Back in April when he was first elected, I wondered how Keir Starmer – an essentially normal politician – would manage as leader of the UK Labour Party in extraordinary political times. Now we are starting to find out, and the picture is a mixed one.
At one level all seems to be going well – Labour has overtaken the Tories in the polls. This may of course be due to abject handling of Coronavirus by Johnson’s government, but Starmer’s calm and reassuring approach is clearly working to some extent.
However I still cannot escape the impression that it would be good to have a little more from Starmer and the Labour front bench. When Brandon Lewis came up with the famous line about breaking international law, Starmer did not even mention the issue at the following PMQs. The main voices against what the government was doing came from Michael Howard and Theresa May.
Yes there is the old adage attributed to Napoleon that you should never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake, but if Michael Howard (yes, Michael Howard!) feels he needs to criticise the government on this, surely Her Majesty’s Opposition ought to do so with some gusto?
Lewis was referring to the Internal Market Bill, and on the issue of amendments to that legislation it has been Tories – Bob Neill foremost among them – who have been leading on amendments. Not Labour.
And then there is the wider context. Starmer’s speech at the virtual Labour Party Conference last week was heavy on patriotism. Rachel Reeves who is supposed to lead on Brexit in Starmer’s shadow cabinet team drops “in the national interest” into every remark. Lisa Nandy’s putting Britain first rhetoric is in a similar vein (although we cannot be surprised at that, based on what she said in her own leadership bid).
Nesrine Malik wrote a column for The Guardian about how all of this will lead to a loss of minority votes. Does Starmer care? she asks.
The answer, I think, is that he does not really care (or Labour’s strategists do not really care), and due to Britain’s political system they has good tactical grounds not to care. Where are those minority voters – many of them highly focused in urban areas that Labour wins anyway – going to go instead?
But here is of course where the rub is. Why looking at what Starmer and his team are doing and saying leaves me empty. It feels like there is no vision here. No urgency. No energy adequate to address the pressing political problems of all sorts that the UK is facing just now.
Corbyn’s policy agenda felt it was ideologically driven, but was tactically naive. Starmer’s approach seems to be completely the opposite – all tactics and no clarity about an ideological direction. Or in as far as there is any clarity, it is looks to be a party tacking towards where its voters are in key constituencies, and planning for 2024 – and leaving everyone else feeling something is missing.
It reminds me of the trap that both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband found themselves in – not really knowing what they fully wanted to do, and being driven by tactical considerations instead. Alan Finlayson has rightly asked if there is such a thing as Starmerism – and for the moment we do not know.
The root of all of this is of course that politics is a compromise. Between values and pragmatism, between staying true to those values versus compromising on them so as to get elected. The difficulty for Starmer – and indeed any Labour leader before him – is that those compromises have to happen in the party in the UK, whereas in any country with a proportional election system they happen in the parties and between parties when coalitions are made. The voters that Nesrine Malik writes about in her column would have other places to go in the election systems in other European countries, but in Britain do not.
Writing this from Berlin, it looks like Labour is still an amalgam of the sorts of people who are members of, and vote for, Die Linke (The Left), SPD, and Die Grünen (The Greens) in Germany. Corbyn would be in Die Linke. Clive Lewis would be a Green. And Starmer would be in the SPD. As the SPD has retrenched towards ex-working class voters in ex-industrial towns, so the Greens have gained in the younger and more multi-cultural inner cities. As a member of the latter, it rather passes me by when an ex-SPD party leader complains the party made too much fuss about marriage equality. Whereas if Starmer makes the wrong call on Black Lives Matter according to socially liberal inner city voters (because he is appealing to groups with a more conservative mindset instead), the social liberals are rightly frustrated and feel sour towards him – because in the UK’s system there is nowhere else for them to go.
So Starmer’s steady stability both makes tactical sense, and leaves me feeling rather empty. Looking back at the UK it seems to me the UK needs better than this from its opposition at this crucial political moment, but I likewise understand why better is unlikely, if not outright impossible.