“What is broken can be repaired, what is ruined can be rebuilt.” Forty years or so of reporting politics has too often been 40 years of reporting failure and disillusion: of soaring words collapsing in a powdery rubble of policy; of eloquent, intelligent people letting everyone down. So I say this with due humility and the fear of committing a crime against journalism, but your reporter is feeling something ecstatic and unsettling: a prickle of hope.
Keir Starmer’s promise at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool – that his government would be a decade-long healer, moderniser and builder – would be, in most circumstances, laughably arrogant. After repeatedly warning his party not to take an election victory for granted, he is now openly talking about two? And yet so big is the job to be done, and so exhausted do the Conservatives look, that it almost feels plausible.
As I have used the word “feel” in two consecutive paragraphs, I should say that I also feel reporters owe their readers not only their curiosity and scepticism but also their own emotional engagement. Too often we pretend there is none. The Starmer pledges on housebuilding, on liveable new towns with real centres, on further devolution to cities and communities far from Westminster, are everything the New Statesman has been begging for – and more. Sometimes, friends, we need to take yes for an answer.
After Liverpool, a long and exhausting, perhaps year-long, political struggle will begin. If the Tory party can pull it off, the next general election won’t be general in the normal sense, but presidential – one import too far, perhaps, from US political culture.
We know about this, because Rishi Sunak made it so blatant in Manchester at the Conservative Party conference. As Prime Minister, he gets to set not just the date of the election but much of its shape and tone. He has concluded, reasonably, that in a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives, the Tories lose, and lose badly. The party’s record is indefensible.
So Sunak doesn’t try to defend it. He is distancing himself from the party of Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss as if he had been helicoptered in from the future; Sunak intends to go to the country as Myself Alone. He is the change Britain needs. He is the clean break with the Conservative years. Only one question matters: Sunak or Starmer?
The cheek, audacity, impertinence and so forth of all this, we can leave for others to say. In pursuit of his Rishi strategy, the Prime Minister was happy to starve every other cabinet minister from making any relevant announcements at the party conference. It was all “I” am cancelling this and “I” have decided that. Now, it wasn’t an impressive cabinet in the first place, but he diminished his colleagues to the point of humiliation.
Will this strategy fly? If one of its wings is the impossibility of giving a coherent defence of the past 13 years, the other is that Downing Street strategists have identified Starmer as their point of attack. They want to make this as brutally and crudely personal as it’s possible to be.
They are going through every decision he had anything to do with as director of public prosecutions – and, no doubt, plenty that he didn’t, for who knows what will stick? They are trying to tie him to every, most Corbyny thought Jeremy Corbyn has ever had. Keir is the man who doesn’t believe in Nato or our nuclear deterrent; Keir is the man who is untrustworthy on Israel and Jews; Keir is the man… But it’s all so silly I’m going to stop there.
None of this is radically new in British politics. Ask Neil Kinnock. Starmer doesn’t need to be defended by people like me. He knows who he is. He is a thoroughly normal, pragmatic, not very experienced but determined politician who has treated past embarrassments in his party with much more clarity and ruthlessness than Sunak ever has in his.
Yet by placing character and personality at the centre of the next parliamentary campaign, the Conservatives do us all a favour. As in the end character probably does matter now as much as, or more than, the details of policy.
It matters domestically when individuals or businesses wonder whether a government of builders is going to be knocked off course by some bad political weather. Starmer’s aides talk of him having the right temperament – he doesn’t flap, he doesn’t panic. He is focused and calm.
It matters when the first conflict of interest or domestic scandal hits a new Labour government – because it will – and the country is wondering how the premier will respond. Will he stick by his friends, or his principles? It matters even more in the tempest of foreign affairs. When Hamas attacks, what is the first instinct of the leader? What words does he reach for? Who does he call?
Imagine the turmoil in Liverpool right now, if Labour was still led by Corbyn. But this goes beyond the present catastrophe in the Middle East. If the war turns against Ukraine, how does the leader of Britain respond? If Donald Trump returns to the White House, nothing may matter more to us in Britain than the temperament of the leader in Downing Street.
Much as we may loathe presidentialism infecting a parliamentary system – hardly a new story – it does contain a truth. In normal electoral politics we pretend that the precise detail of tax policy, health reform or trade strategy is how we choose where to put our cross. And yet, really, we are choosing a person, with a temperament and an intellect, who will be forced to make hard, fast, difficult decisions in the whirlwind of the unexpected.
Character matters. Personality matters. Always has, always will. The stories of the Wilson, Thatcher and Blair governments are the stories of their leading characters unpacking themselves under the pressure of events. As in any tightly written play, politics accelerates the revelation of character. Personal flaws or strengths that may have been hidden for a full lifetime are suddenly put on public display.
So I don’t mind that the Labour conference handbook featured not “ordinary people” but a moody photo of Starmer putting on his best stern-but-fair, man-of-destiny expression. It’s mildly amusing but no worse than that.
It’s also clear that Labour intends to fight a policy-heavy, unpresidential campaign, if it possibly can. The plans on housing, on workers’ rights and on the green economy are already substantial. As the big-picture Starmer “missions” are squeezed and pummelled into specific policy offers, the shape of a bold manifesto is becoming visible.
Listen, for instance, to Angela Rayner: “We’ll ban zero-hour contracts, and fire-and-rehire, and give workers basic rights from day one. We will boost collective bargaining, to improve workers’ pay, terms and conditions.” The ambition to spread collective bargaining across the economy is, of itself, a significant offer; even Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, smiled and shook his head – more than half impressed – when I asked him about it. In normal times this would be across every right-wing newspaper front page in “fury” font: those people must be asleep at the keyboard.
There is a long, fractious and at times difficult year to come. Rishi Sunak is a better prime minister and a shrewder, tougher character than either of his recent predecessors. My final lesson of the conference season is impressionistic. Many Tories in the relatively sparse Manchester Central Convention Complex had lost belief in themselves. There was something in the air – and it wasn’t spring.
Labour in Liverpool was surging with energy, money and ambitious “new friends” – capital, voting with its Italian leather-clad and high-heeled feet. This was not always pretty to see, but conveyed the sense of power shifting, at long last, Labour’s way. What is broken can be repaired, and what is ruined can be rebuilt.
[See also: Labour’s quiet radicalism is getting louder]
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits