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Keir: more than just a lucky general

Neither Left nor Right can accept that Starmer’s impressive focus and strategic sense is responsible for transforming Labour’s prospects

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is very important in politics, as in life, not to get ahead of yourself. In the heady Glastonbury summer of 2017 Jeremy Corbyn was not, in fact, the prime minister. The fall of the Red Wall was not, in fact, the kind of permanent political realignment that would provide opportunities for ambitious Tory thinkers to get themselves selected in safe Conservative seats in the broken heartlands of the north east of England. Boris Johnson could not, in fact, change.

At the time of writing, Labour has not won the election, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But it looks overwhelmingly likely to do so: something that looked overwhelmingly unlikely when Keir Starmer took over as Labour Leader just four years ago. It’s worth asking why and who, if anyone, deserves the credit. 

Corbynites complain that Starmer is just a Blairite retread; Blairites say they wish he was

There’s the fashionable answer, on both left and right, that this has more or less nothing to do with Keir Starmer: it is a self-inflicted Conservative disaster, attributable variously and in varying doses to Boris Johnson’s personal failings, to the short-sighted ingratitude of a Conservative parliamentary party who were unwilling to overlook these personal failings, to lockdown and something to do with Bill Gates and vaccines, to Liz Truss, to a deep state which didn’t give Liz Truss the space she needed for her economic reforms to have their otherwise inevitably transformational impact, to Rishi Sunak promising things he couldn’t deliver, to Rishi Sunak not promising more things, to too much austerity, to not enough austerity, to Brexit, to not doing Brexit properly, to being too right-wing, to not being right-wing enough, to pandering too much to Nigel Farage, to not giving Nigel Farage enough peerages, to buggering off early from D-Day. 

There is some truth to at least some of these, and a lot of truth to a few of them, and to the ones that contain little or no truth we can add “lots of Conservative MPs believe silly things like this and that makes them harder to lead”.

What they have in common, though, is an assessment of Keir Starmer, sometimes implicit but increasingly often not: it can’t be anything to do with him, because he’s rubbish. If he is winning, it is because he is a lucky general, in the right place at the right time just as his opponents collapse in on themselves in an orgy of policy failure, incompetence and bloodletting. Labour’s 2024 election victory, the argument goes, could just as easily have been won if the party had chosen to pin a red rosette on one of the donkeys in the field Keir Starmer bought for his mum.

Just as the “any other leader would be 20 points ahead” idea was daft when anti-Corbyn Labour people were pushing it during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, so the “any other leader would also be 20 points ahead” idea is daft now. It matters whether or not a government is failing, but it also matters whether or not an opposition, and especially an opposition’s candidate for prime minister, is someone voters are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to. 

It does not go without saying that in an alternate universe in which Starmer had lost the 2020 Labour leadership election, Rebecca Long-Bailey would now be on the verge of power. Starmer may be lucky, but it isn’t just luck. To paraphrase the great South African golfer Gary Player, “the more I don’t promise free broadband, the luckier I get”.

The two big questions about whether Starmer has made a difference to Labour’s prospects are: has he changed the Labour Party, and should he have done? So far as the Conservatives are concerned, the answers are no and yes. So far as Starmer’s critics on the left of the Labour Party and outside it are concerned, the answers are yes and no, in the same order. As things stand, the electorate looks set to answer yes to both questions, and the evidence is on their side.

Conservatives accuse Starmer of trying to get Corbyn elected; Corbynites accuse him of the opposite.

In fact, one of Starmer’s unique political achievements has been that his critics on the right have invalidated the attacks of his critics on the left, and vice versa. The Tories complain that Starmer tried to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister; Corbynites shake their heads and say he did no such thing. Corbyn complains that Labour under Starmer no longer represents the platform he led the party on; the Tories stick their fingers in their ears. Corbynites complain that Starmer is just a Blairite retread; Blairites raise an eyebrow and say they wish he was. 

Starmer Derangement Syndrome is a condition that can strike victims across the political spectrum; the only defence is to avoid having strong opinions about him. Coincidentally, not having strong opinions about Starmer is broadly where the electorate is. And if there is one thing worse for a leader than voters not having strong opinions about you, it is voters having strong opinions about you. They had strong opinions about Jeremy Corbyn, and look where that got the Labour Party.

Labour lost badly in 2019 to a Conservative Party whose own leader’s unpopularity and manifest unfitness for office was overshadowed by that of its own. If the core of the Starmer-minimisers’ case in 2024 is that his success doesn’t really count, because Labour cannot possibly lose to an unpopular government which has failed miserably to deliver on almost any of the main policies it promised at the previous election, which has fallen below 20 per cent in some recent opinion polls, whose parliamentary party is riven by infighting and whose newly-installed leader has no public mandate: well, you managed it last time. Don’t do yourselves down.

All political leaders, even Rishi Sunak, have supporters whose enthusiasm for their hero takes them further than the evidence will support, and the Starmtroopers have as much of a propensity for hagiographical overreach as any Corbynite, Johnsonite or Swiftie. Starmer has not always been sure-footed in his leadership of the opposition. He has made policy commitments he later came to regret, such as the now-abandoned £28 billion green investment pledge, whose painful death throes lasted months. 

Keir Starmer’s manifesto is to the left of anything that has won an election in my lifetime

His early misspeak on Gaza was left uncorrected for too long and was both electorally and morally costly. He is not the most confident parliamentarian, and his occasional failures to press a point home have not always been the acts of a shrewd KC thinking five moves ahead and giving his opponent enough rope to hang himself: some of them have just been missed opportunities. 

But while he has certainly made tactical mistakes, Starmer’s strategic sense has been impressive, from opening his leadership consensually with qualified support for, and constructive criticism of, lockdown, to encouraging Boris Johnson to get his denials of Partygate on the record and leaving them there, to, most of all, his relentless focus on the voters he actually needs to win, rather than the ones who make the most noise.

This, of course, is the source of the biggest criticisms of Starmer from the left: that he won the leadership by relentlessly focusing on the voters he needed to win within the Labour Party, and then pivoted towards the national electorate rather than sticking with a prospectus whose chief appeal was to people who had already been shown to be a minority of a minority. I am not wholly unsympathetic to this view: his ten pledges were mostly bad, and he shouldn’t have made them; but dropping bad policies is better than sticking to them, and winning is better than losing.

After all, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t keep any of his promises, which may be why a recent election leaflet endorsing his bid to be the independent MP for Islington North gives so much prominence to his role in saving the Number 4 bus route.

Some of the policies in Labour’s manifesto don’t go as far as some people on the left of the Labour Party would like, or indeed — because you can overdo the factional typology sometimes — as far as the broad mass of the Labour Party would like, or as far as I would like. 

But manifestos that I don’t like, and that the broad mass of the Labour Party don’t like, and that more or less everyone on the left of the Labour Party don’t like, have won the last four elections. Keir Starmer’s Labour manifesto is comfortably to the left of anything that has won an election in my lifetime, and if it secures a mandate then I am inclined to treat that as a promising starting point rather than an unforgivable betrayal.

Labour has spent so long having arguments which end with whether or not a particular idea goes in a manifesto, that it has forgotten what arguments that start with manifestos look like. It will be quite a novelty for its supporters, members and MPs to have a Labour government to try to influence rather than a Conservative government to complain about. 

There might well be more to like in a Keir Starmer government than some of his critics think. But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

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