Keir Starmer has caught a lot of flak this week for his response to the Budget. The complaints are that he wasn’t strong enough, his opposition to corporation tax rises was a mistake and that he had nothing to really say that managed to stick with the public. It has added to a sense of Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party being on a downward spiral. Yet Starmer has probably done as well in his opening year as Labour leader as anyone could have. He isn’t the problem – it’s his party. The reality is that Labour couldn't win the next election with anyone in charge.
The problem goes well beyond the legacy of the Corbyn era (although his time in charge certainly didn’t help). No, it’s that the Labour party has no ability to change in any of the ways it would need to in order to make winning a general election a possibility. The Labour party has profound problems that go far beyond any recent issues.
The reason Labour evokes the ‘Spirit of ‘45’ so much is that Attlee was arguably the only Labour prime minister ever who really believed in the core of what Labour is: a democratic socialist vehicle for radical change. He was the only Labour leader who ever won an election without trying to downplay or get round a lot of what the party is intrinsically about, which is why they can still never stop talking about him to this day. Attlee was the only winning leader who presented the Labour party to the public as it actually feels about itself, as opposed to trying to alter it enough for the voters to believe it was something different, something more accessible and acceptable.
The current Labour party is a worst of all worlds combination of baggage from the distant past that isn’t helpful (the Attlee nostalgia) and all of the elements of the modern world they’ve inherited that weigh them down. Wokeness plus Clement Attlee minus patriotism just isn’t a recipe for electoral success in modern Britain, no matter who is in charge.
All of the major attacks the official opposition could currently make on the Tories are impossible because of the intrinsic nature of the Labour party. Let’s come back to Starmer’s complaint about the rise in corporation tax. It was in fact a good attack on the Tories, one that could have created some ruffles within the Conservative party had it been delivered with more gusto. The problem was that Starmer was cut off at the knees immediately by his party’s reaction. Opposing rises in taxation just isn’t something the Labour party does and that’s that.
Or take another avenue of attack on the Tories that is hanging there waiting, that Labour are unable to take advantage of. Another opposition could easily paint this government as an existential threat to the Union – from the Northern Ireland Protocol to Boris’ unpopularity in Scotland, the ingredients are all there. Yet Labour can’t do it effectively because they are a party that had a collective conniption when their leader stood in front of the British flag, never mind making a more robust defence of the Union.
An effective opposition to the Tories right now would either be a British version of the Democrats – a large tent centre-left party comprising social democrats, liberals, greens – or a straight up liberal party. But Labour not only aren’t either of those things, they can’t be either of those things. It just isn’t in their DNA as a party. Blair sort of tried to turn them into the British Democrats but it failed to stick – as soon as he was gone, that whole project went into reverse. You can try and change the Labour party but ultimately, they revert to type. And the Labour party, in its essence, just isn’t something that can win another general election, not just next time, but very possibly ever again.
I’ll put this the simplest way I possibly can: if there was a general election held tomorrow, I would seriously consider voting Labour. But only because I’m not that fond of this government and I kind of like Starmer, as well as Dodds. The hardest part about doing this would be voting for the Labour party itself, which I would find difficult to do. I think a lot of people who might vote Labour next time would do so in spite of the party, which should worry them more than it does.
Some Labour people think Starmer is a Kinnock figure, cleaning up post-Corbyn so that the party can win the election after next; others think Starmer is an abomination who will fail and once he does, someone from the Corbyn wing of the party should take over again. Both of them are wrong; neither can face up to how deep the problems within their party run. Sadly for Labour, Keir Starmer is almost certainly the best they’ve got. And it almost certainly isn’t enough.