Amidst Coronavirus, Keir Starmer is finding his feet. Let’s just hope that second best is good enough

Nandy and Starmer

Never, since Ian Duncan Smith became Conservative leader two days after 9/11, has the election of a new Leader of the Opposition been so overshadowed by events. Coronavirus meant there was even less attention on Keir Starmer’s arrival than expected. The long Labour leadership contest started in early January, before Coronavirus had even been heard of. It bridged the gap not just between two leaders, but between two epochs.

As I write, both Labour’s poll ratings and Starmer’s leadership ratings are rising. The ineptitude and incompetence of the Johnson government’s response to Coronavirus becomes increasingly obvious. As it becomes embroiled in a political crisis entirely of its own making – Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings for a flagrant breach of lockdown rules, giving a dangerous green light to the public to do the same – Starmer has shrewdly held back. Rather than issue shrill calls for resignations and enquiries, as Corbyn would have done, he has watched from a safe distance as a Tory civil war erupts over Johnson’s craven cowardice. Whether Cummings stay or goes, the government looks weaker by the day, as Starmer grows in stature.

Suddenly, Cummings’ contrarianism and wackiness are a liability for Johnson. His fixation with a “long march through the institutions”, disrupting here and creating chaos there, is precisely what post-Coronavirus Britain doesn’t need. Starmer’s forensic questioning at PMQs – confrontations delayed by Johnson’s own brush with the virus – has swiftly shown Johnson to be a bumbling lightweight, whose nonchalance about care home deaths has been brutally exposed.

Starmer’s election as Labour leader, and Angela Rayner’s election as his deputy, were never in much doubt. What then, is the point of looking at why they won, and the also-rans they defeated? But even after one of the dullest leadership contests in Labour history it’s worth embarking on an analysis of the contest and what, nearly two months on, it has to tell us about how Labour can prosper in these unprecedented times.

*****

One Sunday afternoon in late January I attended a leadership hustings in Nottingham, organised by the soft left Open Labour group. It was a hastily-arranged affair to supplement the party’s own set of regional hustings, much criticised for ignoring regions like East Anglia and Yorkshire, where Labour polled particularly poorly in December (though Nottingham was one city the party hadn’t ignored – it hosted a second event ten days later).

Haste meant that attendees hadn’t been told which building in Nottingham Trent University’s sprawling campus the hustings was being held at. I found myself part of a group of members from across the East Midlands, hunting around the centre of town amidst much gallows humour about the venues of Labour events always being a closely-guarded secret to keep the wrong faction from attending. Eventually we found the venue – the university’s swish Business School – and arrived just in time for the deputy leadership hustings to start.

All five deputy leadership candidates were there, but the winner definitely wasn’t Angela Rayner. One highlight of the afternoon was a heckle from the audience, asking candidates to identify themselves so everyone knew who was who: you could almost hearing egos shrinking at that. But what followed was little more than a vanity parade, to the tune of much platitudes and boasting. There was hardly any understanding of how badly Labour had lost, let alone why, or of how it can recover.

Richard Burgon said the deputy leader’s role was to be a campaigner, not a leader-in waiting, and invited the audience to pick its ten best policies from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos: surely precisely the last thing Labour should do now, given it lost both times (in an interview a few weeks later, Burgon went further, promising to “work with trade unions and members to draw up a list of the 10 best policies from the last two manifestos”, which he would “take… out into communities to repeat them again and again and again”). Dawn Butler said she was “obviously disappointed” with the result (on election night she said she had “felt like John Prescott without punching anyone”). But her four-point plan for victory (Campaign, Organise, Recruit, Educate – CORE for short) was unconvincing. Adherence to the acronym would, she promised, “make sure this is the last time we lose”.

“We are better than the Tories, but need to be better at selling our brand”, insisted Butler. She was not the only candidate to prescribe New Labour-ish technocratic tweaks as a magic wand. Oddly, the most Corbynite of the candidates often gave the most Blairite answers. When asked what he would do to win back the support of over-65s, Burgon promised lots of focus groups. But at least he was better than Butler, who talked vaguely “respecting the older generation”. Rosena Allin-Khan spoke of holding the hands of dying hospital patients who told her they’d driven ambulances during the war, and finding out that her father had been beaten in a care home. From a more credible politician these stories could have much traction, but here they sounded like tall tales.

