Keir Starmer needs one big, defining idea if he’s to avoid being another doomed Labour leader

Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson show the way for a struggling opposition leader: offer a serious argument, not a set of policies. 

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Labour often gives the impression it would rather do without a leader. In 1918 the fledgling Labour Party won the right, for the first time, to be regarded as the official opposition. With 57 seats, Labour was the largest single party in opposition to the triumphant coalition of Lloyd George and Bonar Law. However, the party did not have a leader as such. It had an annually elected chairman, but refused to upgrade William Adamson to leader. The forgotten Liberal Donald Maclean became the leader of the opposition instead.

The reluctance is, in a way, comprehensible because leader of the opposition is the most unforgiving job in British politics. It is a task almost always inherited because a previous political dispensation has failed, as was the case for Keir Starmer. After an assured start, in which he brought the Labour Party back to parity from a 20-point deficit, Starmer’s leadership has stalled. Veterans of Tony Blair’s Downing Street used to laugh at how often commentators declared the latest squall to be evidence of Blair’s worst week. Starmer has just had his first worst week.

His precursors do not serve as especially encouraging role models. In the past 60 years, 11 men (Gaitskell, Douglas-Home, Heath, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard, Ed Miliband and Corbyn) have served as leader of the opposition and failed to win an election. Only four men (Wilson, Heath, Blair and Cameron) and one woman (Thatcher) have gone from leading the opposition to 10 Downing Street.

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That said, successful leaders of the opposition may be thankful for the experience, at least in retrospect. Time spent as a party leader is a better apprenticeship for the top job than time spent in office. Eden, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major, Brown and May all became prime minister from within government and none can be counted a success. The trick, therefore, may be to try to extract from the success stories their secret, if there is one.

Wilson is the most tempting parallel for Starmer, since Wilson is both a Labour winner and safely distant in time. It would be wonderful if Starmer could, as Peter Shore said of Wilson, deliver “a series of speeches… that were to hearten the [Parliamentary Labour Party], send Labour’s morale soaring in the country, rock the government and spellbind the press”. Now, since Shore wrote most of those desired speeches, we should be careful about taking his word for just how spellbinding they were, and read back now, their essential symbolic emptiness would not cut it in an age of great scrutiny.

However, Wilson did one important thing emphatically right. At the Labour conference in Scarborough in 1963, he presented a defining idea – the promise of science – which allowed him to pose as the “coming man”. Policy initiatives were thin and, indeed, mostly failed in office. But policy does not matter early on. The leader of the opposition needs to sound like he will know what to do about the future when it arrives. The slightly pedantic figure of Harold Wilson was the closest thing politics had to offer to an embodiment of the spirit of British optimism in the mid-1960s.

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There is a lot to learn from Wilson, although the parallel does not stretch all the way. Wilson had two advantages that Starmer does not enjoy. He inherited the leadership, in February 1963, after the death of Hugh Gaitskell, with Labour well ahead in the opinion polls. Then, he had only to do the job for 18 months before the October 1964 general election. Starmer took over amid the debris left by Jeremy Corbyn and, in all probability, he will be leader of the opposition for five years – if not longer.

That makes his situation rather more like that of Thatcher, Blair or Cameron, who served as leader of the opposition for four, three and five years respectively. Thatcher is always the salutary example for a struggling opposition leader. Early on in her tenure as Tory leader, there were whispers about the mistake the party had made in choosing her, and she trailed Jim Callaghan, who was seen as the better prospective prime minister.

But Thatcher prevailed, and the lesson of her time in opposition – apart from the virtue of patience – is that she, like Wilson, articulated a serious argument rather than a set of policies. The 1979 Conservative Party manifesto made no mention of privatisation, but Thatcher had, by then, given diagnostic speeches in which she set out the predicament the country faced. Her stress on terrible industrial relations established, by implication, a clear electoral choice. Thatcher also carved out a distinctively bold foreign policy position. In 1976, in a speech titled “Britain Awake”, she counselled against complacency in the face of Soviet aggression. It was in response to this speech that a Soviet army magazine called her the “Iron Lady”.

Tony Blair, as leader of the opposition, articulated the need for running repairs to the public realm. He reassured the country that it had nothing to fear in the Labour Party. Running against his own party as an illustration of the change he wanted to see was the trick David Cameron tried to borrow from Blair. With vague, value-laden speeches about the NHS, child poverty, the social causes of crime and climate change, all under the rubric of “responsibility”, Cameron did little more than signal, in general terms, the arrival of a new kind of Tory party. Against a tired government, it was enough.

To be the tribune of the future, like Wilson. To diagnose the state of the nation, like Thatcher. To reassure the country that the rejected party has changed, like Blair and Cameron. To have the air of a prime minister-in-waiting, like all of them. To be a critic, teacher, guide, policymaker and commentator. That is the job at hand, and the white heat of the political spotlight is now trained on the Labour leader. His next moves may define the course of his leadership. 

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Philip Collins is a New Statesman columnist and contributing writer. 

This article appears in the 10 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair

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