Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer has emerged as the early frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest. This is surprising for a number of reasons, not least the fact that he personally oversaw Labour’s Brexit policy in an era-defining electoral catastrophe in which the party line is that Brexit was to blame. It is also curious that, prior to his announcing his intention to stand, there appeared to be near-unanimous consent within the party that its next leader should be a woman.
Nonetheless, Starmer secured the nominations of considerably more MPs than any of the other contenders and won a strong lead in the only poll of Labour members so far during the contest. He has fought his way into pole position by attempting to build something of a coalition between different wings of the party behind him.
Of the other four candidates, backbenchers Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips are seen as moderates while frontbenchers Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry are broadly viewed as Corbynite continuity candidates. Starmer, though, refuses to sully his leadership bid with anything as unseemly as ideological positioning, choosing instead to construct an image of himself as a cuddly leader who will cater to everyone’s preferences.
To some extent, Jeremy Corbyn has been lunging towards that same pipe dream for the last few years. Brexit threatened to tear the Labour party in two, especially when it came to the unimaginably controversial issue of whether to endorse a second referendum. Corbyn, therefore, simply opted not to take a position on it. For some time, Labour was neither for nor against a Final Say vote. Different MPs publicly made directly contradictory claims about policy depending on which wing of the party they identified with.
As we know all too well, that fudge was resoundingly rejected by the British public, who shrieked in frustration that they wanted only to “Get Brexit Done”. There is an invaluable lesson to be learned here, which one would think would still be fresh in the political memory, but it appears to have escaped Starmer’s notice. That stark division down the middle of the party has not gone anywhere. The new leader will have to confront it head-on.
Starmer is promising to rid Labour of that factionalism. Since division has become such an issue within the party, why not simply abolish it? He talks emotively about what might be achieved if we could all just learn to get along. He speaks as though factionalism was a conscious policy choice of past Labour leaders, as if they stoked infighting for fun. Starmer sees himself as the man to create an untouchable unity across the Labour party.
We have seen this story arc countless times before. Ambitious politicians believe they can do a Macron and effortlessly bring two warring armies together in peace and harmony. Theresa May, on becoming prime minister, made a point of denouncing both the socialist left and the libertarian right. Jo Swinson seemed sure sensible voters would reject both a hard Brexit and a hard-left economic agenda, allowing her to sweep to power as the calm voice of the middle. Heidi Allen thought Change UK, a brand new political force with no discernible ideology, would be the answer to Britain’s political woes.
Politics simply does not work that way. The prevailing narrative in these plans seems to be that voters merely want to be told that everything will work out in the end, and that they will happily dispense with their political allegiances in favour of a mushy politics of unity. It is only slightly less ridiculous than the Sacha Baron Cohen scene in which the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved when a former Mossad agent is invited to hold hands with a Palestinian academic on TV.
Starmer’s strategy is already visibly coming apart at the seams. The Manchester branch of Momentum, for instance, has taken issue with his hiring of someone from the so-called Labour right to work on his campaign, denouncing his leadership bid as a result and stating unequivocally that “a vote for Starmer is a vote against socialism”. A very sizeable chunk of the Labour grassroots is intent on keeping the Corbynite dream alive and Starmer refusing to back Corbyn’s radical vision, while another candidate is giving his leadership full marks in a TV interview, was always going to cost him Corbynite support.
He is having no better luck with the centrist, Blairite wing of the party. Unsurprisingly, he is not trusted by many to draw a line under the Corbyn era and restore some common sense to Labour’s politics. The fact that he has served in a senior position in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet for several years, sticking to the ludicrous party line on anti-Semitism throughout, was always going to cost him Blairite support.
At first glance, Starmer’s platform seems very attractive indeed, but it withers under the slightest glint of sunlight. This strategy cannot stand up to scrutiny. He is trying to walk a tightrope between the two wings of the party in precisely the same way that Corbyn did for so long (before selling out on Brexit in exchange for radical socialism) by blurring policy lines and deliberately confusing ideologies.
Corbyn failed dramatically, and there is no reason to think that Starmer would be any more successful. He is trying to please everyone and will end up pleasing no one. Perhaps it would be better for Labour to have Rebecca Long-Bailey as its leader after all, since at least then it would be clear what the party stood for, rather than it offering an incomprehensible ideological goo.