On 4 April 2020, Sir Keir Starmer was elected as the new leader of the Labour party. His rise to the top came at a difficult time. The last general election had crushed Labour and disillusioned the membership. Change was needed. Could Starmer deliver?
Well, a Labour party under his leadership would not be “opposition for opposition’s sake,” he assured us in his acceptance speech. Okay, fine. But this comment came at a time when, about once a week, the government was cranking out the sorts of scandals that a French peasant of a bygone era would happily start a revolution over. It was a grown-up sounding platitude – but would it work in practice?
Starmer’s first few months were spent ‘sort-of’ attacking the government, kind of calling for Dominic Cumming’s resignation, and kneeling for Black Lives Matter whilst condemning every measure they actually wanted to implement. To Starmer’s supporters, the logic was sound; the Tories were clearly on a downward trajectory, and you never interrupt your enemy whilst he’s making a mistake. Unfortunately, Starmer is Leader of the Opposition, and that’s his job.
Kicking Corbyn out of the party proved to be Starmer’s first (and to date, only) truly memorable act of leadership. Unfortunately, exacerbating the already bitter divisions within your own party is not a great thing to be remembered for; much less when it ends up overshadowing what should have been the main focus that day – the EHRC report into Labour’s antisemitism.
Nevertheless, it did earn him considerable commendation from a cabal of centrist commentators who had grown sick of Corbyn ever since it turned out his progressive ideas were more popular than they were. Tony Blair’s 2017 assertion that Labour ought to be 20 points ahead became the moderate’s rallying cry; finally victorious, a party held its collective breath, eagerly awaiting the long-promised 20-point catapult into supremacy.
Oddly enough, it didn’t materialise. Labour’s polling continued to saunter downwards.
Concerns grew over the Leader of the Opposition’s unorthodox interpretation of his job description. On 2 February, a leaked presentation revealed that – amid chronic abstentions, and incredible resistance to even the slightest dribble of a policy offer – party officials reckoned what Labour’s core voter’s really wanted to see was far more Union Jacks. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a more winning strategy than the assumption the northern mind is reducible to an algorithm reading ‘flag = good.’
A major speech on 18 February finally gave Starmer the opportunity to invigorate the hearts and minds of Britain with an uplifting blueprint of the future. His sole concrete proposal was that of the ‘British Recovery Bond.’ Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry, neither has anyone else. The speech contained a fair few rhetorical zingers, but its main points would be window-dressing in the speech of basically any other Labour leader: yes, the Tories are crooks, and yes, the economy is buggered. But what are you going to do about it, beyond milquetoast investment schemes that sound like the working title of the latest 007 flick?
One of the first media buzzwords applied to Starmer was ‘forensic.’ The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘forensic’ as “relating to or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime.” You might have expected, then, that when Health Secretary Matt Hancock was found on 19 February to have literally broken the law, Starmer might have had something to say about it. Alas, asking a demonstrably corrupt politician to resign was too much to ask of the former Director of Public Prosecutions.
Starmer probably isn’t a secret Tory. I’m not certain, but I don’t think it’s likely, if only because recent history shows the Labour right are so committed to voluntarily aping the Tories that actual sabotage would be a waste of resources. Even so, when the Labour party – the party of labour! – announced they would oppose plans to raise corporation tax on 24 February, you have to wonder, exactly whose interests do they think they’re championing?
That’s an important question, because Starmer didn’t run for leader as a continuity candidate for either Corbyn or New Labour. The impression from his campaign was that he would merge the best parts of each – and that’s why he got a majority vote in the first round. But we’ve ended up with someone who thinks the best way to not be the last guy is to not be anything at all.
The shortcomings of such a strategy are becoming increasingly evident, and it’s made all the worse for its marriage with a distinctly ruthless approach to dissent. Under Starmer’s leadership, Constituency Labour Parties have been warned not to discuss Corbyn’s suspension, a manifestly anti-democratic order which several Labour members have already been expelled for breaking. The party bureaucracy has also meddled with Labour shortlists for local elections, expunging any candidates from the party’s left flank.
Recently, Starmer referred to Rishi Sunak’s budget as a “fork in the road” for Britain. Would it embrace radical change? Or would it push on with dogma that has already failed millions? Sir Starmer would do well to ask these questions of himself. After one year, he is yet to offer anything beyond bureaucratic indifference and bland cliché, because which politicians would say they support inequality?
Time is running out for Starmer’s confused, cautionary leadership. It doesn’t matter if he’s not a secret Tory – if he doesn’t change, he’ll be just as much use as one.
Words by Ed Brown
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