Allin-Khan got more plausible as the debate wore on, but she started from such a low bar that she never reached front-runner status. Like most of the others she made much of her deprived background: the daughter of a single mum who had to work three jobs, she only studied at Cambridge, from the age of 23, thanks to a Labour government. “I’ve won seats off the Tories that no-one thought I’d win”, she said – a fair claim, given that her Tooting constituency was considered marginal when she was first elected at a 2016 by-election, and her previous stint as a councillor for an ultra-marginal ward. But there was more than a whiff of student-union sloganizing to her coda: “We need to nick the keys off Boris Johnson and unlock the doors”.

Only Ian Murray – MP for Edinburgh South and the least well-known candidate, south of the border at least – was impressive. Murray give a clear analysis of the state of the challenge Labour faces, and delivered the bitter truth that the only realistic path to victory passes through Scotland. He was the only candidate to speak of the dangers of constantly trashing the last Labour government’s record. And he’s clearly done his Midlands homework: he had the nous to namecheck Lincoln – a constituency which a questioner came from – as a “seat we have to win”.

Murray observed that he holds on to his own seat – Labour’s only toehold in Scotland – by getting SNP, Lib Dem and Tory supporters to vote for him tactically, and that some in Labour have criticised his big-tent approach. He managed not to sound boastful, and neatly reminded the audience of the tribalism that doomed it to defeat last December.

Aside from Murray, Rayner – another daughter of a single mum – was the only candidate to mention anti-semitism in her opening pitch, and at first she seemed clearer than most about the scale of Labour’s woes. “I’m still in mourning. This doesn’t feel like Open Labour, but divided Labour,” she said. But later on she sidestepped a question on internal party democracy, coming out with safe bromides about a “broad church” and giving conference more teeth. Later still she just sounded loud and hectoring.

Most of the candidates’ answers only deepened my sense of gloom. A question about a “progressive alliance” yielded Lib Dem-bashing from Burgon, a rant from Butler (who didn’t appear to understand the question) about “the most right-wing government in history”, and a trite “Vote Labour, get Labour,” message from Rayner. Allin-Khan went into an extraordinary monologue about wanting to abolish the House of Lords (like Rayner), and introducing proportional representation, but she soon returned to her favourite topic: herself. “I’m as red as the blood that runs through my veins… I’m a fighter and I’m gritty”, she bragged. Candidates on The Apprentice would blush at the self-aggrandisement.

In response to an equality question, Butler told a pointless anecdote about having defeated a Blairite SPAD to get selected in Brent South; Allin-Khan an equally pointless anecdote about having been urged (by a woman) to withdraw from the deputy leadership race for the sake of her mental health. Again, only Murray and Rayner made much sense. Only Murray told the uncomfortable truth. While it was great that more than half of Labour MPs were now women, this was more accident than design – it was simply that more male MPs than female ones had lost their seats in the 2019 bloodbath.

Someone asked why Labour majorities were going up in cities, but being eroded in towns. Rayner and Allin-Khan, who talked about renationalisation; seemed to misunderstand the question. Rayner talked vaguely about devolution, and how Labour’s economic strategy in 2019 had been “bang on” but had failed to meet an electoral challenge; Butler denounced Johnson as an “Oxbridge-educated toerag” before coming out with some strange gobbledegook about “amplifying the brand”. Only Murray impressed, with clear recall of the Tory majorities in formerly safe Labour seats like Mansfield and Bassetlaw, and a call for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for England’s deprived towns.

In reply to the inevitable question about racism and anti-semitism, Butler emoted about “dealing with racism every day of my life”. Burgon said he hadn’t signed the Board of Deputies’ ‘Ten Pledges’ as he wanted “clarification on one or two of them”; Rayner drove a wedge between the two of them, saying she’d already signed the pledges, Allin-Khan said she’d signed them even earlier. At least Burgon spoke sensibly about the contradiction between demands for an independent complaints system on the one hand, and demands for the party’s leadership to personally lead investigations on the other. But only Murray answered the question, rather than enter the other candidates’ bidding war. “Never again do I want to be told on the doorstep that we’re not voting Labour because of anti-semitism,” said Murray.

