The possibility that Keir Starmer’s gamble with resignation might go wrong has started the speculation of who might lead Labour next. In all probability no vacancy will arise and the chatter is even more idle than usual. But the discussion has a purpose nonetheless, in that it sheds light on the state of play in the always fractious politics of the Labour Party.
In a portrait by Jim Pickard and George Parker in this week’s edition of the Financial Times magazine, an anonymous left-wing voice offers the all-purpose insult that a Wes Streeting leadership would entail a “return to full Blairism”. It is always remarkable to witness a party that takes the name of its only electoral winner in almost half a century and turns it into a term of abuse. Three large victories – nobody would ever want to reprise any of that, would they?
The term “Blairite” really ought to be retired from active service. It has no meaning except to stand in for two thought-clichés. The first, and most common, thought-cliché is “Blairite” as a surrogate term of abuse denoting all that is said to be wrong in the world, up to and very definitely including the war in Iraq that George W Bush cannot help referring to. In this incarnation the “Blairite” believes everything that the critic regards as nefarious. It is as much a critique of domestic policy and the use of the private sector in public services as it is a denunciation of foreign policy errors.
The second thought-cliché is just as damaging in its way because it reduces the term “Blairite” to the empty claim that victory is better than defeat. The hidden claim here is that “Blairism” means nothing, and never meant anything, other than victory. Victory without purpose. Victory no matter how hard and long the road may be. To label someone as “Blairite” is not to invite an argument about how one body of ideas might be preferable, and more popular into the bargain, than another. It is simply to caricature one group as power-hungry, self-enriching, pointless beyond this apparently random capacity to win elections.
Wes Streeting is not “Blairite” in either of these two senses of the word because he’s far too bright to fall for any of this nonsense. He is admirably clear that the job of trashing Labour governments is very effectively carried out by the Conservative Party and they require no help from the opposition. But he also says the only thing that needs saying about the stupid label of “Blairite”: “There’s no future for the Labour Party if it’s locked in a battle between two competing visions of the past.” We learn next to nothing about what to do in 2024 from the pressing policy positions of 2007, let alone 1994. If there is one thing that can be said about Blairism without fear of contradiction, it is that it was always intently focused on the future. The founder of Blairism still is. When not even Tony Blair is a Blairite, you know that journalistic laziness has hit a low point.
There is also a laziness in reports of Streeting’s colourful and tough life so far. It is, indeed, intriguing and interesting, that he was brought up in a Stepney council flat, that his grandfather was an armed robber and that his grandmother shared a prison cell with Christine Keeler. He is a gay Anglican who recently and mercifully made a full recovery from a diagnosis of kidney cancer. The politics of Streeting’s forebears include picket-line grandmothers and a working-class Tory grandfather. Young Wes won a place at Cambridge and went on to become the president of the National Union of Students. There is, to be sure, a lot for a speechwriter to work with but political fortune is not written like destiny into a colourful biography. It is an insult to the experience of being diagnosed with cancer to suggest that this is a handy thing to happen for the shadow health secretary. I am reminded of Alan Johnson’s remark that he hadn’t lived a difficult life to supply a backstory for Labour politics.
In point of fact, Streeting will stand or fall on what he does and says. And the early signs are that he is quick and bold. His best moment as a politician so far was his answer when he was asked on TalkRadio: “Can a woman have a penis?” What Streeting said might seem obvious to anyone not versed in the passionate intricacies of Labour politics: “Men have penises, women have vaginas; here ends my biology lesson.” This was widely applauded as straight-talking common sense on an issue which divides Labour activists from the general public. In fact, it was carefully phrased to say nothing much while giving a sense of candour. It recalls a line from the novelist Julian Barnes in a report of a session Tony Blair once held with a band of business people: “He absolutely charmed them but he didn’t say a chipolata sausage.”
The most encouraging thing about Streeting, though, is that he is developing a policy direction. He has just visited Israel to see how technology can be deployed to improve care at lower cost, which sounds like a trip perfectly designed to annoy left-wing commentators. In fact, it’s a search for a better state, which has to be the quest of a clever Labour Party. This is, in the end, the big question for Streeting and it is not in his control. The big question is whether Labour is hungry for power or not. Blair took on Labour in 1994, 15 years into a spell of opposition. The party was desperate by then and ready for the medicine Blair was offering. Twelve years into its latest spell in exile, is the Labour Party yet hungry enough? Does it yet want anyone like Streeting? It should but it may not.