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  1. The Politics Interview
15 September 2021updated 16 Sep 2021 10:18am

Can Keir Starmer break Labour’s losing streak?

Labour’s leader on how to overcome defeat, division and Boris Johnson.

By Stephen Bush

On a cool summer’s day in August, I met Keir Starmer for the first of several conversations about his leadership and Labour’s future. We were in Swindon, where Labour has been losing both seats, North and South, since 2010. As such, the town was an inevitable staging post on Starmer’s summer tour, in which the opposition leader visited constituencies that Labour has lost – some as recently as 2019, others for four successive elections.

It seemed like a critical moment: any feelgood factor that had accompanied the initial phase of Starmer’s leadership had faded, while two damaging by-elections and a chaotic shadow cabinet reshuffle had put his standing within the party into question. One Labour MP, on learning where I was going, laughed and said, “Oh, you’re joining him on the self-criticism tour.”

Was this masochism, or a smart way of reconnecting after months of pandemic politics? In July Starmer had promised to “sweat blood over… months and years” to earn the trust of former Labour voters. And now here he was, at a community-run garden project in Swindon town centre. Starmer sat in a circle with a dozen people, ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties, as they talked about the NHS and the faults of the Labour Party. The garden, they told Starmer, had helped them recover from personal crises. There was a tranquil, somewhat mystical air to proceedings, as if we were in a place of worship, and, for the most part, Starmer listened in respectful silence. But when someone criticised Labour for the town’s difficulties over the past ten years, he interjected to point out that, while there was much to criticise about his party, it had been in opposition for a decade and could not be blamed in this instance. The group seemed impressed – expecting, perhaps, as I had, that he would simply nod and smile as politicians tend to (and as Starmer himself did during his televised visit to Blackpool). “It’s not a listening tour, it’s a conversation,” the Labour leader explained to me later. “All of this is geared to building the ideas for the next general election.”

From the community garden we drove to the Dorcan Academy, where students were receiving their GCSE results. Starmer asked them how they had coped with the uncertainty over the way their grades would be awarded, and with lockdown more broadly. When one student told Starmer he wanted to be a policeman, the Labour leader introduced him to the officer who had been assigned to protect him, who chatted affably to the pupil while keeping one eye on Starmer and another on the school entrance. Like most politicians, Starmer visibly relished being able to do politics “properly” again.

As we left, he stopped to do a piece to camera for the BBC’s local news programme. Perhaps out of politeness, the presenter started to introduce the segment with a series of gentle euphemisms, until Starmer interjected to describe the purpose of his visit more bluntly: “It’s some people who used to vote for us, and now they don’t.”

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“People who used to vote for us, and now they don’t”: that was the preoccupation of Starmer’s 2020 leadership pitch, which promised Labour members they could have it both ways – the radicalism of the Corbyn years combined with the election-winning focus of the 1990s and 2000s. A year on, he stands accused of delivering on neither front.

[See also: The Tories’ regressive social care plan gives Labour the space for a radical alternative]

Yet Starmer appeared unworried. In Swindon he told me he saw new opportunities for Labour – and for him as leader. “I think politically, if this is the beginning of the end of the worst of the pandemic, the political space is open at long last.”

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What will he do with it? “We can start answering the question, ‘Well, what comes next after the pandemic?’ How do we build a better Britain coming out of this, and how do we meet the climate crisis at the same time? They’re the two single most important things for the next decade.” These two themes will be at the centre of his Labour conference speech on 29 September, which, Starmer says (without giving any detail), will involve “some pretty bold thinking”.

