What with his Brylcreamed quiff and his chiselled, telegenic looks, his lawyerly gravitas and statesmanlike poise, it is easy even for a rabid neo-liberal like von Hayek to have a bit of a man crush on Sir Keir Starmer. He stands at the despatch box as the equal of his opponent, and is included in the highest level deliberations surrounding the current coronavirus crisis. This is an endorsement of his top-tier qualities that would never have been extended to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer has been Director of Public Prosecutions. I don’t know what that post actually is, but it does sound jolly important. He is steady and loyal – he didn’t jump ship with the likes of Chuka Umunna to The Independent Group (remember them? No? Nor me). He is also a knight of the realm, no less, and I had a fit of gammon-faced apoplexy when the BBC referred to him the other day as “Mr Starmer”. “It’s ‘Sir Keir’, damn you!” I shouted, hurling my slipper at the irredeemably ghastly Laura Kuensberg (though unfortunately in mid-trajectory they switched back to the studio, so it was poor old Huw Edwards who copped it squarely on the tie knot).
The only sensible thing that the Labour Party has done since junking Ed Miliband has been the election of Starmer, who has a high degree of control not just of the front bench but also of the party’s powerful National Executive Committee, which largely controls the manifesto and strategy of the party, and (in opposition) influences shadow ministerial appointments. True, Labour’s internal party democracy has resulted in the parallel election of Angela Rayner as party deputy, who is flatmate of Rebecca “Wrong-Daily” Long-Bailey, darling of the teenage hard-left tendency. Wrong-Daily herself remains on the front bench, worryingly as shadow education secretary. So the Corbynites have not been totally routed, but I sense that if Starmer ever took office as PM, and thus wielded full royal prerogative power over ministerial appointments, the likes of Rayner and Long-Bailey would probably be one re-shuffle away from the dustbin of history where they firmly belong.
The resurrection of Miliband to the business portfolio was an astute piece of branding, quite deliberately announced a few days after most other appointments so as to give it air time. Remember this: it was a thrashing by the SNP north of the border that did for “Red Ed” in 2015, not a big swing to the Tories in England and Wales. South of the border, his vote held up well, including in the now all-important “Red Wall”. This perhaps indicates that, while Miliband and Starmer are to the left of the Blairites, they are broadly electable and basically sensible in the view of the median voter. If Sir Keir appeals to me, he will surely appeal to those fabled swing voters: Essex Man will like his unpatronising straight-talk, and Worcester Woman will positively swoon! If anybody in today’s Labour Party can win back power, surely it is he.
And yet the path back to power for Labour is going to make the Retreat from Moscow look like Bronze D of E. Scotland looks all but lost to Labour. Yet the Scottish central belt is as important a battleground to their prospects as the recapture of the Midlands and the North. Tony Blair’s strategy to create a devolved Labour redoubt that could wage an insurgency against any future Tory governments in Westminster has backfired horribly. The SNP have stolen Labour’s socialist clothes, lavishing goodies like free tuition fees on a thankful section of the electorate apparently too stupid to understand that the money is English, or too cynical to care. There is no
way back there for Labour, I reckon, and without Scotland the UK arithmetic as a whole looks tough for Starmer, even if he can take back the Red Wall.
Then there’s the NHS. One of the political myths created and spun by the Blair and Brown governments was that Labour was the party of the NHS. More than that, in fact: they generated and embedded the narrative that the NHS was somehow at the very core of British national identity, somehow emblematic of all that we stand for. The NHS would have come into being whether or not Labour had won the 1945 election, and it has continued in being irrespective of whether or not they were in power. But never mind the historical record, it’s the spin that matters. Labour cleverly and successfully placed the NHS front centre of the nation, and themselves front centre of the NHS. From the commanding heights of that political ground, they could always bombard the Conservatives with accusations of heartless austerity or a privatisation agenda, however baseless. The Corbyn campaign’s absurd allegation that the Tories were going to sell the NHS to Donald Trump probably cost them support in 2019 because it treated voters like children being scared to bed by the bogeyman, and because it was so palpably untrue. Yet the thrust of the argument has been central to every Labour election campaign that I can remember.
Not any more! Sir Keir was probably praying for Boris Johnson’s swift recovery, provided he recuperated in a private ward. But Bojo toughed it out alongside Joe Public, and then emerged promptly to name his new baby after the doctors! The public may not have noticed the extra £20 billion that Theresa May bunged at the health service, nor perhaps that Conservative ministers had been coached to refer to it as “our” NHS. These attempts to flank Labour never resulted in a decisive victory until Covid-19 reared its ugly head. Now the NHS has been practically sanctified (worryingly in my view) and it is not Labour that voters identify with it any more; it is this firmly One Nation Conservative government, whose ministers are now household names from the daily briefings, standing squarely alongside the heroes of our hospitals while their Labour shadows are practically invisible.
