Along with many in the Labour Party, I felt a wave of contentment when reading the 2017 Labour Party manifesto. Finally, after many years where there was little more than a cigarette paper between the two main political parties, there was now clear water. The manifesto painted a vision of a society where the needs of people were prioritised over profits, a lifelong education service reimagined, and unions cherished as agents for change within the workplace rather than derided as guests who had overstayed their welcome. Public ownership, support from the cradle to the grave, and above all a respect for everyone in our society were promoted.
As a result of this manifesto, and what must surely rank as one of the worst ever General Election campaigns ever fought by the Tories, or anyone for that matter, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour came within a whisker of victory. I voted for Corbyn in both leadership elections, and his government would have had the potential to create a fairer, kinder and more equal society.
However, as Churchill said, wars are not won by glorious defeats and there was a sense of basking in failure. Kinnock’s spectacularly unwise Sheffield jamboree on the eve of the 1992 General Election was almost matched by the triumphalism of the 2017 Labour Party Conference. Perhaps a little harsh, but you get my drift. The Brexit debate became more polarised as sensible solutions disappeared over the horizon and Labour became boxed into a corner. The high water mark of ‘Corbynism’ became a distant memory as poor management and division wrecked a co-ordinated strategy and ultimately led to a thumping electoral defeat.
The 2019 manifesto was a little too sweet. As a candidate I felt bombarded with new policy promises every time I opened the daily campaign email. Clearly the effect was worse on an electorate with whom we lost credibility and trust. Whereas in 2017 our costed manifesto was a real boost in light of the absence of any Tory costings, we were just seen as throwing as many punches as possible while stuck on the ropes in the hope that we would land an unlikely knockout blow. Poll after poll showed that voters supported Labour policies, but no matter how good they were, the tidal wave of ‘get Brexit done’ and Brexit fatigue swept up voters on both sides of the argument.
Moving ahead to the 2020 Party leadership elections, I voted for Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. I’d been thinking of Starmer as a leader for some time; not one who particularly inspires you with his manner of speaking – however neither did Corbyn – but always measured and with clarity of thought.
Why the shift? I welcomed Corbyn’s socialist policies with open arms, but I felt a real sense that the moment had gone, that the UK people just weren’t ready to trust Labour and the forces were stacked too deeply against the reality of achieving a truly socialist government. Ideological purity is all very well, but politics is dominated by numbers. Purity is also the easy way out, while the more difficult path is one of compromise and pragmatism. Another reason is one of competence. While I do not want a return to the slick political machine of the Labour Party of the late 90’s, we do need professionalism, which for all his many qualities was lacking in Corbyn’s opposition team. I will concede that matters that have recently come to light show how far internal relations within the party had become toxic and made the task far more difficult than it needed to be, but there were also many unforced errors which eroded credibility and trust.
Johnson won’t last until the next General Election, you can read my views on this here, but in the meantime Starmer’s attention to detail will enable him to run rings around a lazy and over confident Johnson.
Many of you will be aware of members who have either stepped down from positions, or who have left the Labour Party altogether in recent days either due to the dismissal of Rebecca Long-Bailey, or what they believe to be the general direction of the Party led by Starmer. Some of these people are my friends and I must stress will continue to be my friends! However, I believe it is better to be inside the tent looking out rather than outside peering in at what is going on, without any influence on it. I always remember my wife advising me that the sense of satisfaction in resigning from a job is far briefer than you would like it to be.
I have always been determined that all strands of the Labour Party are made to feel welcome while rigorous, but respectful debate should be encouraged. Labour members hold their principles very dear and this creates passionate debate. When not imploding over relations with Europe, the Tories have always been successful in uniting around their ‘principles’ of retaining the barriers that prevent a more equal society and promoting the needs of the individual over that of community.
Coming to power in 2020, Keir Starmer faces a set of challenges that nobody would have expected to encounter. I believe it would have been very unwise of him to go ‘all guns blazing’ against the government during the initial stages of the pandemic. Some have resented his measured approach, but the mood of the public, at least at the start of what has been the most significant national emergency since WW2, was to pull together. Of course the mood has changed, with the numerous mistakes by a government that has over promised, under delivered and been economical with the truth . The lack of protection for NHS staff and care homes was followed by Cummings’s trip to Durham, the effect of which cannot be overestimated. Starmer has changed tack and while still willing to work with government has become ever more critical while at the same time putting forward practical and progressive solutions.
I share the disappointment of those on the left of the Labour party that Corbynism ended in failure, but we must be prepared to adapt and move on if we are to succeed next time. What I find difficult to accept is the tit-for-tat factional onslaught that Starmer has faced from the very outset of his leadership. While I can understand the resentment at a Labour machine that undermined Corbyn’s leadership, factionalism is both a luxury that we cannot afford, and one that voters will not forgive at the ballot box. I do get the sense that some enjoy the rough and tumble of internal party politics far more than the challenge of finding political solutions that would benefit our communities. If we cannot find common ground and consensus within our own party in opposition, how can we possibly find it with those in government? Unpalatable as it may be, working with those in other parties is how an opposition affects change.
Although some in the Labour Party have already tried Starmer and found him guilty, the pandemic has meant we have yet to see what ‘Starmerism’ actually stands for. A national emergency is not the time to be spewing out numerous policies which we would be unable to enact in any case. We all have more urgent and immediate needs than that. The economic news is grim now and may be far more grim by Christmas. In the short term I believe Starmer is right to concentrate on applying pressure on the government to protect jobs and businesses – the grander themes can wait.
We have a government that has already proved its incompetence, one that shows casual indifference to the people it serves, and is led by an already diminished Prime Minister. The damage being inflicted on the social fabric of the United Kingdom does not bear thinking about. We are in danger of becoming an authoritarian state as the normal checks and balances of the legislature, the judiciary and our institutions are weakened so much as to make them ineffective.
Rather than step down, because our vision of political purity is not being fulfilled, this is the time to step up and face the huge challenges that lie ahead. I’m incredibly proud to be British – and we can still be proud and patriotic, while acknowledging our past and present failures. We will only be successful if we unite as a Party. This does not mean blind allegiance, but when a decision is made and a direction chosen, we must get behind it, or at least not actively campaign against it.
The scale of the challenge the Labour Party faces cannot be overestimated. I’m still in, I hope you will be too.