But the party’s divisions are deep and recent, with its response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into anti-Semitism ongoing, as well as the fallout from changes to the shadow cabinet this summer. Len McCluskey, the former general secretary of Unite, is highly critical of Starmer in his forthcoming autobiography, predicting that he will lead Labour to defeat (“He’s wrong,” is Starmer’s terse response) and claiming that Starmer agreed a deal to readmit Jeremy Corbyn, currently suspended from the parliamentary party, in the event of an apology, only to back out of it. (Starmer declined to comment, but a Labour source told me: “What Len McCluskey’s account shows is that not even he could persuade Jeremy Corbyn to apologise [for] or retract” the comments he made after the EHRC report was published, when he suggested that the scale of the party’s anti-Semitism problem had been overstated by opponents of his leadership.) There is a possibility that the party conference will collapse into acrimony and infighting.

“There’s a lot of noise,” Starmer concedes. “But actually, the majority of members I think just want to see a Labour victory. Everybody’s in it because we want to change things, and you don’t change things in opposition. The battles we’ve had in the Labour Party in the last 18 months have pretty well all been about anti-Semitism, so they’re set up or described as a left-right-centre battle: they’re not. I said I was going to tackle anti-Semitism, and we’ve had to take action. Some people have perceived that as an attack on the left of the Labour Party. It isn’t – but you can’t have a united Labour Party if you’ve got anti-Semitism there.”

No one could describe Keir Starmer as a product of privilege. His father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse; he was the first person in his family to graduate from university, from Leeds and then from Oxford. But he is, unquestionably, the scion of the London Labour Party’s establishment, and of the so-called soft left in particular. When the former director of public prosecutions exchanged a long career in the law to run for selection in the safe seat of Holborn and St Pancras in 2014, he was endorsed by, among others, Ken Livingstone, Neil Kinnock and David Miliband.

Had Ed Miliband entered Downing Street, Starmer was earmarked as the leading candidate for the role of attorney general. But instead of going straight into the cabinet, five years in opposition followed for Starmer, before a leadership election of his own. He won in the first round, defeating Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite continuity candidate, and Lisa Nandy, the only candidate explicitly seeking a break with the recent past. Unlike Ed Miliband, Starmer was the preferred choice of Labour members. Unlike Corbyn, he was also the preferred choice of Labour MPs.

Eighteen months on, Starmer is having to explain not only how he plans to break Labour’s losing streak, but his own difficulties with a worried party and fractious media. When I ask him why he has not made more headway, his argument is simple: the pandemic has “dominated the topics we can talk about, because most people have been concerned with, ‘Am I or my family going to get coronavirus, or at least how do I not get it?’ And secondly, ‘Am I going to keep my job, am I going to lose my job?’ Almost everything else has been secondary.”

Keir Starmer, photographed at his office in Westminster for the New Statesman
by Kalpesh Lathigra

Given this need for stability in uncertain times, why conduct a controversial reshuffle after Labour’s disastrous local elections in May? Starmer moved Angela Rayner from the position of party chair and campaigns coordinator to shadow Michael Gove, and Anneliese Dodds from the role of shadow chancellor to that of party chair. Starmer’s decision to move Rayner was seen as an attempt to apportion blame for the elections, in which Labour was heavily repudiated – particularly in the Hartlepool by-election, where the Conservatives triumphed. 

Shouldn’t his shadow ministers have been given longer in post? Starmer reminds me that it wasn’t “just the shadow cabinet” who lost their jobs: this summer several of his longest-serving aides departed, including his former communications director Ben Nunn – something that his close allies say hurt Starmer personally. While some were happy to move on, others were forced out in order to keep the peace. The changes to his shadow cabinet and office, Starmer says, lapsing into corporate-speak, were the product of “a lot of political analysis” about where Labour was after 2019, and where the Conservative government might move next. “I felt very strongly that we needed to ensure the party was election-ready by May 2023. That required us to make some changes.” In other words, the reshuffle wasn’t about underperforming frontbenchers, but about political disagreements.

[See also: Why hasn’t Keir Starmer told us where Labour stands on social care?]

The perception that he plans to shift the party to the right was one aspect of the row between allies of Starmer and of his deputy. How are relations with Rayner now? “We talk all the time and it’s very good,” Starmer said when we spoke in mid-September. “There was never a personal issue between me and Ange, and she’s obviously done a really good job over the summer, leading for us on workers’ rights.” 

