In his essay in this week’s New Statesman, Tony Blair is explicit about the failings of the Labour Party and its leader Keir Starmer. He does not call for Starmer to resign but he acknowledges that, after the debacle of the local election results in England, the party’s sad struggles in Scotland and the botched shadow cabinet reshuffle, the party is now asking whether Starmer is the right leader. “But the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader,” Blair cautions. “It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.”
What Blair is saying, in effect, is that Starmer is evidently not the man to lead the transformation of Labour, but even if the party opts for a new leader, it will carry on being defeated unless, or until, it urgently grapples with the defining complexities of this age of upheaval. Jeremy Corbyn, Blair says, was radical but not sensible. “Keir seems sensible but not radical. He lacks a compelling economic message. And the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the ‘woke’ left, whose every statement gets cut-through courtesy of the right.”
This is an indictment of Starmer’s leadership, both in its substance and style, by Labour’s most successful leader. But there is another more subliminal message and it is this: Tony Blair wants to lead the Labour Party again. He evidently believes that not only can he help create the change that is necessary if the party is to avoid complete irrelevance, he is ready and willing to return to the front line. “The election results have changed everything,” one of his friends told me. “We are facing the extinction of the Labour Party here. If we allow this to continue it’s over.”
This may be hubris, and party members and activists will have other ideas, but no matter what you think of Tony Blair and his political legacy, the essay we publish by him this week is more intellectually ambitious and more demanding than anything Keir Starmer has said and done since he succeeded Corbyn as leader.
One of the most common criticisms I hear from associates of Starmer is that not only does he have “no politics”, he does not know “how to do politics”, and this, his detractors say, was demonstrated by his incompetent response to the recent election results. The protracted saga of the reshuffle showed Starmer at his most incompetent: Angela Rayner was first humiliatingly sacked as Labour Party chair and then given a ludicrously grandiose new job title. It was, as one insider put it, an episode characterised by “farce and malice on all sides”. Sometimes it can seem from the outside as if the rivalrous factions of the Labour Party are held together by little more than their own mutual dislike. Something is deeply wrong and the public senses it and is recoiling.
[see also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]
Does Labour have a death wish? In recent days I have been reading some of our coverage from autumn 2014 when it seemed obvious to us that Ed Miliband would lead Labour to defeat at the 2015 general election. We said as much in a series of columns and articles to which Miliband and his team of close advisers responded with anger and dismay. It was if they’d considered the New Statesman to be a “safe space” and were affronted that it had not obediently fallen into line, slavishly supporting a failing party.
In the event, Miliband led Labour to defeat, opening the way for David Cameron’s Conservatives to win a majority and hold the Brexit referendum, the aftershocks from which continue to realign our politics. What struck me about Miliband back then was that he did not seem to understand, or perhaps chose not to, the rising forces of English and Scottish nationalism, and how they were destabilising the polity. He did not understand the changing politics of Scotland, where Labour would lose 40 of its 41 Westminster seats in 2015 – a near- extinction event from which there would be no return – and why so many former Labour voters were turning to the SNP. Nor did he seem to understand the sense of resentment that was growing in the faraway industrial towns, the conservative shires and run-down coastal regions of peripheral England.
In particular, Miliband told me that he thought Nigel Farage’s Ukip, which would win nearly four million votes at the 2015 election, posed a greater threat to the Tories than to Labour. This was not how Farage saw it. “I’m coming after Labour voters,” Farage told me in November 2014. “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe. They just don’t… The middle-class person who doesn’t think about politics very much, but is concerned about where school fees are coming from or whatever it may be – that middle-class person still thinks of the political spectrum that the Conservatives are more on their side than the other one. Increasingly what we’re finding is the people that come from the Labour side of the equation don’t think anyone’s on their side.”
As it turned out, Farage had a better understanding of the disruptions of the present moment than Miliband, and Labour’s neglect of its Brexit-supporting heartlands, now manifesting itself in multiple electoral defeats as the so-called Red Wall crumbles, is a parable of entitlement and decline. “We have lost the trust of working people,” Starmer said after the Hartlepool by-election defeat, his expression fixed, his eyes glazed. This was quite a statement from the leader of a party whose founding mission was to represent the labour interest. Its original purpose is in the name after all, as Maurice Glasman writes, and today Labour is on a long, lonely road to nowhere.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die