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Keir Starmer is haunted by the ghosts of two former Labor leaders; one who is hated by his party and one who is hated by the country.
Jeremy Corbyn holds the hearts of many activists, even though he has led Labor to the worst defeat in decades, and in the words of a leading bank, “it is impossible to exaggerate how much he insulted the voters”. His suspension from the parliamentary party for denying the magnitude of Labor’s anti-Semitism crisis is a ticking time bomb under Starmer. Tony Blair, on the other hand, was not loved by members, so poisoned by the war in Iraq that his successors refused to trumpet the successes of the party’s longest tenure. Yet he overshadows all that followed because of his clarity of vision and expertise.
In his leadership campaign, Starmer’s only strategic insight was not to choose between the two contrasting leaders. His pitch was merely unity. This means that he never received a mandate for any vision or change of direction. It is not at all clear that he had one anyway.
After 18 months, against a cunning opponent and a huge electorate to gain power, Starmer is still struggling to convince a dubious party and a skeptical electorate that he has what it takes. What has changed, however, is the recognition that unity was an illusion.
He has now made a choice, and as proof you need look no further than his inner circle. His office was filled with those who served Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His keynote address was given by Philip Collins, Blair’s lead speech writer. His strategy chief is Deborah Mattinson, Brown’s opinion pollster; his director of communications, Matthew Doyle, is another former Blair assistant; Sam White, his chief of staff, was special adviser to Alistair Darling. The hard left is marginalized. New Labor figures, including Blair himself, are being called in for advice.
Starmer acknowledged that power can only be obtained from the middle by addressing the concerns of ordinary voters rather than the obsessions of party activists. But this correct call also highlights its core problem. New Labor was not just an exercise in political triangulation, but an economic and social strategy. It was sold as a modernizing response to harsh, outdated conservatism and appalling public services. Starmer bought the tactic but did not have the underlying strategy.
His first task, then – and one he wants to start at his party conference and in a new pamphlet – is to draw up a critique of Britain under Boris Johnson, which resonates with the electorate and goes beyond just a vote of being less privileged. It will also help define him. For all the calls for more policy, what voters really want is to understand the core values of a leader and realize that he is on their side. It was missing. One member of the shadow cabinet sighs that “apart from the criminal justice policy, it is not clear where Keir’s northern star is”.
An additional challenge is that Johnson has already claimed the mantle of change with promises to address local inequalities, poor public services, neglected towns and so on. Mr Blair, against all odds, is up against a collapsing government. Starmer cannot reclaim these agendas until voters believe the Tories have failed.
Competence and delivery are therefore the most important battlefields. Starmer’s attraction may be that while the government is talking a good game, it’s chaotic. It’s good at slogans, but has no real plan for the big strategic challenges. Two years after Brexit, it can not even create a customs system to manage US imports without risking food shortages.
The New Labor Playbook also demands that it reassure voters. That could mean he has to keep his party away from big stats. That the Tories borrow, tax and intervene cannot be carte blanche to offer even more of it. If a wealth tax case is to be brought, it must be more than the answer to a passing financing question. Labor should also look like a party of law and order, so expect to be reminded regularly that Starmer was once the head of the Crown Prosecution Service.
Another problem is that the comparison with Blair does not flatter. His powerful interventions during the pandemic put Starmer and Johnson in jeopardy.
Blairite is also increasingly assertive, urging the party to support election reform and to continue the confrontation with the Corbynite left – including to hold on to the refusal to nominate the former leader as Labor candidate in the next election. to stand.
But even that takes Starmer just as far. Nor can he repeat the politics of the 1990s; the economic landscape has changed. He must indicate how his values will be applied to the fear of the public. He talks about a cost-of-living crisis, about more rights for workers. But it must fit a broader narrative, perhaps of economic security and opportunities in an era of technological change. Before voters choose a new knight, they must see a new dragon.
His biggest problem is that for the time being Johnson is embarking on the latest mission with the modernization of the green industrial revolution, the restart of Brexit, with the strengthening of the level. Labor cannot win until he takes it back.
Every successful Labor leader has won by defining a problem for which voters saw it as the answer, often in the story of a new era; Attlee’s post-war agreement, Wilson’s white technology or Blair’s “New Britain”. Starmer may be driving out the real ghosts. But Labor still looks like a party looking for a problem the country might want to solve.