So what caused the widely held view that the two were at odds? “I think that when you want to win as much as I do and as much as Ange does, losing, as we did in Hartlepool, just hits you really hard. But on a personal level, Ange and I have got on very well for years, still do. We talk regularly, have drinks regularly and lunch regularly, so in that sense, it’s as it ever was.” In that sense, perhaps: but relations between Starmer and Rayner’s staff soured decisively the night of the reshuffle, and these tensions are far from eased.

What sort of prime minister does Keir Starmer want to be? In Swindon, I got a sense of his priorities and principles. During his first year in office, the party announced policy at a frightening rate. Not counting coronavirus-related announcements, such as Starmer’s call for an October 2020 “circuit-breaker” lockdown, Labour unveiled a staggering 200 policies. But because they often lacked either space to breathe or an overarching rationale, they passed most people by.

Starmer is now determined to do politics at his own pace, though some of his allies fear this is an over-correction. “He now has far better people around him,” one shadow cabinet minister told me. “We’ve learned a useful lesson about announcing policies more than once. Now we perhaps need to learn a useful lesson about announcing some policies at all.”

When we met in Swindon, Starmer was preoccupied with the UK’s mental health and keen to tell me how this issue had dominated conversations on his summer tour. He was also focused on the way public services are run, frequently pointing out how many problems could be better tackled, and at a lower cost, through earlier intervention.

“We need to think again about public services,” he told me over a lunch of baked potato (him: Starmer is a committed vegetarian) and bacon sandwich (me: I am a rubbish Jew). “I mean, I ran a public service for five years. I know what it means to take cuts. But simply putting money into the silos we’ve got – which we need to do – won’t deliver what we need, because they need to be preventative.” So yes, the Tory cuts need to be reversed, but Labour also needs to think about spending money in different ways, particularly with early intervention – on initiatives such as community gardens, for instance.

[See also: Labour’s lost future: the inside story of a 20-year collapse]

As he often does, Starmer reaches back to his pre-politics career, adding: “I’ve not seen many cases in our criminal courts that wouldn’t necessarily have been there, either for the defendant or the victim, if there’d been a bit of intervention beforehand.”

When Starmer talks about public service reform, he can sound like Tony Blair. When he talks about the need to put more money into local authorities and existing public services, he sounds more like Corbyn. There are people who would like him to be both – but who is he more like? 

It’s not a question Starmer likes. “People often ask me, ‘Well, are you more like this previous leader, that previous leader?’” he sighs. “Context is everything: the context now is very different to the context it was in ’97, the context it was in the 1960s, the context it was in ’45 – which are the only times we’ve actually won [a majority]!”

Still, the similarities between Starmer and Ed Miliband – the man who led Labour in the election in which Starmer became an MP – are impossible to ignore. It was Miliband who in 2012 described mental health as “the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age”, and who was fond of saying that, on the climate crisis, Britain faced a choice between being “the first generation to get it or the last generation not to”. When Starmer derides the “short-termism” of much of British capitalism, he again sounds like Ed Miliband.

Miliband’s leadership ended in electoral defeat. What makes Starmer think his won’t? “The political situation we are in now, and what needs to change in 2021 – that is different to 2015,” he says. “Ed was facing a different context: it was in the middle of austerity. That was the dominant issue in 2015, and there’s no debate now that austerity is the way forward.” Starmer, incidentally, argues that the Conservatives are still pursuing austerity – only this time with further cuts hidden beneath statements about more money for the core NHS, while local authority budgets shrink.

Starmer warms to his theme: the differences between 2021 and 2015. The challenge of the climate crisis is “really stark”, he says. “We’ve had a decade which should have been about rebuilding after the global recession, but ended up being a completely wasted decade where we went backwards, with almost every measurable type of inequality getting worse. For the first time in 100 years, life expectancy itself has flattened, and then there are all the disparities according to disadvantage. Austerity didn’t even succeed on its own terms, because productivity, investment, research and development – [it’s all] hopeless at the end of that decade.” Boris Johnson, he says, is “forever trying to unhook himself” from this decade of austerity, and part of the job of opposition is not to let him do that.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle: who’s in and who’s out?]

