, Mr Umunna and Ms Cooper, as part of a more inclusive, team-based approach. In contrast to the Tories, who have failed to shed their image as the party of the rich, Labour’s brand remains strong and polls show that its progressive policies – higher NHS spending, wealth taxes, mass housebuilding and an increased minimum wage – have broad appeal.

Having lost so much ground in spite of this, the party needs urgently to improve if it is to convince voters that it represents a credible alternative government. A defeat to an administration that has combined incompetence with callousness like few others is one that its supporters cannot afford and would not forgive. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Keir Starmer MP: Choosing ideological purity before power is a dereliction of duty

The former director of public prosecutions believes getting involved with Brexit negotiations is crucial. 

 

Three weeks after Brexit, Keir Starmer held a public meeting in his London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. “We had hundreds turning up,” he remembered. “The town hall was absolutely packed - it was standing room only and we had to turn people away. We haven’t had a public meeting of that size for some time.”

When it comes to Brexit, Starmer is an obvious Labour asset. Director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, he has the legal background to properly scrutinise an EU deal. His time spent as a shadow immigration minister means he understands some of the thorniest problems facing negotiators.

But instead, the MP finds himself on the shadow back benches.

“My decision to resign was driven by Jeremy’s decision on the referendum,” he told The Staggers. “I was particularly troubled by his suggestion that we should invoke Article 50 straight away, and start the exit process [Corbyn has since backtracked on this suggestion]. 

“That is not for me a question of left-right politics. When he said that, I felt he was in fundamentally a different place from me in terms of how we fight for the future of our country.”

Starmer is not a man to enjoy life in opposition, and he has little time for airy promises. “Jeremy talks of dealing with inequality and housing projects, and a fairer society - all of which I would agree,” he said. “What I haven’t seen is the emergence of detailed policy that would get us to these places.”

He also gives purists in the party short shrift. “I would reject wholeheartedly any notion of a Labour Party that is not committed to returning to power at the first opportunity,” he said. “Of course that needs to be principled power. But standing on the sidelines looking for the purest ideology is a dereliction of the duty for any Labour member.”

Starmer believes Labour should be joining Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in trying to influence Brexit negotiations. He sees the time before invoking Article 50, the EU exit button, as crucial. 

Nevertheless, the man named after the Scottish founder of Labour, Keir Hardie, is pessimistic about the future of the UK. 

“It is going to be increasingly difficult to resist a further referendum in Scotland,” he said. “It will be increasingly difficult to keep Scotland as a part of the UK. I hope that doesn’t happen, but everyone knows David Cameron has put that at risk.”

Starmer may be a London MP, but he follows events in the rest of the country closely. While still in his shadow cabinet post, he embarked on a countrywide tour to learn more about attitudes to immigration.  

He condemns the increase in racist attacks post-Brexit as “despicable”, but insists there is “a world of difference” between these and genuine concerns about resources. “If you lose your job because there has been an influx of labour from another country, that is a legitimate cause for concern.”

He is equally scathing about the Government’s net migration cap. “If immigration is simply seen as a numbers game, nobody will ever win that debate,” he said. “The question should be: what is it we want to achieve?

“What do we expect of those who are arriving? What is the basic deal?”

In January, Starmer visited the informal camps in Calais and Dunkirk. “What I saw in Calais was appalling,” he said. “It is an hour from London. 

“To see families and children in freezing, squalid conditions without any real hope of a positive outcome was enough to make anybody think: ‘This is not the way to solve the refugee crisis.’”

The new PM, Theresa May, built her reputation on a rigid asylum policy, but Starmer believes a strong opposition can still force change. “If you take the Syrian resettlement scheme, that started life as a scheme for victims of sexual violence,” he said. “When pushed, it became a scheme for 20,000 Syrians but not if they reached Europe. When pushed, the Government accepted the case for some unaccompanied children in Europe to come to this country. 

“Labour needs to keep pushing.”

For now, though, Labour is divided. Starmer has been tipped as a future leader before, in 2015, but declined to run because of a lack of political experience. One year and a Brexit on, he certainly has some of that under his belt. But he rules himself out of the current leadership challenge: “I am 100 per cent behind Owen.” What will he do if Jeremy Corbyn wins? “Let’s cross each bridge when we come to it.”

Starmer is clear, though, that Labour can only win an election if it comes up with a more ambitious project, an economy with purpose. And the Brexit negotiations provide an opportunity. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said. “Do we simply want a series of trade agreements, the more the merrier? Or do we want deals that achieve certain ends? It is a moment to recast the future.”