The new leader, in the forceful opinion of a voluble critic, brings “to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match”. He is, the critic goes on, “determined to make a trumpet sound like a tin whistle”. This is not one of the vocal band who have greeted Keir Starmer’s first anniversary as Labour leader with barbs of criticism. It is Aneurin Bevan on Clement Attlee and the remark shows that the Labour Party has never much liked being led.
Starmer came to the leadership pledging he would unify a party split over Jeremy Corbyn. This is the one familiar part of his leadership so far. The Labour Party always follows an electoral defeat by falling into factions. Hugh Gaitskell declared an end to the damaging division with the Bevanites. Harold Wilson tried to end the same division from the other side. John Smith made much of party unity. Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband wanted Labour to feel comfortable in the post-Blair era, and Jeremy Corbyn appealed constantly to unity as a way of playing loyalty against the loathing he inspired in his parliamentary party.
Yet unity remains elusive. Within three months of taking office, Starmer was sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey, the defeated leadership candidate of the left, for sharing an article that referenced an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Then, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its report on anti Semitism in the Labour Party last October, Corbyn offered the typically witless response that it was an exaggeration.
To applause from the gallery of the party’s right, Starmer promptly suspended his predecessor’s party membership. When Corbyn was reinstated by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), Starmer suspended him from the Parliamentary Labour Party. The left of the party responded on cue, with walkouts from the NEC and new branches of the Popular Front of Judea being established.
There might be a troubling implication in this. The best of the new leader, those rare moments when his emphatic action has come close to the attention of a wider public, has been not when he has sought party unity but when he has threatened it. It used to be a standard maxim of the last Labour winning team that it was possible either to win or to unite the party but not to do both. It is notable that the two missing names on the roll call of would-be unifiers above are Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. The former is a hero whose hard work within the party was the necessary prelude to victory and the latter is Labour’s only winner in half a century.
The two leaders who thought the least of unifying the Labour Party are the instigator and the protagonist of its only recent victories. It may be that conflict remains a potent way of dramatising Labour’s being under new management.
Which, indeed, it is. The new leader has at least ensured he can lead. He has taken hold of the institutions and that matters in a procedural pantomime horse like the Labour Party. Starmer’s people have a slim majority on the ruling NEC. Last summer he installed his chosen candidate, David Evans, as general secretary of the party. The leader’s office recently helped to change the leader in Scotland. The party membership is still over half a million strong, plenty of whom joined to vote for Starmer at the same time as plenty of the more ardent Corbyn supporters gave up and left. Labour is changing and for the better.
Yet apart from this, it may be impossible to draw lessons on Starmer a year in. It has just been too strange a time because of the coronavirus pandemic and we may have to do something that in the current fever is forbidden, which is to wait a while before we settle on a verdict.
British politics since 2015 has managed to be dramatic and boring at the same time. There has been an excess of surface tension, which consumed the premierships of David Cameron and Theresa May, and saw off the leaderships of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, yet in five years there have been only two issues. Brexit pushed regular politics to one side for almost four years and no sooner was it done than Covid-19 arrived as an all-consuming replacement.
The most significant fact about Starmer’s leadership so far is that it coincides almost exactly with lockdown. Real politics has been in mothballs. He is yet to do a speech in front of an audience. He has only had the pandemic to talk about, a subject that most people, despite the urging of the political class, do not regard as a partisan issue. In the midst of Covid, housing policy or welfare or work or climate change – some of the staple talking points of a first year in opposition – have all seemed beside the point. If he had tried to change the subject, Starmer would either have been humiliatingly ignored or criticised for insulting irrelevance. He chose to say nothing and that was the best thing to do in the circumstances.
The one line of critique that Starmer has developed is that the government is incompetent. It is easy to criticise this as uninspiring and it is vulnerable to a display of competence such as the vaccination programme. But a Johnson government will supply plenty of evidence of incompetence, because all governments do. Things always go wrong and criticising the government for making a mess is one part of the argument that gets the opposition into power.
But only one part. There is a lot still to be said and a lot we do not yet know about the Starmer leadership. Nobody needs lockdown to end more than he does. The trumpet will soon have to sound from the city walls, to announce that the Labour Party, under new management for a year in limbo, would now like to address the nation.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special