The candidates were all stronger on questions about party matters – selections, trigger ballots, doorstep canvassing apps that don’t work – than national policy questions. But worryingly, most didn’t seem to understand the rudiments of voting systems. Open Labour – a wonkish group dominated by electoral reformers – planted a question of its own about voting systems for internal party elections. Allin-Khan used this as an opportunity to point that she was the only Labour MP to be a working doctor, Burgon too missed the point, repeating that he was the only candidate on favour of open selections ahead of every election (“Members aren’t just a postal service for the party,” he asserted).

Nor did the debate’s closing statement inspire much confidence. Burgon had a few good bon mots – “We need two wings to fly” – but looked and sounded like a candidate for a student union presidency, not the deputy leadership of a national political party. Allin-Khan argued, cogently, that Labour should be inspired by “values, not dogma” but then went off on a riff about “being a citizen of the world”. Butler again insisted that “Labour won’t lose ever again” if her CORE strategy was followed. Having promised earlier that she stood up to the establishment and broke rules, she now insisted that she would “Never be part of a coup” (an odd claim, seeing as her resignation from the Labour frontbench over Brexit in 2017 was seen as the start of one). Her speech then turned to “Brother and Sisters” folksiness, before bursting into song, with a line or two of Labri Siffre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong’ (thankfully, Butler did not have time for a full verse). Rayner said that Labour “needs a collective head-wobble” before it can “win back into power (sic)”.

In over 90 minutes of discussion Jeremy Corbyn’s name had not been mentioned once. Only Murray had answered the questions. The other four candidates had mostly just insulted the audience’s intelligence.

****

Keir Starmer was absent from the Leadership hustings that followed, for good reason as his mother-in-law was mortally ill (she died a few days later). We were shown a slick video of Starmer talking to camera in an overcoat and blue T-shirt, but also suited and booted at the despatch box, delivering a safe message about a “relentless focus on the Tories”.

With Starmer absent, it must have been the first time in British history that a Labour leadership hustings had an all-female line-up of candidates on the stage. The absence of Starmer made the debate seem strangely asymmetric. Emily Thornberry, sat between Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey, constantly chatted to Nandy during the hustings but didn’t speak to Long-Bailey once. Nandy said unequivocally that she supported HS2, which was as much about capacity as speed, and argued that the party should support it more strongly and argue for its be built from the north southwards, not the other way around. Thornberry and Long-Bailey broadly agreed, and it would have been interesting to hear what Starmer (who has opposed HS2 because of the demolition it has required in   his Holborn and St Pancras constituency) had to say to a Midland audience, but sadly we couldn’t.

Thornberry sighed when she started speaking and then paused. “We’re in a mess aren’t we?”, she said (“No we’re not”, heckled a grumpy spectator as he sidled back into his seat). Thornberry had the wit to name-check an East Midlands MP, Nadia Whittome, and Open Labour’s chair Alex Sobel, for having nominated her, but sounded much too needy. She shouldn’t have had to stress her seven frontbench jobs and her longest service as an MP (15 years, since 2005), but she did; in her leaflets she even mentioned that she had been a party member for 42 years, rather like an old duffer pleading long service to argue against  redundancy. There was an elegiac quality to much of what Thornberry had to say: she spoke of how she had empathised with her brother when he came out of the closet in the 1980s, when both Nandy and Long-Bailey would have still been in primary school.

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s opening pitch contained a surprise: a promise to “sweep aside” the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected chamber, based outside London. But given that British politicians have been promising to do just that for at least a century, there was a glaring absence of detail about how.