This argument sounds an awful lot like the theory that drives Ed Miliband’s critics on the right of the party to distraction: that Miliband was not wrong about how to lead Labour back into office, but was simply ahead of his time. If Starmer merely repeats similar themes with, as one MP complained to me, “a stronger chin and a more impressive backstory”, they believe he will also lead the party to defeat.

In rhetoric, at least, Johnson’s government can also sound Milibandite on a range of issues, whether on the need to rebalance the economy away from London or in setting ambitious green targets. Isn’t Johnson saying a lot of the same things, I begin to ask. “He’s doing sod-all about it!” Starmer interjects. “I mean, absolutely sod-all! Sorry to put it in such blunt terms. We have a cabaret of soundbites, and the moment you look behind it, there’s nothing there. We had that with levelling up: look behind it, nothing there.”

Look behind it, nothing there. That’s the criticism that an increasingly fractious left has of Starmer, who ran promising to keep Labour united, and who has bided his time over setting out a clear vision. What does he stand for?

Starmer has often seemed more focused on scoring points off a Prime Minister he dislikes, and less on a strategic attack of the government as a whole. Certainly, he would admit to deep frustration over what he sees as Johnson’s lack of substance. When we speak again, shortly after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, he highlights the way it reveals the Prime Minister “didn’t have any real influence, and that’s not just because the US were leading in Afghanistan. It’s because of a lack of trust in him. You know, the cuts to foreign aid, the breaching of international law, and his conduct when he was foreign secretary means that he isn’t trusted on the international stage. And you can say, ‘Well, domestically he’s not really trusted,’ and people tell me that’s priced in! Well, when you lose trust on the international stage, it means you lose influence.”

By the time of our final conversation in September, a YouGov poll had put the Labour Party ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since January, on 35 per cent to 33 per cent. The mood had shifted slightly. Johnson had announced his tax rise to pay for social care, a manifesto U-turn which evidently pleased Starmer: “They cannot claim to be the party of low tax, so the weapon that they like to use at elections, it’s self-destructed.” He counted it a success that Labour had so far resisted pressure to set out its position on social care, giving the party space to make policy at a time of its own choosing.

The issue is bigger than how we pay for care, Starmer says. Again, he argues that we need to think more in terms of prevention, and establish the idea that people should be able to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. “Of course, there’s an issue with people having to sell their homes, but that is only one part of the problem,” he says. “A huge part is the workforce: there are huge turnover problems and there are many, many vacancies, because the pay and conditions are so bad.” At the Commons debate following Johnson’s confirmation of the tax rise, Starmer said that his sister Katherine was “a poorly paid care-worker, so I know this first-hand”.

[See also: The Tories airbrush Gordon Brown from history]

The number of Labour politicians who are frustrated by what they see as Johnson’s laziness and lack of principles is long – and the number of Labour politicians who have stopped him is, for the moment, zero. What makes Starmer think he can beat Johnson? He argues that the Prime Minister’s approach has raised expectations his government cannot meet: but that Labour, if it gets it right, can.

As he enters a political conference season that will surely define his leadership as a success or a failure, the most striking thing about Starmer is his sense of certainty. “What I spend my time thinking about,” he tells me, “is, what are the screaming injustices that are right here in front of us now, and how do we fix them?” He presents himself as more pragmatist than performer. “This is the frustration I have when people talk about ‘passion’ in politics. You can either walk round a problem and scream about it for hours on end – or you can say, what are you going to do to fix it?’ I’m much more interested in the second.” Starmer’s allies now speak of a leader who has found himself again and is ready for the challenges ahead. But is that confidence well-founded?

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor