Keir Starmer: A Blair or an Atlee?

Picture of Clement Atlee, head and shoulders
Is Keir Starmer the new Clement Atlee?

Keir Starmer has secured an impressive victory as Labour Party leader, and has appointed his shadow cabinet and shadow ministerial team.  But what does this mean for the Labour Party?  Is it really an end to Corbynism?  Does it mean a return to Blairism? And does it mean we can look forward to a Labour Government?

On the face of it, the 56% share of the vote on the first round of voting looks convincing.  Another way of looking at it could be that it’s the smallest percentage share of the vote a Labour leader has ever been elected on, since the One Member One Vote system of elections was introduced.  But then, there have only been three elections under that system, with Jeremy Corbyn winning the other two, with 59% and 62% of the votes cast.

Nevertheless, it’s still impressive.  The favoured candidate of the left, Rebecca Long-Bailey, secured only 28% of the vote.  So does that mean the Labour Party membership has suddenly seen the pale blue Blairite light and returned to the path of post-Thatcher neoliberalism? No, not really.

Many of those who voted for Keir Starmer had been keen supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017/2019 manifesto.  They still are. They voted for Keir for two main reasons. Firstly, because his candidate statement and the ‘ten pledges’ he made indicated that he would retain the most radical parts of the manifesto, saying ‘we are an anti-austerity party. We believe in common ownership. We want a fairer and more peaceful world. We have led the way on climate change and the need for a Green New Deal.’  His pledges include a continuing commitment to common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, ending outsourcing in the NHS, repealing the Trade Union Act, increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners, abolishing Universal Credit, and putting the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do.  Secondly, he came across in interviews as relaxed, professional, competent and personable.  Any Labour leader who is putting forward a radical manifesto needs to be able to resist the media onslaught of personal attacks that they’ll inevitably receive.  He looked like he’d be up for the fight.  And his campaign was brilliantly well organised.  He phoned me personally during the campaign – not to canvass for my vote, but to promise me support for the local election campaign in Hastings if he won.  He knew exactly how long I’d been leader of the council, and he knew I was planning to stand down.  He chatted with me for a half hour.  He must have done that with many other council leaders – impressive, I thought.

Rebecca Long-Bailey ran a much poorer campaign. If anything, she seemed to be supporting a less radical set of policies, presumably because she was trying to gain support by distancing herself from Jeremy Corbyn. She came across in interviews as rather robotic, nowhere near as able to speak off the cuff and deal with blind-side questions.  And her apparent anti-abortion stance, coupled to her Catholicism, didn’t play well to the left either.

So a lot of those on the left ‘lent’ their votes to Keir Starmer. I know many ardent Corbynistas who voted for him.  But he’ll quickly lose their support if he doesn’t deliver what he’s promised.

His shadow cabinet shows a broad political spread, an attempt to unite the different wings of the parliamentary party. There’s some representation from the former Corbyn shadow cabinet, with Angela Raynor, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry still present, although several prominent Corbyn supporters have been sent to the back benches.  The choice of Annaliese Dodds as Chancellor is interesting too.  I know her reasonably well, she used to help a lot with election campaigns in Hastings when she was a South East MEP.  She’s impressive, as well as being down-to-earth and a good communicator, she went down very well on the doorstep. Politically, the description I read of her as being on the ‘far left of the soft left’ probably sums her up pretty well.

However, this ‘broad church’ approach has meant that some of those Keir Starmer has brought into shadow ministerial posts certainly don’t support his ten pledges, or at least not all of them. For some of these new shadow ministers, I assume they’ve accepted shadow posts because they think he didn’t really mean it.  Hopefully, Keir Starmer is better than that, and is above the tactic of lying to get into office that some of his supporters seem to think he’s pursuing.  So like many others on the left of the party, I find myself supportive of what he has said, but not supportive of some of his supporters.

For those of us who remember the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader, this has some uncomfortable parallels.  Blair won over some on the left with his idea that you had to adopt a centrist manifesto to get into power, then implement radical policies when you attain power.  That was a lie of course – the radical policies never came.  Keir Starmer hasn’t said that, but plenty of those MPs who supported him, some of whom now hold shadow ministerial positions, still believe in the Blair approach, and are ideologically opposed to much of our current manifesto.

But perhaps a parallel drawn by Owen Jones in a recent Guardian article is more optimistic.  George Lansbury, a left-wing Labour leader, was displaced by the ‘soft left’ Clement Atlee, who went on to lead the most radical Labour government we’ve ever had.  The comparison is a bit adrift, in that Lansbury never lost a general election, there wasn’t one during his time of office. But Atlee came to power after a period of great turmoil – while the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing like a world war, whatever the press would have us believe, it’s an interesting comparison.

So it remains to be seen whether Keir Starmer sticks to his promises.  I hope he does.  If he doesn’t, the Labour Party membership will rapidly shrink.  It’s still the largest political organisation in Europe, but all those younger members who joined the party during the Corbyn years because they wanted radical change won’t stick around if he simply oversees a drift back into Blairite centrism. It’s not just about winning back those northern ‘working class’ constituencies, it’s about retaining and building on the young, radical vote that brought us unexpected gains in 2017.  We have to be winning both the Copelands and the Canterburys if we’re to get back into government.  Keir Starmer can achieve that, and he’s got my support to do it, based on retaining that radical manifesto.  But he has to remain true to all those radical party members who supported him. 

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