Lisa Nandy was streets ahead of both Thornberry and Long-Bailey. Only Nandy seemed to speak from the heart, with an uncomfortable message about the “need to get rid of Tory MPs, not Labour ones”. Nandy said she was the “brave, not easy choice”. Comparing herself to female leaders of Finland and New Zealand managed to sound bold, without being vain. Presciently, Nandy warned that on April 4 the cameras “would turn away from” the new Labour leader, not towards them. “We need to emotionally reconnect” she said. There was an unsubtle dog-whistle attack on Starmer, with a call for a “leader who looks like a community campaigner, not just a man at a despatch box”.

The only clear dividing lines between the candidates were on ‘soft’ constitutional issues, not economic ones. The Electoral Reform Society (co-sponsors of the event, so given first dibs at questions) asked a question about – unsurprisingly – electoral reform. Thornberry said she supported a single transferrable vote system for internal elections but wanted to keep the constituency link in parliament, implying opposition to PR; she added later that more resources for local government was the top priority, not more devolution. Long-Bailey made her opposition to PR clear. Nandy said she wanted to trial PR in a region – possibly her home turf of Great Manchester – first, but stressed it was not a “panacea” to Labour’s problems. “Progress is not inevitable,” she said. The blind optimism of most of the deputy leadership candidates now seemed a distant memory. Yet no-one – not even Nandy – reminded the audience that Labour had just had its most shattering defeat since 1935. Thornberry later said that Labour had had “no clear economic strategy” at the 2019 election, but could not say what the economic strategy should have been . There was little talk of listening to what “ordinary voters” say – all three candidates present, Nandy included, were pitching leftwards to party members, rather than the country at large.

But on the environment, Nandy was brave, condemning the booing of trade unionists at party conference who had expressed scepticism about the goal of zero carbon emissions by 2030. Such internal rows let the Tories off the hook, argued Nandy, as the Johnson government will struggle to reach its target of zero admissions by 2050, let alone 2030. She said she wanted to see a Green New Deal create jobs in places like Barnsley, where most new jobs were packing boxes in an ASOS warehouse. On universal credit and work capability assessments, Nandy was very sure-footed, referring to her work for Centrepoint and the Children’s Society, and defending social security as a universal system, not just means-tested handouts.

Thornberry said “I told you so” about Universal Credit’s problems, and then gave her only truly memorable line of the entire hustings: “That’s why it’s such a catastrophe that we lost this election, and why it mustn’t happen again”. But asked about the SNP, Thornberry paused again before growling “I hate the SNP… Tories in Nationalist clothing”. Oddly, Long-Bailey seemed statesmanlike in comparison: “it’s not just about how much we hate the SNP but why Scots have stopped voting Labour”. But only Nandy had the courage to admit that Labour was losing the argument about nationalism, and to speak of the need to learn from socialist parties in Catalonia and Quebec.

Asked what one education policy they would introduce, Thornberry waffled about the need to “invest in our people”, Long-Bailey was better, improvising some good lines about the need to upskill workers to avoid being made obsolete by robots nd mechanisation. But only Nandy answered the question fully, with a call for the restoration of Education Maintenance Allowances, which she said had increased the number of school leavers in Wigan going onto to university by 40% over just six years.

Long-Bailey used her closing speech make a visible effort to shed her reputation as a lightweight, but there was far too little content for her to succeed. Long-Bailey even ended a sentence with the words “on this basis”, just like a cruel parody published in Private Eye a few weeks before. Starmer, in a second video message shown because he was not there to deliver a closing statement in person, promised that he “won’t trash the last Labour government, but I won’t trash the last five years either”. Nandy said that the road back to power “is steep, but it does not have to be long” In a dig at Long-Bailey, who had ducked out of an interview with the BBC’s scariest inquisitor, Nandy said she “wasn’t scared of Andrew Neill”. Thornberry sounded like Miss Piggy delivering a show-stopping number at the end of The Muppet Musical and then slamming the stage door on her way out. She said she’d stood loyally beside Corbyn as he had been the members’ choice, implying that she had always known he wouldn’t win. She was then told that she had a spare minute to fill, which she filled with unedifying begging of CLPS to give her their nominations. It was an unedifying end, both to the hustings and to her won leadership hopes (she never got the number of CLP nominations she needed, and was forced to drop out of the contest two weeks later).

