Alex Salmond with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon last year. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Miliband v Miliband, Big Alex at Westminster and the rise of quiet conservatism

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley gives his election post-mortem.

On the morning of 12 May I visited Portcullis House in Westminster to see who might be around. The first MP I met was none other than a very cheerful Alex Salmond, who had just discovered that his new office overlooked the Treasury: “I can keep an eye on them from there.” He said that he would naturally have preferred a “balanced parliament – as you would”. And he asked for 50 copies of our recent issue in which, in one of David Young’s cover illustrations, he was featured alongside Nicola Sturgeon as they rode the Flying Scotsman south. The train was hurtling towards Ed Miliband and David Cameron, both prostrate and tied to the track, resigned to their fate.

Cover image by David Young.



A few of our readers complained we’d made the mistake of equating Scotland with the SNP. That wasn’t our intention. But whether Westminster likes it or not, the SNP has arrived en masse, the largest grouping of nationalist MPs in London since the early 20th century, when the Irish Parliamentary Party enabled Asquith’s reforming Liberal government to hold power after the ­December 1910 general election. Their presence adds a fascinating dimension to the new parliament and will be a daily rebuke to a shattered Labour. The wipeout of Labour in Scotland, though it was not unexpected, has left the party understandably traumatised. “We did everything we knew locally but the national wave was just too strong,” one defeated Scottish MP said to me.

In the SNP landslide Labour lost two of its most intelligent MPs – Douglas Alexander and Gregg McClymont – and, in Jim Murphy, one of its toughest street fighters. Murphy will continue for now as leader of Scottish Labour. He ought to ignore the bullying of the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, who has called for his resignation and gives the impression of preferring the futilities of opposition to power.

The forces powering Scottish nationalism are varied – deindustrialisation, the fracturing of cross-border class ­solidarity, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of identity politics, and so on. Yet, in spite of all this, as I have written before, the Labour leadership in London was complacent about the events unfolding in Scotland and was unable to respond until it was too late.

Perhaps arrogance and a sense of entitlement blinded Labour to the seriousness of the nationalist surge. I’m a frequent visitor – my oldest friend is an academic at Glasgow University – and it was obvious to me, even as an Englishman, that Labour was destined to lose the 2011 Scottish election – as it did, badly, creating the circumstances in which an independence referendum could be held. There was little Labour could do to resist the torrential surge in support for the SNP in 2015; there was much it could and should have done to thwart the nationalist victory in 2011.

Now activists to whom I have spoken are seriously asking if Labour can ever win again in Scotland. Back in the 1980s when the party was weak it was still strong in Scotland. Today it faces a dual challenge: of trying to win in Scotland, where the SNP has positioned itself to the left and campaigned as an anti-austerity party, as well as south of the Severn-Wash line where, excluding London, it holds only 11 of 197 seats. Deep is the grave in which . . .



The New York-resident David Miliband has moved quickly to say what his younger brother got wrong – he mentioned “aspiration and inclusion” and said that Ed had given the impression the party was going “backwards” under him. When asked by a BBC interviewer about their relationship, David said, his eyes cold and dark, that they “were in touch”, no more or less than that.

Also on Tuesday David tweeted a link to a column by the New York Times writer David Brooks, the paper’s resident conservative. Brooks is interested in ideas and social trends, and uses data intelligently to support his arguments. Like many conservatives, he was intrigued by the Tory election victory and asked why after the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession – especially considering the “unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration” – the world had not turned left. Ed Miliband wagered his entire leadership and election strategy on a belief – and it was no more than this – that the electorate was yearning for a more egalitarian society and a return to socialism. Voters were certainly disturbed by widening inequality but just as important were a desire for fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets.

Yet, according to Brooks, as well as people’s scepticism about the left, “there are a few things centre-right parties have done successfully”. They have championed “national identity”, they have been “basically sensible on fiscal policy” and they have not “overread their mandate”. He went on:

Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labour markets as a path to prosperity.

So if, as Brooks suggests, we are entering a new era of pragmatic conservative rule how should Labour respond, if it is not to be locked out of power for the next decade?

So far, the leadership contenders putting themselves about in the aftermath of defeat have been muttering about “aspiration”, as if the act of articulation were simultaneously an act of redefinition – and of absolution. Meanwhile, in other news, Ed Miliband has gone on holiday to Ibiza.


Now read Jason Cowley's pre-election piece on "white van conservatism" and the battle for the soul of Essex Man

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage