They say in politics it’s a mistake to fight the last war. But the last war always influences the next one. It’s difficult for a movement which has just suffered a defeat to orient itself about where it should go next without first asking the question of why it was beaten. That was always the likely starting point for Labour members weighing up their choice for the next leader.
After all, Jeremy Corbyn remains hugely popular among Labour members – the most popular leader, in fact, in the party’s history. The same YouGov poll showed that 81 percent liked the manifesto and its policies. This is not an electorate that is looking for a clean break. Instead, it’s looking for answers about why Labour lost and how it might win promising many of the same things the next time around.
Keir Starmer offers a clear narrative. Labour lost because it didn’t have a polished leader who could put its message across and appear prime ministerial to the public. Starmer’s camp might dispute that this is their argument — but it’s clear from polling why members are supporting him. When compared to Rebecca Long-Bailey, Starmer’s three strongest categories by some distance are competence (73-38), electability (43-16) and strength (49-26). In other words, questions of leadership rather than politics or principle.
But what are the consequences of a leadership election won on these terms? For supporters of Corbyn’s politics, they seem pretty dire. An idea is setting in among the membership, fostered by the media, that Labour’s real problem was not playing the Westminster game well enough. The remedies to this are clear: a slicker parliamentary operation, closer relationships with the press and a return to focus-grouped professional politics.
This would be a disaster for all of those who want the party’s emphasis to be placed on rebuilding its relationship with the working-class communities it lost so dramatically in December. That requires a longer-term focus that does the hard work of making Labour a presence again in people’s day-to-day lives, work that has to take place a long way from Westminster.
There will be those who argue you can do both. And certainly Starmer’s campaign has tried to position itself this way. But the reality is that resources are limited, and the narrative that shapes this leadership campaign will determine where they’re spent. If Starmer wins, it’ll be a message that the real problem was at the top — not at the grassroots.
We shouldn’t underestimate the damage this could do. Another four or five years of Labour trying to master the dark arts of Westminster, while the party in the broader country continues to wither on the vine. The difficult work of rebuilding social institutions which form the basis of collective politics not being done. A trade union movement already in decline finding little, if any, serious support from the Labour leadership for its organising efforts or on its picket lines.
Corbynism did far too little to address these structural problems – but at least it was premised on changing the game, trying to break from a hollowed-out political system and do politics differently. The Starmer narrative runs in exactly the opposite direction, and is receiving its strongest support in those pockets of the party which want a return to ‘normality’ before Corbyn, before Brexit, and before the collapse of the political centre.
Unsurprisingly, this narrative also suits the Labour Right. By placing the blame for the election squarely on Corbyn, other contributory factors in a long, slow decline of the Labour vote in postindustrial areas can be ignored. The role of Labour councils, for instance. Or of the last Blair government. Or of parachuted MPs who enjoyed little if any connection to the constituencies they were selected to represent. During not just months but years of post-election reforms, Corbyn would be in the dock while these would be largely forgotten.
In many respects, it makes sense that this would be Keir Starmer’s direction of travel. When faced with an electorate which overwhelmingly liked Corbyn and his policies, Starmer has pledged to support a radical programme. But the reality is that he needs to focus on his political record as little as possible.
Whether it’s cracking down on benefit cheats, refusing to prosecute over the killings of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes, abstaining on the Tory Welfare Bill, voting to renew Trident, voting against enquiries into the Iraq War or supporting Owen Smith in 2016 — little of what Starmer has actually done in politics would appeal to members. The far preferable course for his team is to focus on his leadership qualities.
But there is also the question of where he’d lead the Labour Party. By anchoring the election on more abstract questions, the Starmer narrative avoids more applied ones – like Brexit, for example. Starmer has yet to answer how a Labour leader who pushed hardest for a second referendum plans to win back the 52 seats (of 60 total) which were lost in Leave areas. It certainly can’t be done through a few strong media performances.
The truth, of course, is that he may not even get these. At the moment Keir Starmer enjoys the glow of the Remain-supporting liberal media. But once he is elected Labour leader, why would he not be savaged by the overwhelmingly right-wing press in much the same way as Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown before him?
To have any hope of avoiding this outcome you would need to be either a spectacular performer, who was compelling enough to cut through the attacks, or have a media strategy which is leagues better than your predecessors. There’s no evidence on either count so far. It’s highly plausible in this election that Labour members will bet everything on a polished leader, only to watch him lose his shine in a matter of weeks.
The last war matters. And so does our understanding of why we lost it. The terms on which Labour leadership campaigns are won tend to set the terrain for what comes next. When Corbyn won in 2015 it was because a narrative was established that the party hedged its bets too much under Miliband and needed to embrace its principles again. Sure enough, Corbyn led the party leftwards.
But maybe 1983 is the better example. Then, the Labour leadership election was defined by the narrative that Michael Foot lost because he wasn’t a strong enough leader and had become a captive of the Bennite Left. Even though Roy Hattersley, the right-wing candidate, lost out to Neil Kinnock, who was seen as on the soft-left, the years that followed were dominated by attempts to ameliorate these problems.
The result was almost a decade of botched efforts by ‘image-makers’ to polish Kinnock, to present him and his wife as a ‘first couple’ and to introduce US-style presidential politics to Britain. In the process, struggles that might take the sheen off a Labour leader in the eyes of the media – such as the miners’ strike – were abandoned. All manner of cosmetics were applied, but the Tories still won the pageant. That is an episode Labour’s members would do well to remember.