Nandy had her fair share of stumbles. In response to a question about devolution, Nandy gave a cheap line about the need for “fewer men sitting behind desks in London writing think-tank reports”. She preached to the converted with her call for no more “Tough on immigration” pledges printed on mugs, and her praise for free movement, which sits oddly with her acceptance of Brexit and hostility to a second referendum. Her rhetoric about Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s fell flat. But in Starmer’s absence she was, by a wide margin, the most impressive candidate in the hall.

****

My view that Nandy and Murray won the hustings hands-down is subjective of course: I’m a Labour centrist in the genuine sense of the term, wary of both old right and old left, and I’ve often backed underdog candidates (in 1994 I wanted to support Robin Cook and plumped reluctantly for Blair; in 2007 I wanted to support anyone but Brown for leader and opted for Hain as deputy; in 2015 I backed Cooper and in 2016 Owen Smith).

But it’s undeniable that this time Nandy and Murray were the only two candidates with anything original to say (in Nandy’s case, that Labour has become a party of cities and not towns – a crucial distinction made stark by last December’s results). Nandy was certainly the only leadership candidate to have recognised the folly of a second Brexit referendum early on, to be frank about Labour’s challenges, and to resist the urge to always talk about herself.

A good PhD thesis is waiting to written about why Lisa Nandy, by far the more dynamic and able candidate, only came third in the Labour leadership contest, getting just 16.2% of the vote, well behind Long-Bailey’s 27.6%. Long-Bailey was always a weak candidate, and the early stages of her campaign were disastrously inept. It wasn’t until late January that Long-Bailey – who’d given Corbyn “ten out of ten” for leadership – finally conceded that Labour’s massive defeat might have something to do with the manifesto that Corbyn designed. But even then Long-Bailey said the main problem was that it didn’t “resonate” implying the problem was misguided voters. By then, Nandy was being spoken of a “mild-mannered underdog” who could potentially come second behind Starmer, or who might even come through the middle, like Ed Miliband in 2010, as a surprise winner. ‘Is the Labour leadership race turning into Keir Starmer vs Lisa Nandy?’ asked the New Statesman.

Starmer’s safety-first campaign, with its meaningless slogan ‘Another future is possible’ and lack of substantive policy commitments, avoided offending both the Corbynite left and the Blairite right (one of Starmer’s few memorable comments during the campaign, ‘Don’t trash the last Labour government and don’t trash the last four years’, was straight out of the New Labour triangulation playbook).

Lisa Nandy’s campaign slogan – We win together – was admittedly,= just as vacuous. On the back of her leaflets there might not have been specific policy commitments, but at least she confronted Labour’s three problems: factionalism, mutual distrust between Labour and many of its natural supporters, and its lukewarm support for genuine devolution of power to English regions. Why then did Nandy do so badly? Part because her campaign – like most poorly-funded, insurgent campaigns – was poorly organised (when I volunteered to help I was invited to call potential supporters using a phone app that didn’t work).

But the main reason is that she made the mistake of trying to ape the other candidates. When she gave an ill-judged interview in January attacking Blair and Brown for perpetuating the “consensus that Thatcher built” – a clear pitch to Long-Bailey supporters – she lost support from the right (one council leader I know switched his vote from Nandy to Starmer as soon as he heard it). When she, unwisely, joined Long-Bailey and Thornberry in signing a ‘trans rights’ pledge she immediately lost the potential support of several soft left women Labour members that I know. At the hustings I attended she stuck to the “trans women are women” line: very much what the Nottingham audience, devoid of so-called ‘Terfs’, wanted to hear. She was insistent that waiting times for teenagers to receive gender reassignment treatment were too long (some would argue that they should be longer, as no child should make an irreversible decision about their gender). She must have thought that signing up to an innocuous pledge carried no political risks, but she soon learnt otherwise. Later on in the contest Nandy seemed to have buyer’s remorse about having signed a pledge that, on closer inspection, appeared to call for women defending women-only spaces to be expelled from the party. She should have thought harder, made the “brave, not easy” choice, and joined Starmer in refusing to sign such a fatuous pledge. Starmer was always bound to win of course, but had she not gone along with Groupthink both on Labour’s record in government and on trans rights, she might have won new supporters and beaten Long-Bailey into third place.

