Memo to Keir Starmer from John McTernan

There’s no problem with a witchhunt when there really are witches

Labour Pains

After a crushing general election defeat, the Labour Party faces a difficult path back to power under its new leader. In this special section, six writers examine the career and character of Sir Keir Starmer, outline the massive challenges he faces in making his party electable again, and advise him how to set about his formidable task

Memo to: Keir Starmer 

From: John McTernan

Date: 4 April 2020

What is to be done? Five Rules for Ruling

At the end of the magnificent film The Candidate, Robert Redford’s victorious character pulls his campaign manager aside and says: “Marvin, what do we do now?” This is the key question for political victors. I’m sure you have people making First 100 Day plans. Ignore them: the public isn’t interested. Don’t talk when no one wants to pay attention, deal with your internals instead.  You are the difference between the 2019 election being a near-death experience and being death itself. Here are your five rules for taking back control of the Labour Party.

Rule 1: Act immediately 

You have more authority than you think, but absolute authority ebbs quickly. Make your mark. Don’t waste time building coalitions. Don’t ask for permission or forgiveness, you don’t need them.  Use the moment, and enjoy it.

Rule 2: Act ruthlessly 

Do not be sentimental. This is the time to purge the party machine and put your own people in charge. Sack the general secretary and all the place people immediately. Don’t believe them if they pledge allegiance — either they are being duplicitous or, worse, they mean it: if they rat now, won’t they re-rat in the future? As we said when we expelled Militant, there’s no problem with a witchhunt when there really are witches to hunt.

Rule 3: Punish the losers

There’s an old saying in the Australian Labor Party: “magnanimity in defeat, vengeance in victory.” Make it your motto. Continuity Corbynistas like Rebecca Long Bailey and Richard Burgon must be exiled to the back benches for the rest of their parliamentary careers, which should be as brief as possible. Victory has to be absolute. It is crucial to show you understand just how toxic Corbyn’s tax and spend manifesto, default dislike of business and deep lack of patriotism really were.

Rule 4: Ignore party members

Punishing Burgon and Long Bailey will alienate a portion of the membership. Good. Let them return in disgust to the fringe parties where they should have been all along. Remember the words of the Tory Prime Minister A.J. Balfour: “I’d rather take advice from my valet than from the Conservative Party Conference.” Don’t fetishise party members. Any gathering of more than a handful is disproof of the notion of the wisdom of crowds. Restore party conference to its proper role — a loyal leadership rally.

Rule 5: Take back the unions

Finally, give yourself the insurance policy all Labour leaders need — a loyal, rational industrial wing. Unite leader Len McCluskey is an aberration. Its main component parts, the T&G and the AEU, produced leaders who helped Labour to govern and rescued it when the party went too far left to be electable. This ballast is essential. Until Unite has a sensible leader you will not be as secure as you should be. Tony Blair once said about party discipline: “You only have to break one of their legs, not both of them.” Actually, the trick is to make people believe you are willing to break their legs. It’s time for Sean Connery’s strategy against Al Capone in The Untouchables: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now, do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

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