It is instructive that, faced with his first wobbles as leader of the opposition, the person Keir Starmer has reached for is Peter Mandelson. From the sounds of things, Mandelson is working with Starmer’s team on communications and strategy. I certainly don’t think this is a bad idea by Starmer, at least as far as recent Labour party appointees go, but I can’t help but feel that Mandelson’s return to the top says a lot about Labour’s problems, how they got into their current mess and where those issues might lead the party from here.
Part of the problem is that the Labour party has been hollowed out talent-wise. Under Corbyn’s leadership, a lot of potential future ministers were either effectively kicked out or decided to leave before they were pushed. We don’t need to go over every name, but here’s just a few that roll off the brain: Tristram Hunt, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie. A lot of MPs who could have been of great help to Starmer in trying to rebuild the Labour party are not only out of politics but gone from the Labour fold altogether.
However, laying this all at the feet of Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader is lazy thinking. Part of the problem stems back to New Labour and the feeling it created within the party that set in motion a lot of the disasters which have followed.
One of the things I remember about the coalition years was how easy it was to get a meeting with most Tory MPs, even junior ministers, while getting meetings with Labour MPs was a real pain in the neck. For context, I worked for an organisation at the time that was seen as being on the left, so the reverse should have been true. This mostly stemmed from the fact the Tories had been out of government for a long time and had lost their instincts in this regard. A bigger part of it, however, was the fact that most Labour MPs still sort of saw themselves as rock stars. This explains why so many of them subsequently left politics — they had joined with the expectation of relatively easy power and when it got hard, they decided to do something else with their lives.
Having said all of that, the most negative aspect of Mandelson’s appointment has nothing to do with either Corbyn’s time as leader or New Labour. It’s something much more rooted in the party’s DNA; something Starmer will have to be very conscious of if he wants to root the problem out and give himself a better chance of winning the next election.
While Labour under Starmer is looking to shed a lot of the negatives of the party’s past, it is holding steadfast to one thing it should definitely jettison: its parochial nature which gives the party a total mistrust of anyone who hasn’t been a steadfast loyal Labour insider for most of their lives. The Labour party often unconsciously conducts itself more like an evangelical church than a political party and has real difficulty reaching out beyond its borders. To put it another way, whatever Mandelson’s negatives to great portions of the membership, at least he’s a tried and true Labour man.
Why didn’t Starmer reach for someone outside of the Labour church altogether for help when he felt his leadership needed a boost? How about this for a radical idea: appointing someone to help with communications and strategy who used to be a Tory, perhaps a person who has become disaffected by the Boris Johnson leadership and wants to help Starmer win.
Let’s go beyond the Mandelson situation and think about how this affects the wider Labour party outside of Westminster. Labour have stopped looking and sounding like the country they aim to govern mostly because they’ve become such a closed-off clique over the last ten years. In terms of target seats, Starmer is going to need some candidates who don’t sound like they are robots who were programmed at a constituency party meeting. The Labour party needs people who aren’t in the Labour party to join them. This sounds so simple as to be idiotic — and yet that’s exactly what Labour is terrible at doing.
Following such a strategy will annoy the left of the party. Yet Starmer has to realise he’s dead to them anyhow. As soon as it was clear he wasn’t going to play their stupid game, he was never going to win the left back. The only way he can stop the left from gaining power over the Labour party again is to win seats, at the local level until 2024, and then at the national level in the general election. In order to do that, he needs to look beyond the titans of New Labour to people outside of the party fold altogether. Whether he can take this bold step or not will decide much of Keir Starmer’s political fate.