So, no “save the NHS” angle then. What to do? One line of attack could be the traditionally socialist one of how the poor are coming off far worse in all this than the rich. We can already see this in claims that “key workers” on the “front line” – in care homes, delivery vans, garbage lorries and so forth – have been neglected, or that the so-called “precariat” of self-employed and gig workers have not been given enough of a helping hand. Yet surely most of this service economy work force have noticed that Rishi Sunak rode to their rescue with what may yet be the largest bailout package in British history. And how can Labour more broadly blame capitalism for the effects of a virus? Globalisation may have accelerated its spread, but to argue against globalisation puts you alongside UKIP. So the old socialist weapons look rather obsolete for now. Labour may also back the wrong workers in this situation, especially if they play to their core by, for example, siding with recalcitrant public sector unions in blocking a return to work and classroom. Why should a shelf-stacker in Sainsbury’s, right in the so-called front line, side with a bunch of splitters who prevented her kids going back to school while she was under the pump?
Maybe score some points by letting the identity politicians off the leash? We have a racist virus, with something like a third of patients being from ethnic minorities. Maybe Starmer could let David Lammy or Sadiq Khan shout that the government has abandoned them too – typical nativist Tories, Faragistes in disguise! But this is tricky when so many ministers, nightly paraded before the national media, are themselves from ethnic minorities, and when your own party is still shaking off the anti-Semitic label. In any case this stuff turns most voters off, and isn’t really true. Virus aside, in the longer term this ground has been neutralised, almost demilitarised, by the evident Conservative embrace of aspirational immigrant families.
Hmm. Well, with ballooning public debt in the offing, there should be plenty of opportunities to hammer the Conservatives before the next election over all those wicked and cruel cuts they are going to have to make, whilst they cosy up to the rapacious business lobby and bail out the likes of ”Sir” Richard Branson. And yet this time around the government has rescued the barbers not the bankers, the florists not the financiers. And once again, though their handling of the economy may in due course be criticised, nobody seriously blames the Conservatives or capitalism for this crisis, and nor will they for the cuts that must surely follow it.
Brexit? Other than its timing, that’s over with as a political fault line, and the major Coronabonds political crisis brewing in the Eurozone is going to knock any final puff out of the remoaners. Yet that does leave the timing as a political debate. The government’s rigid deadline is starting to look farcical, but any Labour pressure on Johnson to delay it will just make them look like they are backsliding on the referendum result – and this was part of the reason they lost in December’s election. Labour are also still profoundly divided on this issue, whereas the Tories are now rock solid. So Starmer surely knows that any attempt to storm the Red Wall over the timing and execution of Brexit will be launched hesitantly and be slaughtered in no man’s land.
That leaves a general and ongoing criticism of the government’s handling of events, to generate over time a sense of a rudderless administration flailing incompetently, and a strong shadow government waiting in the wings. This would be a pragmatic and flexible approach that would not tie Starmer down to any pre-ordained plan. There should be plenty of opportunities because, boy-oh-boy, do we have plenty of events! But in a crisis that threatens the nation, this strategy risks appearing unpatriotic. This is not a tag Labour wants, especially having gone into the last election with a leader who used to hang out with the IRA. It is also always hard for Labour successfully to damage the Tories over managerial competence – the Conservative front bench look like they could run multi-national businesses (many pretty much have). The Labour front bench look like they could run local council parking departments, academic discussion groups or chippy pressure groups, but not much more. People may not particularly like the Conservatives, but they trust their competence more than post-Blair Labour. People may complain cabbie-style about the government’s errors, and how they would do things differently if they were PM. But this timeless tendency should not be confused with an endorsement of the alternative government. It is more likely that the public will give Johnson and the gang the
benefit of the very large amount of doubt there is over a fast-developing crisis characterised above all by uncertainty.
Crikey! This is going to be hard work even for someone of Starmer’s evident capabilities, because the Conservative Party looks to be holding most of the major political cards right now, including that crucial NHS trump card. I like and admire Sir Keir Starmer, but for me – and for the UK – this is good news. In its current guise, with its current policy stance, and irrespective of a fine leader, the best place for the Labour Party is in opposition. And given their declining clientelistic support base of public sector unionised workers, friable minorities and mutable youth, they deserve to remain there in perpetuity.