Keir Starmer knows he’s more popular than his tainted party, but he is ready to play the long game

So far, the leadership is succeeding in selling Brand Starmer. The problem is it is having less success in selling Brand Labour.

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The most important thing to know about Keir Starmer is that he used to be director of public prosecutions (DPP) and head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Strategically, the message that the Labour leadership wants to get across is that Starmer is an experienced, sensible operator who has excelled in one big job and would excel in another.

So far, it is succeeding in selling Brand Starmer. The problem is it is having less success in selling Brand Labour. As one frontbencher is fond of telling their fellow MPs, “Punters like the boss but still think the firm is shit.” Labour is divided over why this might be. Some think that Starmer needs to make a show of distancing himself from the party’s recent past, though the party is, predictably, split on what the word “recent” means. For some, the rot in Labour began after 2017, when Jeremy Corbyn abandoned common-sense radical populism for flashy experiments such as free broadband. For others, the problems started when Ed Miliband’s leadership ended with defeat in 2015 – or even when he became party leader.

Another group traces the problem further back – to 2005, when Tony Blair was re-elected for a third successive time but with a smaller majority. Or to 2001, when he won a second landslide but with a lower turnout, particularly in those constituencies that Boris Johnson went on to win in 2019.

Although they disagree on the root of Labour’s problems, these so-called distancers agree that Starmer must break with the past in a way that is obvious to casual observers. Some think the breach needs to be made through policy – in order to repudiate the economic excesses of Corbyn’s final manifesto. Others believe it is a question of tone. They think that the combination of economic radicalism and cultural conservatism that Corbyn aimed for, with his planned St George’s Day bank holiday and his pledge of 10,000 extra police officers, was exactly right – it’s just that everyone knew Corbyn wasn’t truly committed to it.

Others argue that Starmer should avoid rocking the boat. His appeal in 2024 will be, as one Tory MP puts it, “that Britain has had enough of experiments” after a painful recession, a potential no-deal Brexit and a Boris Johnson government addicted to picking fights. Victory lies not through loud signals that Labour has changed, but in the quiet demonstration of good-natured competence. It’s a mistake to see the two schools of thought as exactly corresponding to Labour’s left-right divide: I have heard committed anti-Corbyn ideologues extolling the value of a steady approach and politicians on the Labour left calling for big, visible signs of divergence from the pre-Starmer years.

Superficially, recent weeks have belonged to the distancers. On 25 June, Starmer sacked from the shadow cabinet Rebecca Long-Bailey, his Corbynite rival for the party leadership, when she refused to delete or publicly apologise after tweeting an Independent interview with Maxine Peake, in which the actor made reference to an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory (Long-Bailey described Peake as an “utter diamond”).

On 29 June, Starmer broke with the Black Lives Matter movement by describing its aim to defund the police as “nonsense”. Both events, in different ways, symbolised a divergence from Corbyn, even though it’s worth remembering that he fought two general elections promising to hire more police. Taken together, they sent a loud, explicit message that Labour was under new management.

Some Corbynites smell a trap. They think the real reason for Long-Bailey’s sacking was that she struck too cautious a tone in opposing the reopening of schools, and Starmer spied an opportunity to remove her. The party’s remaining Blairites, meanwhile, see the same thing and are delighted. Steve Reed, once a Blairite council leader, kept his role as shadow secretary of state for local government after describing Richard Desmond, the British-Jewish multimillionaire whose London Docklands property development was unlawfully waved through by Reed’s opposite number, Robert Jenrick, as the “puppet-master” behind Jenrick and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. This adds to Corbynites’ sense that a plot is under way.

However, Reed deleted and apologised for the offence, which Long-Bailey refused to do. Starmer did not plan to sack Long-Bailey, and he would not have kept Reed in post had he not apologised. Starmer takes the view that, as in any big organisation, when the chief executive gives instructions, they should be followed – or the offending subordinate should be axed.

That is perhaps the biggest difference between Starmer and not only Corbyn but any of the Labour leaders before him: his previous experience leading a large organisation. Starmer rejected the “defund the police” movement both because he felt it would be ridiculous for a political party that had fought the last two elections pledging to increase police funding to change course now, and because of his own record as director of public prosecutions. When, at a briefing for black media outlets and a smattering of black British journalists on 2 July, Starmer was asked about the lack of diversity in the leader’s office, his answer focused on his record at the DPP in increasing diversity at all levels of the organisation: a model he is now seeking to apply to the Labour Party.

That model goes beyond personnel changes. Starmer sees his time as Labour leader, like his tenure at the DPP, as a long-term project. Its success will be judged not by Big Bang moments of the kind desired by the distancers, but as a result of careful work over years. His record at the DPP helped secure a parliamentary seat and Labour’s top job. Now, he hopes that the same approach as Labour leader will open the way to Downing Street. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation

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