Another good PhD thesis could be written about why Ian Murray only came fourth in the deputy leadership race (although he deservedly knocked Butler into fifth place, he came well behind Burgon and Allin-Khan, the contest’s surprise runner-up). Ever since Rayner, surprisingly, decided in early January not to run for the Leadership she was seen as an odds-on favourite for the Deputy Leadership, and as the contest wore won she skilfully distanced herself from Long-Bailey, the “good friend” she stood aside for, to win first and second preference votes from the Soft Left and centrists. Once Starmer cemented his status as frontrunner in the leadership race, many people felt that his deputy had to be a woman, and Rayner was the most inoffensive and best-known on offer.

Subconscious sexism, racism, and an unwritten rule that after Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010 Labour should have a southern male leader, ideally counterbalanced by a northern woman as deputy, damaged both Nandy and Murray. Their strongest attributes – Nandy’s authenticity, gender and ethnicity, and Murray’s Scottishness – became handicaps. Nandy had invited members to make “the brave, not the easy choice” in the contest, but instead they decided they didn’t want to be told what they didn’t want to hear.

****

Ultimately Starmer won so handsomely because, as one MP has put it, ‘he looks like a Prime Minister’: subliminal fears of electing an apparently less experienced woman as Leader trumped the imperative for Labour to break its century-long habit of only having white, male leaders. Starmer’s victory shows that far from changing utterly under Corbyn, the Labour hasn’t really changed at all: Many soft left members who backed Corbyn came to support Starmer. Far from being opposites, Corbyn and Starmer in fact have a lot in common: both are white male baby-boomers who represent neighbouring North London seats. Whatever the hard left says, Starmer’s soft left roots are not in fact all that far from Corbyn’s (both started out as Young Socialists in the shires: Starmer in Surrey, Corbyn in Shropshire). It’s often forgotten that many Labour members voted for Corbyn to be Leader in 2015 not because he’d be a heroic failure, but because they genuinely thought he’d do better than his disastrous predecessor: exactly the same reason why a clear majority of members backed Starmer in 2020.

Despite sniping from the hard left – who have, ridiculously, argued that Starmer isn’t even a social democrat, and is “letting Boris off the hook” on Coronavirus – Starmer has made an impressive start. Starmer’s inoffensiveness and forensic intelligence are valuable weapons as Labour holds the Tories to account during the pandemic. The leak of an internal report over Anti-Semitism – clearly a partisan fightback by the Corbynites, trying to shift blame to the party machine that Corbyn inherited-  could have been a full-blown crisis for Labour. But Starmer’s promise of an independent enquiry has largely contained the wildfire. Starmer’s silence over the suspension of Trevor Phillips, for statements that are allegedly Islamophobic, is less impressive: it should be possible to both have zero tolerance of genuine islamophobia while also recognising that Phillips is the victim of a partisan witch hunt (as some of those suspended for Anti-Semitism also were).

But Angela Rayner’s media performances have been unimpressive: whenever asked an unfriendly question she tends to accuse her interviewer of being a government apologist. Like Starmer she has little charisma, but unlike Starmer she does not seem to have much technical ability to compensate. One day the Coronavirus crisis will pass, and it remains to be seen whether such bloodless leadership can lead Labour to victory. As Rachel Sylvester argued presciently in the Times in January, just as the contest was starting, Labour’s new leader “needs to discover some joy”. In the election campaign the Tories had “exuded the cheery optimism of a Richard Curtis film… while Labour channelled Ken Loach” by patronisingly viewing voters either as “our people” or as passive victims of austerity.

