There is a thought in some Westminster circles that Keir Starmer has lost the next general election already. Whether it be because of Brexit or Brexit and a bunch of other stuff, including leftover Corbyn baggage, Starmer is doomed as he stands. I believe this view is naïve and the smarter Tories I know don’t buy it for a second. Labour could still win the next election, particularly if the Conservatives get complacent. Yet if they do end up losing their fifth general election in a row, I already know why that will be.
There was a moment in the 2015 Labour leadership contest that stands out for me, as it did for many at the time. During a hustings, Andy Burnham fielded a question about getting rid of the next Labour leader if they turned out to be rubbish, one that became painfully prescient given the result of that contest. He told the crowd, ‘The party comes first,’ at which point Liz Kendall jumped in to reply, ‘No, the country comes first’. I bring this up because I think there is something in what Burnham said that still haunts the Labour party; something that has explained their lack of electoral success ever since and that continues to cast a shadow over Keir Starmer’s goal of turning the Labour ship around.
The Labour party’s leadership cares way too much about the internal workings of the Labour party. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Tory MP saying something like Burnham muttered at that 2015 hustings, but if it had slipped out it would have had a very different meaning. Conservatives view their party as a means to an end — as a way of organising power effectively. When Burnham said, ‘the party comes first’, what he meant was that so long as the internal workings of Labour are hunky dory, then all’s well. That is regardless of whether Labour are in power or not.
Ed Miliband was focused on making the membership happy again after New Labour; the Corbynites were only ever really interested in gaining as much control over the party as they could. Electoral victory has been some ways down the list of Labour priorities since 2010. In fact, this has been a problem for the Labour party since Blair quit. It always seemed to me as if Blair was existentially uninterested in internal Labour party nonsense and saw it as an impediment to his true goal, which was to win as many elections as possible. He understood that no one outside the Labour party really cares about its inner workings or procedures in the least.
Starmer is the latest Labour leader to continue this line of damaging, post-Blair thinking. Take his choosing of the shadow cabinet posts — they were done for internal reasons more than anything else. It was as if they were picked by a computer programme designed to choose MPs who would offend the least number of people within the party. Even the stuff I can commend him for since winning the leadership contest, such as removing the whip from Corbyn, was all internal politics.
I think the reason this has become the default setting for the Labour party since Blair is that Labour is terrified of confronting existential questions about why they exist and what they are here to do. Are they a small ‘l’ liberal party, backing up the value battles of middle-class urbanites? They know there aren’t enough votes there to win. What is their relationship to the working-classes of England any longer? How do they repair the damage among this electorate? How much is Labour willing to change to win them back? I could go on asking these questions for days, that is how confusing Labour’s role in the world has become. They are stuck between becoming a sort of catch-all anti-Tory party, a British version of the American Democrats, and holding onto some version of what the Labour party was throughout most of the 20th century. This is why they fall back on internal battles: these are so much easier to handle than figuring out how to navigate the big stuff.
It’s also why each new leader of the Labour party since Blair has avoided the existential issues, hoping that voter hostility towards the Tories gets so out of hand that Labour win an election by default. It hasn’t worked. It won’t ever work. As much as they wish it weren’t so, Labour has to win a general election on their own merits if they ever want to win one again.
Perhaps Starmer needed to spend his first year sorting out the internal mess within the party. I can see that. But he needs to move on from that way of thinking, fast. He needs to be the leader that finally figures out what Labour stands for and seeks to achieve post-Blair if he wants to be the next prime minister of the country.