Current Affairs

A new direction for Labour?

Jack Olsburgh: About time the Labour Party recognized its primary purpose is to win elections

Politics is a constant trade-off between rosy, quixotic fantasies and the greasy, cold, hard-nosed need to gain power to enact those ideals. For Starmer to be confident, once he trudged away from the podium, that he had firmly declared that Labour would prioritise the latter, he knew the key line would not be uttered from his mouth. Rather, it would come from Andrew Scattergood. Just on cue, the co-chair of Momentum swiftly castigated Starmer, labelling his keynote speech as a “missed opportunity to show substance” and lamenting that his pitch was just full of “empty slogans and platitudes”. It was then that Starmer was assured he had steered the Labour Party away from the militant Marxist base that had led it to an electoral abyss.

And so the Labour Party has finally come to its senses. It has realised that at its heart, its greatest purpose is in fact to stop the Tories winning, rather than morphing Britain into a Socialist utopia. To accomplish that, though, Starmer must re-invigorate the three pillars of Blair’s broad-church electoral alliance. 

Starmer’s speech successfully targeted the first pillar: a reconciliation between the Labour Party and the ‘Red-Wall’ voters that deserted Labour under Corbyn. The critical moment for this was not in fact when Starmer recognised the “debate between Leave and Remain is over”, but instead when, with an emollient tone, he assured the ‘Red-Wall’ that “Labour will never go into an election again not being trusted on national security.” Starmer rightly knows that to win back their support, he must first instil national pride in the Labour Party.

He also effectively targeted the second pillar: white-collar workers seriously perturbed by the Tories’ impotent handling of the Coronavirus. Starmer noted their qualms, stating that the “government’s incompetence is holding Britain back” and that the “testing system collapsed just when we needed it most”. It is these middle-class voters, who vacillate between political parties and who viewed Corbyn as a ragamuffin with inadequate credentials to lead the country, to whom Starmer is now pleading.

Yet, Starmer glossed over the third pillar and arguably the backbone of the Blairite alliance: Scottish voters. When Starmer buckles down to his desk and does the cold-hard electoral arithmetic, he will know that with Labour’s current paltry single Scottish MP, it is unlikely to ever be propelled to power.

Thus, Starmer has made the first few requisite steps to return Labour to the halcyon days of parliamentary majorities. But, until he can re-impose Labour as a force in Scotland, and so truly rejuvenate the Blairite alliance, the Tories will not view the Labour Party as an electoral threat.

William Atkinson: Patriot Games

Patriotism, as the old cliché goes, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I wouldn’t dare say that to Kier Starmer – he is a Knight of the Realm, after all – but it was his attempts to appeal to patriotism that stood out the most in his first Conference speech as Labour leader.

He started and closed his speech by referring to his love of country; he even argued it was the reason why he wanted to lead and improve Britain. The contrast with his predecessor couldn’t have been more obvious. Out was the Red Flag, in was the red, white and blue.

On the whole, it was a sensible approach. The whole point of Sir Keir’s speech, as he put it at the end, was to get voters to “take another look at Labour”. He wanted to make the case to those Red Wall voters who abandoned his party for the Tories last year that, under his management, Labour had moved on from the Marxism, terrorist-sympathising and anti-Semitism that dogged Corbyn’s time in charge. From some markedly right-wing stuff on crime – he raised the fact that he was prosecuting terrorists as Director of Public Prosecutions whilst Boris was writing articles about bendy bananas – to mentioning this was the first conference in Yorkshire since 1967, winning those voters back was his over-riding concern.

Standing with the words “A New Leadership” on his podium as he spoke and making out that coronavirus had already rendered last year “ancient history”, I’m sure he would have been pleased that his objective had been achieved.

But a word of warning for Sir Kier. He reminds of me Hugh Gaitskell, Labour’s leader in the late 50s and early 60s, who wanted to drag his party away from the Left by abolishing Clause IV in order to make it more electable. His argument was the same as Starmer’s – too much socialism and too little patriotism drives voters to the Tories. Gaitskell died before his efforts could come to fruition, and though I imagine Sir Kier has far longer ahead of him, I imagine his re-branding of Labour as patriotic will prove equally unsuccessful. Gaitskell had the perk of being a Brexiteer decades early, opposing Common Market membership and making great speeches about England and her history. All good stuff for the Red Wall today. Sir Keir could never do that; after all, it was him who got Labour to adopt a second referendum policy last year.

Voters have long memories and come 2024, no matter the quality of his conference speeches, that might come back to bite him.

George Beglan: Starmer kicks the can of COVID-criticism down the road?

Keir Starmer’s criticism of the new government guidelines can be encapsulated in the following four quotes from his keynote address on Wednesday.

‘I urge everyone to follow the new guidance and the rule of law.’ An opener which distances his optics from the more rebellious Corbynistas, but contradicts its own logic. ‘Guidance’, at least, as far as I understand the term, is not compelled by police officers. The law is (though every MP seems to have been operating in ignorance of this difference since the virus arrived in the UK). So, which is it? A crucial question which nobody seems to have been asking these past months… Starmer continues, stating that ‘‘While these restrictions are now necessary, they were not inevitable.’ I agree to a degree; Sweden’s model of handling the virus shows that very few or, some may argue, no restrictions are inevitable. It’s awfully convenient that this section omits any alternative program Starmer himself would have pursued, though.

‘The return of the virus, and the return of restrictions, are not an act of god. They’re a failure of government.’ An oversimplification for the cameras; the virus never left. Again, there’s a convenient omission of exactly WHY the increased transmission rate is exclusively a government failure, leading to the belief that one is simply meant to take Starmer at his word. Not a problem in a keynote speech preaching to the choir, of course, perhaps not even come electoral combat if Starmer can maintain a clean image, but the omission should still be recognized. 

‘The British people have done everything asked of them, but the government has not.’ There it is! Labour, statists above all, encapsulate the voluntarist argument perfectly. Time after time through the last months, the British people have taken as a whole, acted in a far more ethical manner than a government which has failed to deliver on its promises and enforced a national house arrest with profiteering glee. The egregious cost of the furlough scheme shows most clearly, amongst other examples, that this Tory government has, by its actions, become a Red ministry wearing Blue ties. To set himself apart come election time, Starmer may need to move away from Tory policy more decisively, especially given the current climate. In summary, this perfunctory criticism, aimed at achieving some measure of political unity during times of increasing division and distrust, doesn’t distinguish itself outside party halls – I anticipate a different tone from these events a few years from now. 

Jacob Reid: A Success for Starmer

Starmer’s keynote speech will not change anything in the short term; it was overshadowed by new coronavirus restrictions which came on the same day, yet Starmer still has reason to be happy with his performance.  

Firstly, his speech upset the right people. He focused on “values”, rather than policy. Whereas Momentum bemoaned a “missed opportunity to show substance”, Alistair Campbell praised a “well-crafted speech” and argued that it was “clearly not the time” for new policy proposals. If Starmer wants to take Labour back into power, it is better to irk the Labour faction which caused their election failure last December, than the spin doctor who helped mastermind their 418 seat bonanza.  

Secondly, we saw another side to the forensic lawyer – we saw his passion.  He said he was “angry” that the Tories have had a decade in power, and you could see his anger.  He was also angry at the Corbyn narrative of the last election. “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: ‘what were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask: ‘what were we doing?’”.  A Facebook friend and former Corbyn supporter posted in January that Starmer had “moved him to tears” at one of the leadership hustings.  After Tuesday’s speech, it is clear why.  This bodes well for his campaigning ability at the next election.