Worryingly, this trend was clearly alive and kicking at the hustings I attended. The party’s potential leaders fell over themselves, like the Four Yorkshiremen, to prove who had the most deprived upbringing. The only two candidates who opted out of this ridiculous Dutch auction were Nandy and Murray. Murray in fact had a genuinely poor upbringing: the son of a cooper and a shop assistant, he worked in a fish and chip shop to make ends meet as a student, but refused to harp on or exaggerate it during the campaign. Nandy’s father is Dipak Nandy, an Indian academic and the first director of the Runnymede Trust; her mother is Luise Fitzwalter, a TV producer and daughter of Frank Byers, a Liberal MP and later Liberal Leader in the Lords. Nandy’s background is thus unusual but hardly deprived, and while she was brought up in a single-parent household she wisely refused to pretend that it was a poor one.

Labour has been most successful when it is a party of Roundheads like by a Cavalier like Wilson or Blair, Rachel Sylvester has argued. Neither Nandy nor Murray are Cavaliers. But they certainly had the most personality and originality of all the leadership candidates. After Starmer’s victory, Sylvester noted that his acceptance speech was delivered in front of a backdrop of white shutters, “an appropriate end to a leadership campaign in which he remained studiously neutral” on most things. As Starmer “colours in his blank canvass” he could do well to heed the advice of one moderate MP, who told Sylvester that “Unity isn’t the exam question It’s about direction”. But also inspiration: Starmer’s blandness and caution may currently seem reassuring, but to climb the electoral mountain needed to secure victory for Labour he’s going to have to inspire, not just reassure.

As Ayesha Hazarika argued as soon as Starmer won on April 4, the “Coronavirus crisis offers [Starmer] a grim but politically useful starting point… the public has been crying out for a grown-up [and] Starmer could be their man”. Starmer’s followed Hazarika’s advice to keep some of the Corbynites inside his tent (although Butler and Burgon were rightly fired, Long-Bailey was rightly kept on the frontbench as shadow education secretary). Astutely, he has kept on some of Corbyn’s ablest shadow ministers – Ashworth, Reynolds, and Macdonald – and had the bravery to bring back Ed Miliband.

Starmer has typecast Ian Murray as shadow Scottish secretary, simply because there is no other Scottish Labour MP available, but Murray deserves better. Starmer has appointed Nandy to an important job, as shadow foreign secretary. But while this is a big promotion – Nandy was only shadow energy and climate change secretary for less than a year under Corbyn – the focus of British politics will be on domestic matters for many months, or even years, post-Covid. What was meant as a promotion increasingly looks like banishment, and Nandy should be brought back to a big domestic brief soon.

Starmer’s other key appointments – Anneliese Dodds as shadow chancellor and Nick Thomas-Symonds – are certainly bold, in that most people have heard of neither of them. But while they’re both bright – Dodds is a former politics lecturer and MEP, Thomas-Symonds a former law lecturer, barrister and biographer of Attlee and Bevan – no-one would claim that they have the popular touch, or excess charisma. And neither represent seats in places where Labour’s crisis is most acute: the North and Scotland (while Dodds is audibly Scottish, she left Scotland at the age of 18 and now represents Oxford East).

Both Starmer and Rayner won as compromise candidates. Out of a poor field, they were at best the second-best candidates for leader and deputy. Starmer is plausible but can’t be construed as anything other than a Londoner, and a Remainer who backed a second Brexit referendum until only a few months ago. Of course Starmer’s record as a human rights barrister and as a good Director of Public Prosecutions means he is amply qualified to lead the Labour Party. But it’s also possible he’s overqualified, and his lawyerly temperament may not appeal much outside the M25.

Whether Labour can recover fast enough under Starmer’s leadership to win in 2024 is anyone’s guess. Labour needs more northern and Scottish frontbenchers in prominent briefs, and Nandy and Murray remain easily the ablest. Starmer should make better use of them.

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5 Responses to Amidst Coronavirus, Keir Starmer is finding his feet. Let’s just hope that second best is good enough

  1. Matthew Stiles says:

    Good article Alex in lots of ways but I disagree about the awful Ian Murray. At the London hustings, he accused other candidates of being soft on antisemitism and when Dawn Butler took umbrage he accused her of calling him a racist (which she hadn’t). I also remember him asking the Labour leadership to “call off the attack dogs” in reference to people protesting at his constituency office during the attempted June 2016 coup. I later saw a film of these “attack dogs”. Turns out it was a small group of samba musicians playing their instruments outside his closed office. On a threat level from 0-10 I doubt they would have even got to 1.

