He’s back. Leaning intently over the gallery in the Commons to watch Keir Starmer’s performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, at almost every social Labour gathering in London, in the front row when Starmer speaks to business… Peter Mandelson has become once more smoothly, imperturbably, omnipresent. And it wasn’t like that a year ago.
So what? Mandelson has always been fascinated by power – it’s a two-way thing – and the nearer Starmer comes to forming his first administration, the more interested he will be. Many of his old allies are working closely with the leader in his office. Perhaps, who knows, he may be offered an interesting cabinet-level job after a Labour victory?
But for other old friends of the Labour leader, this is one manifestation of what we might call the struggle for Starmer’s political soul. Is a man who came from the human rights legal culture, who was backed early on by Ed Miliband, and served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, now being adopted as one of their own by the party’s right?
As Labour prepares its manifesto, the question of where its leader really stands will not go away. Cards on the table: I believe that Starmer will emerge, after winning the election, as a quiet, methodical radical who, if things go well, may be one day compared to Clement Attlee. He certainly dislikes factionalism. As it happens, he hasn’t had a substantial political conversation with Peter Mandelson since last summer. But worries around Starmer’s true identity are focused on the Gaza war – is he too timidly following the Tory and US positions? And that manifesto – too timid, period? Recent polling shows voters are unsure about Starmer and yearning for real change. Is electoral caution now electorally dangerous?
I write this, I concede, as somebody suffering from the worst condition a political columnist can have: incurable optimism. But I believe that Labour in government will turn out to be much more ambitious than it appears now. And the reason? Not experience, that’s for sure – nor yet, I promise, the exhilarating results of the close of Dry January.
No, it’s the personality of the man leading the show, about whom an informative biography by Tom Baldwin, a former aide to Ed Miliband, will be published in mid-February. When the Tories attack Keir Starmer for being a flip-flopper, they get one thing right. He is indeed somebody who will trim, ditch, adjust and rethink in order to win. But the last bit of that sentence, “in order to win”, is what they underestimate. Starmer is, everyone who knows him well agrees, abnormally focused on winning. Life is a series of well-defended goalposts to shoot through. He stares at the problem ahead. He works out how to resolve the problem. Does it, and moves straight to the next.
This matters because as the problem changes, so do his angles. Right now, the only problem is winning the general election. Neither Starmer nor key advisers around him, such as his campaign director Morgan McSweeney, believe the polls – or rather, they believe that the electorate is exceedingly volatile, angry, hard to predict; and that the Labour lead is therefore vulnerable. Part of their emotional attachment to the idea of a May election is simply to get the damn thing over with, a palpable nervous exhaustion.
That being the problem, Starmer will do absolutely anything to win. Looking at data about uncommitted, previously Tory switchers, as he has been recently, the Labour leader nails down agonisingly specific promises on taxation and banishes scare-the-horses radicalism, to the frustration of many on the left.
Much of this is coming from Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, who seems to have quietly intimidated colleagues about even mouthing the words “£28bn” in public. Ed Miliband, in charge of the green prosperity plan, has been remarkably silent. Miliband and Starmer are neighbours in north London and remain close, which gives this dilemma a personal edge. If anything, Starmer is more instinctively radical on green jobs than his shadow chancellor – one friend calls him “Brown to Reeves’s Blair”.
Meanwhile, the debate goes on about the need for a more expansive agenda. Winning elections requires professionalism, ruthless choices and focus; any change of strategy now would be too late, too glaring and misfire. Downing Street sees just the same deep polling and focus-group evidence that Starmer’s office does, and understands what it is up to.
No big changes from Labour, then. But, back to Starmer, in the second after victory, the all-important problem shifts from the election to the bigger one of how to govern successfully. At this point, Starmer the believer in the state re-emerges. If you believe, as some on the Labour right do, that he is undergoing an intellectual conversion to big business, a smaller state and neo-Blairism, then I politely suggest that you are wrong.
He remains the same pro-public service, class-ceiling breaker he has always been. Factions circling, hoping to capture him, don’t really understand this. He knows who he is, always has. It’s not that if he wins an election later this year, Starmer will theatrically rip up the manifesto or instantly raise taxes. But year in, year out, he will do “whatever it takes”, for instance, to get NHS waiting lists down and implement the childcare strategy, build more homes, better connect the National Grid. Again, he likes to win. Winning in office doesn’t mean clinging on like some terrified jelly and changing nothing.
It means boldness. As every New Statesman reader knows, the problems Britain faces are deep, serious and intractable. Dealing with them will involve big decisions. And if his first set of measures don’t bring the results he needs, he will become more radical, not less.
It is very hard at present to envisage how life under Labour will feel. We are living through the end of an age of parliamentary chaos. The 15 February by-elections in Kingswood, near Bristol, and Wellingborough in Northamptonshire are likely to be national reminders of recent Conservative division and misbehaviour; the Rochdale by-election at the end of the month, with George Galloway standing on an anti-Starmer Gaza ticket, and the defecting former Labour MP Simon Danczuk standing for Reform UK, promises a Grand Guignol of British democratic mayhem. But all of this will soon be forgotten as the country sizes up the much bigger choice ahead.
Then we get serious. The real trouble is despair. Public disillusion with politics reflects a widespread conviction that no government can make this broken country better. To succeed, perhaps even to survive in office, Starmer will need to refute that, and spread a prickle of interest about genuine change. That, in turn, means achieving visible wins. These can only happen by taking on determined vested interests.
What I know about Keir Starmer’s political character has nothing to do with factions or predecessors; it’s a quiet, grinding determination to overcome that next, specific obstacle. The more the vested interests fight back, the bolder he will turn out to be. Almost none of this is visible during the very different challenge of a general election campaign, which, all serious Labour people know, they can generally expect to lose.
Can political journalism survive the departure of the clowns? Can we live without the jokes? Can we find enough to write about once the jaw-dropping, baroque scandals have been forgotten? As an optimist, what I am looking forward to is a period when my trade becomes much harder; but beyond mere commentary, the national mood is sounder and brighter. Perhaps Peter Mandelson will give me an interview.
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?