Editor's Note: Sensible Starmer and the unanswered question at the core of Labour

Starmer's cool, competent leadership has won him plaudits, but he remains troubled by one defining issue: what's the party for and who should it represent?

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The Labour Party, whose national conference begins on 19 September, is prone to doubt and introspection, which is why Jeremy Corbyn appealed to so many activists: he knew what he believed and was unyielding in his adherence to his principles. Weary of the tortuous equivocations of the Ed Miliband years and the ultimate defeat that followed from them in 2015, many Labour supporters were initially thrilled by Corbyn’s resolute rejection of austerity and by his radiant moral certainties. Corbyn’s political world-view was formed in late adolescence and remained unchanged through the long decades of his service as an MP (he was elected to parliament in 1983, the same year as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown). Corbyn was a Manichean and much of his adult life was spent in the echo chamber of the radical left as he agitated with like-minded comrades.

“I personally have always seen Jeremy as a Peter Pan figure, just not a grown-up,” one friend told Corbyn’s unauthorised biographer, Rosa Prince. Corbyn disliked moderation and compromise: he wanted to govern a country that did not exist, or perhaps existed only in the socialist Neverland of his imagination. He led Labour to its worst defeat since 1935 but did so on his own terms, in his own way, championing a manifesto in which he passionately believed. No shame in that defeat, then – at least for him. 

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Keir Starmer has a different approach. He is pragmatic and non-ideological: he understands that politics is about getting the balance right; that moderation is desirable in this age of extremes. He would rather play football with friends than march at a rally under the banner of anti-imperialism. But he keeps finding himself on the losing side and this bothers him. As a London liberal and career barrister, Starmer is an ardent Remainer, but now finally accepts that on the European question he and his party have been defeated and there is nothing to be gained from demanding an extension to the transition period, or opposing Brexit altogether as Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats did in the December election campaign, or fighting Boris Johnson on his chosen terrain. “Let’s get Brexit done,” Johnson says. “Well,” Starmer says now, “demonstrate that you can!”

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Even today, despite the spectacular incompetence of the government, the Conservatives remain stubbornly ahead in the polls, with their support never falling below 40 per cent. Both Theresa May and now Johnson have succeeded in uniting most of the Faragistes behind the pro-Brexit Conservatives in England. Nearly four million people voted for Ukip at the 2015 general election, to the bewilderment of Miliband, who once told me that Nigel Farage’s “people’s army” posed more of a threat to the Tories than to Labour. At the 2019 general election, Miliband had his majority cut in Doncaster North from 14,000 to less than 3,000, as Labour was swept away in many of the towns in the Midlands and the north that the party had considered theirs as if by right.

Something similar happened in 2015 in Scotland, when under Miliband the party lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats. From this defeat, there would be no coming back, which is why Labour is so unhappy with the leadership of Richard Leonard in Scotland. He has done nothing to reverse the decline. But is Leonard, for all of his mediocrity, really to blame for the deeper structural forces that have undermined the Union and have been decades in the making? Once you have crossed the bridge to become an independence supporter, why would you return?

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Starmer’s cool, competent leadership has won him plaudits and his party some renewed respect after the trauma of recent years. Competence matters in politics as in the rest of life; it offers the chance to be taken seriously, to be heard – which is essential if a party is to build a new electoral coalition. Starmer has also sensibly avoided becoming a belligerent in the culture and identity wars: he is a liberal but not an authoritarian liberal.

Beyond the tactical repositioning, the Labour leadership remains troubled by a defining question: what is the party for and who should it represent? This is the question being asked in Zoom seminars and in written papers that are shared among Starmer’s confidantes. As Stephen Bush wrote in these pages last week, the core group of advisers and MPs who gather around the leader believe that Labour must remain the party of the labour interest – of working people and the trades unions – rather than of metropolitan progressives. But why can’t it be both?

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To unite socially conservative, Brexit-voting Red Wall voters and city-dwelling, pro-EU liberals, Labour must tell a convincing story about national renewal and national unity. This challenge will become greater as the UK fragments. But we have reached a conjuncture: Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have created the conditions for a new political and economic settlement. There’s a mood among people in the country to transform the way we live and work. If Labour is to escape its cycle of self-flagellation and defeat, the constant association with crisis, it needs to understand this mood and channel it for the common good. The Blairite/Cameroon embrace of free-market globalisation is finished; too many people felt shut out and humiliated. Johnsonian populism won the Tories a remarkable victory in December, but his government is a shambles.

“In this rather dark moment of pandemic and polarisation and dysfunctional politics and inequality, I think we should look for sources of hope,” Michael Sandel said on the BBC’s Start the Week on 7 September. “But knowing where to look depends on diagnosing how we arrived in [our present] condition.” This remark has resonance most pressingly for Labour – because without diagnosis there can be no recovery. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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