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15 December 2022

Starmer shouldn’t aim to be a cult leader like Corbyn

Andrew Fisher is wrong – it doesn’t matter if no one would chant “Oh Keir Starmer” at Glastonbury.

By Oz Katerji

If anybody was still looking for lessons in why the Jeremy Corbyn project failed, his former senior adviser is on hand to remind everyone. It is seemingly a subject his former acolytes never tire of, as they relentlessly publish on the topic.

On Wednesday (14 December), one of the key architects of Labour’s catastrophic election defeat in 2019 wrote a comment piece in the Guardian decrying the state of the party that has for months held an average 20-point polling lead. “Where is Labour’s fervour?” writes Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s executive director of policy from 2016-19. “Can anyone imagine hundreds of thousands of young people chanting ‘Oh Keir Starmer’, as they did about Corbyn?”

Leaving aside the sheer absurdity of this question, one might be left with a more pertinent response: can anyone imagine hundreds of thousands of young people chanting the name of any British prime minister? It seems Mr Fisher has mistaken a personality cult, or perhaps the entrance theme for a WWE wrestler, for responsible leadership of a political party serious on governing the country.

But Mr Fisher’s argument unfortunately doesn’t end on his warm and fuzzy nostalgia for Corbyn’s Glastonbury appearance – as the rest of the article makes clear, those closest to the former Labour leader still do not understand how and why Corbyn was overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate. 

Referring to Labour’s worst defeat in 84 years, Mr Fisher suggests Corbyn’s agenda “got subsumed by the Brexit stalemate of 2019, and an election that effectively became a rerun of the referendum”. 

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But any cursory glance at the 2019 polling would show that Corbyn and Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was the principal reason voters gave for why they would not vote for the Labour Party. I don’t think the country needs reminding of how bad that defeat was, with Labour losing seats it had held for generations, in places that were considered unassailable Labour heartlands. That happened under Mr Fisher’s watch, regardless of how much he suggests his former boss was not to blame.

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For all the talk of Brexit betrayal, and a Conservative government that has tirelessly portrayed Starmer as the ringleader of Westminster’s anti-Brexit alliance, Starmer looks like a prime minister-in-waiting. Also missing from Fisher’s diatribe on Labour is any mention of the reasons why Corbyn was suspended from the party: after the Equality and Human Rights Commission found the party culpable for unlawful discrimination against Jewish Labour members – acts that took place when he was leader – he claimed the problem of anti-Semitism had been exaggerated for political purposes. The whip is still withdrawn from the former leader.

In Mr Fisher’s defence even I, a Starmer supporter, find his description of the current leader’s “turgid neutrality” fair, particularly in the face of rising anti-immigrant sentiment and a Conservative government hell-bent on pursuing human rights violations against some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I too wish to see a Labour Party that fights for those values more explicitly, but most of all, I want to see a Labour Party in government, not simply basking in moral platitudes while in perpetual opposition.

It seems too that Mr Fisher has forgotten that his resignation letter from Corbyn’s office was leaked to the press. While he complains in the Guardian of a “lack of fervour” for Starmer’s Labour Party, in late 2019 he resigned citing a “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency”, while Corbyn was still leader. Weighed side by side, Mr Fisher’s private criticisms of his own allies are far more damning than his public complaints about Starmer’s turgidity.

One might suggest that, when given a choice, the British people will look more favourably on a party led by Keir Starmer, which lacks fervour, than on a party led by Jeremy Corbyn that, in Mr Fisher’s own words, lacked “human decency”.

[See also: Rishi Sunak needs to offer striking workers a better deal]