Issue 296: 2021 10 07: The Three Year Plan

7 October 2021

The Three Year Plan

Sir Keir Starmer.

By J.R.Thomas 

It took Tony Blair three years to save the Labour Party.  Now Keir Starmer has three years to do the same.  And in spite of all the tosh about the disaster of the Brighton conference you may have read in the British press last week, it went well (a key leadership victory was won on voting processes – dragging power back from the Momentum wing).  The Starmer makeover is slowly, cautiously, going according to plan.  Mr Blair had it easier in some ways.  Much of the groundwork had been done by the previous but one Labour leader, the slightly absurd Neil Kinnock, a man who we can now see was a more able politician than he appeared.  And young Tony had the fortune that others ill-luck brings, the unfortunate death of John Smith, Labour’s lost leader.  Plus, of course, he was able to fix his great rival, Gordon.

Keir has a harder job.  First and foremost, he has to to overcome the rebranding done by Jeremy Corbyn, rebranding that rather killed the product.  He still has to grapple with a mass membership party that has been infiltrated by the leftie Left in a classic Trotskyist manoeuvre, so that the Labour Party, or movement as it likes to think of itself, is about as far removed from the average Labour voter as can be.  And he has a pretty wild bunch sitting next to him on the opposition front bench (Angela Rayner may be praised as different and a breath of fresh air, but somehow she is more reminiscent of one of those typhoons that cause destruction in Texas and then vanish).

But Starmer also has advantages that are becoming apparent as time passes.  He is one of life’s decent types, honest, slightly dull, but kind, calm, and thoughtful.  He engages his brain before putting his mouth in forward, a strategy not seen much in politics at the moment.  He has a quiet sense of humour and speaks calmly with minimum emotion.  He is not seen dancing alone in nightclubs, nor has he a tendency, however amusing, to mangle the English language or make cod classical allusions.  He is, in short, a decent bloke.

The British currently prefer a roguish type to a decent bloke, and indeed politics swings as much between the two types of leader as it does between two dominant political parties; Churchill and Attlee; Disraeli and Gladstone; Lloyd George and Baldwin.  We are in the age of roguism but there are lots of signs that that era is passing and the voters will soon be calling for boring decency.  Keir is perfectly placed for that; and if he can keep his job then he will, one suspects, get his reward at the next election.  The only threat might be from another dull but decent type; there is indeed one waiting for his moment and he is sitting in 11, Downing Street.  But displacing the wild man next door will not be easy for Rishi Sunak.  Johnson is after all a very skilled political operator; when that great tree falls it is likely to crush a few saplings with it.

Which is not to say that Keir has an easy run ahead of him.  It is a truism that in politics your opponents are opposite but your enemies are behind.  To many politicians, Labour and Conservative, and no doubt LibDem and Green, the fight with your colleagues is much more exciting, vicious, and serious than it ever is with other parties.  Mr Blair for a while stopped all that and got his party to face forward (OK, the man next to Tony was facing forwards but always looking sideways) and the reward was thirteen years of Labour government.  In the end that was all too boring for the Momentum left and they got out of the cage, keeping Labour out of office since 2010.  Emotion and anger and indeed hate became the drivers of internal Labour politics.  Momentum and its chums’ capture of the Labour Party has driven a remarkable wedge between the party and its voters, to the benefit of the Tories, but one which so far Boris has failed to further exploit.  Nor is there much sign that even the cunning Michael Gove has much idea what will really keep those new blue seats in the Conservative bag.  Keir knows all this and his job is to keep control of his parliamentary party, renew the loyalty of Labour voters in former Labour seats, and not worry too much about Labour Party membership.

Labour does not really want a leadership contest just at the moment.  Ms Rayner probably would like one, but “scum” has done for that for a while; and Jess Phillips might like one as always; and most of all Andy Burnham would like one; but not yet; he needs to get back into a parliamentary seat for one thing.  So Starmer may feel a bit besieged but not in any seriously imperilled way; that requires an alternative leader.

Keir is developing his vision for a new mild left approach to British politics.  His recent exposition, The Road Ahead, is not, as our editor said last week, very inspiring or even terribly clear.  Indeed, it is more akin to a solicitor’s brief to counsel where the solicitor is not terribly sure of the applicable law; but Keir was after all a lawyer and sometimes it is best not to be terribly clear, to be able to duck and weave a bit.  But it is the beginning of his vision thing, and it marks an end of Corbynism at the policy level.  It starts to attack the Conservatives where they have cut the ground from under their own feet by becoming seen as the high tax party – a poll this week now sees the Labour Party as the low tax party, and that must be a first.  It also implicitly hits the Tories somewhere else that hurts – in the issue of competence.  There are very few governments in the world that have handled Covid well, but the Johnson government has managed to be not very competent, and to look totally incompetent (they are not quite as bad as painted, but that’s not much of a defence).  By being out of office Labour can, with the benefit of that great political asset of hindsight, look efficient and wise and well informed.  If the voters used to think of the Tories as nasty but cheap and competent, Keir has through pure luck, stolen a useful march.  If his team can produce some sensible thinking on social care, reducing energy costs (something which will really wallop the electorate this autumn and winter), support the NHS whilst reforming some of its grosser inefficiencies, promise to cancel HS2 (an IOU which they are unlikely to have to deliver on), and just move on from Brexit at last; oh, and get rid of some of the ruder and more extreme candidates in local and parliamentary seats, the road ahead will indeed clear for Sir Keir.

So expect more thinking on policy, some clever political positioning, an increasingly tough approach to party discipline, and a lot more winding up of Boris.  Don’t expect any early peaks; Keir knows that is dangerous.  The victory is not yet won, but it is very clear how it might be.  And that nice Sir Keir Starmer may yet be the people’s hero on election night 2025.


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