    • Alex Grant says:

      Thanks Matt. I wasn’t saying Ian Murray was perfect – only that I thought he was the most plausible deputy leadership candidate at the hustings I attended (at which Butler answered a question about anti-semitism by merely saying she’d ‘fought against racism all my life’, which missed the point and didn’t address the specific issue of AS). Casual accusations of racism (which should not be made lightly) are part of Labour’s recent problems, and I agree that Murray should not make them without good cause.

      But as the sole Scottish Labour MP Murray deserves to be better used. I completely agree with you that during the leadership contest of 2016 tempers were frayed, and some accusations of ‘intimidation’ were exaggerated. But I think calling the contest a ‘coup’ (which implies illegality, coercion or force) is part of the problem. Challenges against incumbent leaders and deputy leaders are an important mechanism in any democratic party, are clearly allowed within the party rules, and have been used by both the left (eg Tony Benn in 1980 and 1988) as well as the right. And I’m not sure any kind of protest (even if it is just Samba music!) outside the offices of MPs who support challengers is fair.

      • Matthew Stiles says:

        I agree Alex but it wasn’t a straightforward challenge. A large section of the PLP tried to force him to resign. A vote of no confidence, a string of front-bench resignations over several days specifically timed to keep the news cycle going, then the attempt to even keep Corbyn off the ballot. When that attempt failed (by just one voteat the NEC) that berk McTernan on BBC said Corbyn supporters had “murdered the Labour Party”. Oh, and I nearly forgot, the decision to set the freeze date for Jan 12th (seven months before ballots were sent out). The 2010 and 2015 elections were seen as recruitment opportunities so freeze dates were more like a couple of days before ballot papers were sent out iirc.

      • Alex Grant says:

        Dear Matt, of course the leadership challenge was co-ordinated and organised (leadership challenges usually are!), In that sense it was a straightforward leadership challenge: the only difference is that it was backed by a majority of Labour MPs, but not members. And it can’t have been that well organised and co-ordinated, given that Corbyn was re-elected by a larger margin, despite machinations over cut-off dates etc.

        I don’t have much admiration for John McTernan either, but I don’t understand why you think it was wrong for Labour MPs to oppose Corbyn, and to conclude that a change of leader was called for. A large section of the Labour left have (often rightly) been trenchantly critical of all Labour leaders from Ramsay McDonald onwards. It was always very odd for the Left to then demand unswerving loyalty to Corbyn from Labour MPs, not only in public but also in the privacy of a voting booth.

        Labour MPs are not delegates, either of their electorates or of party members in their constituencies. Instead they are elected representatives free to exercise their democratic rights like everyone else, and to be held accountable for their choices and decisions when candidates are selected, and at general elections. I happen to agree with mandatory reselection by the way, but under no circumstances should MPs be ordered,,or pressurised by threats of deselection, to vote for or against a leadership candidate. You even seem to suggest that Labour frontbenchers dissatisfied with Corbyn should somehow have been banned from resigning, as if the shadow cabinet was a form of indentured labour!

        I think the 2019 result sadly shows that Corbyn’s critics were right: Corbyn was never going to win an election (in 2017 he did better than expected, but Labour’s support was too concentrated in seats we already held and Labour fell 64 seats short of an overall majority: it’s not true that Labour was on the brink of victory, as is often claimed). I don’t buy the ‘betrayal myth’ that Corbyn would have won in 2017 and/or 2019 if only Labour MPs had not undermined him. Labour’s tragedy was that from 2016 onwards the Parliamentary party was too loyal to Corbyn, not too disloyal. That’s not to deny that Corbyn was unfairly treated in the media: of course he was, just as every Labour leader (including Blair) has been.

        Sorry to have to disagree with you so strongly on this. I look forward to finding points of agreement with you soon…

  2. Matthew Stiles says:

    By the way, you might like this https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-this-house
    Only available till June 4. I haven’t seen it but is highly recommended

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