The charge of timidity is frequently made against Keir Starmer. He does not appear to be, by nature, a naturally confrontational person. He does not rush to judgement and seeks to avoid boxing himself in. This may be as a consequence of a desire to weigh up the evidence in a considered manner or it may be that he fears that clear positions are bound to upset people which he does not want to do. He is cautious and risk averse.
Starmer’s handling of Covid-19 is an illustration. He recognised that further restrictions were necessary in September and called for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown. If anything, this was too mild a response (the experience in Wales suggested that a circuit breaker provided only temporary respite). On the Christmas easing, he raised objections but late in the day. On closing schools in January, he advocated this but only at the point at which it was inevitable that the government would follow suit.
The charge of “Captain Hindsight” is unfair – particularly over the situation in September – but the fear of being a Christmas Grinch or being seen as an enthusiast for the closing of schools meant that he did not risk making his calls earlier. His judgement was better than that of the Prime Minister but he lacked the courage of his convictions to truly take the lead.
These episodes are worth recalling in the context of two issues that have been prominent at the Labour Party conference, where there has been a conflict between Starmer’s caution and his convictions.
The first is party management. The left have spent the week complaining that focusing on various internal rule changes was a distraction. It is true that these are not issues at the forefront of the minds of voters but, to the extent that these rule changes can be seen as “taking on the left”, they are essential.
For the first few days of the conference, the Labour leadership appeared to duck the confrontation and waffled about reconnecting with the trade unions but the noisy backlash from the left did the job for Starmer. They heckled him; the majority applauded him vigorously in response. This was not quite a Neil Kinnock in 1985 moment but it was a start. The far left has not yet been vanquished but it is losing.
The second issue is Brexit. Starmer’s approach since winning the leadership has been to say as little about the subject as possible but, in the light of the fuel shortages, the issue has returned to prominence.
It is not all about Brexit but public confidence in the robustness of our supply chains is diminished in large part because of our leaving the EU and the ending of freedom of movement. If tighter immigration restrictions were not part of the problem (as some Brexiteers argue), it is hard to explain why the government’s response is, in part, to loosen existing immigration rules, albeit in a way (three-month visas for 5,000 HGV drivers) that is likely to be ineffective.
The Starmer line that it is a “failure of planning” is carefully calibrated not to offend Leave voters or enable the government to accuse Labour of wanting to reverse Brexit. It is not clear, however, precisely what plan could have been followed that would have prevented significant labour shortages in a range of sectors, short of a lengthy transition before ending freedom of movement.
One could describe this as strategic discipline. As someone who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, blocked a Brexit deal that ended freedom of movement in 2019, who campaigned for a second referendum at the last general election and fought the Labour leadership on a platform of maintaining freedom of movement in 2020, Starmer must be struggling to suppress the desire to say “I told you so”. Obviously, that would be the wrong tone but the fear of upsetting Red Wall Leave voters means that his criticisms of the government lack clarity and directness.
His conference speech briefly touched on our departure from the EU, describing it as “a botched Brexit” and stating that “it is not enough to Get Brexit Done, you need a plan to Make Brexit Work”. What that plan might be was less clear in his speech other than a series of policies – “investing in our people and our places”, “deploy technology cleverly” and “build affordable homes” – that has little to do with Brexit.
Just as Starmer belatedly concluded that a confrontation with the left was inevitable, he will eventually have to take on the hard Brexiteers. He might want to avoid being accused of wanting to reverse Brexit but Boris Johnson will make that charge in any event. Come the next general election, the flaws in Brexit will be apparent to Brexit-sceptics while Johnson will still appeal to Brexit-enthusiasts. Brexit will not be behind us and Labour needs something coherent and powerful to say.
There is a case for waiting, for allowing the public to come to its own conclusions about Brexit and only then make the argument. But a prime minister should be able to lead public opinion, to be prepared to provoke disagreement and to take calculated risks in the national interest. Starmer was too cautious to do that on Covid-19, but he has started to do it in the case of the far left. He must also show his leadership credentials on Brexit.