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Keir Starmer – a test of leadership


By Chris Roberts, Cratus Senior Political Counsel

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from membership of the Labour Party.

Assuming for one moment we can suspend our thoughts of Covid lockdown 2.0 and the interminable attempts by the world’s most powerful democracy to count its votes, the suspension of Corbyn is worthy of further reflection.

Since his election as leader, Keir Starmer has sought to present himself as a credible alternative Prime Minister and to detoxify the Labour brand from its days under Corbyn. Credibility and detoxification are his first two priorities.

Aside from his forensic approach to Prime Minister’s Question Time, which the public seem to appreciate, he has also been quietly dismantling the internal power structures within the Labour Party to cement his control.

Almost immediately, Starmer inserted his own preferred candidate as General Secretary, the most powerful paid employee of the party. He did this in seven weeks.

‘So what’, you might say. Except it took Jeremy Corbyn three years and Tony Blair a year, to get their own people into this post.

On the credibility front, Starmer is already seen as someone who could do the job and who would probably handle the present crisis better that the current incumbent.

Yes, he lacks passion and maybe charisma which may yet be a problem for him. However, like Joe Biden, it might just be that we are entering an age where tub thumping optimism and talk of ‘wrestling the virus to the ground’, gives way to leaders with more depth, empathy, and ability to handle complex details.

The task of detoxification was given a major boost by the suspension of Corbyn last week. Having spoken with Corbyn the night before the publication of the inquiry into anti-Semitism, Starmer could not have predicted what his predecessor would say.

But what an opportunity. Starmer had already chosen to make the report’s publication something of a large media event.

Having already said he would accept all recommendations; he had no need to do this. But publication of the report was an opportunity to reinforce his message that Labour is under new management.

The position Starmer took left Corbyn little room for manoeuvre and Corbyn should have stayed quiet other than to say he too accepted all the recommendations. But he couldn’t manage it.

What happened next shocked everyone inside the Party.

First, Corbyn’s friends were stunned by his statement which continued to undermine the allegations of the complainants.

Second, the whole Party was stunned by speed of his suspension.

His friends called for unity and a ‘rethink’. Setting aside the strange logic of trying to plant the flag of unity around a man who voted against his own government over 400 times, the hard left has been in complete shock and uncertain how to react. They also did not believe Starmer had this in him. Now they do!

But even those who welcome the action, rather thought they had elected a careful, attritional gradualist who would inch Labour forward, rather than someone who would take giant strides. It may be that they still have, but the action of last week presents Starmer in a radically different light to early assumptions about him.

Labour members, of a mainstream perspective, are elated and have probably not felt this good about their Party in over a decade.

Outside the Party, the action to suspend Corbyn has been seen by commentators as akin to Neil Kinnock’s assault on the Militant Tendency in the 1980s, or like Tony Blair’s rewriting of Clause Four in the 1990s.

But a closer parallel seems to be to be with Boris Johnson. When Dominic Cummings broke the first Covid lock down, he set the Prime Minister a test. And it was one which Johnson failed.

When leaders set important rules which they expect people to follow, they must hold their closest colleagues to the same standard as everyone else.

Johnson’s attempts to bat away criticism of Cummings and to present the breach of lockdown as somehow falling within the rules, he persuaded no one.

And the Cummings saga has not gone away. It will never do so. It is planted firmly in the minds of the whole country.

Everyone in the UK knows someone who has been affected by Covid. Everyone knows someone who has tragically died, fallen ill, cancelled a wedding or holiday, missed a child’s birthday, a friend’s funeral, or even seen their parents in a care home.

The anger over the Cummings affair was real and constituted the moment when the Government lost the trust of the public. It has been unable to regain it ever since.

By contrast, Starmer’s actions against Corbyn demonstrate a refusal to permit anyone, no matter how important they think they are, to stand above the rules which he has set. Provided, of course, that he can see this through. Corbyn remains suspended. Suspension implies an inquiry and a hearing, with a subsequent judgement as to his long-term future.

Starmer has two recent lessons upon which he could draw.

When Tony Blair took on the modernisation of the Labour Party, he worked at pace to change its approach, culture, and policy framework to make them relevant to the emergence of a new century. In doing so, he took on the unreconstructed left and imposed his will on his party.

By contrast, when David Cameron tried to take on his extremists, he gave way. He had called UKIP “swivel eyed loons” but meant that to also refer to some of his own, more extreme, MPs.

His positioning placed him in the centre ground of the political debate and made him the first Tory Leader to win an outright majority in almost a quarter of a century.

Yet within twelve months, he had caved into the “swivel eyed loons”, conceded a referendum, lost it, and lost his premiership in the process. It ranks as possibly the quickest political fall from power in the UK, in living memory.

There is nothing to be gained from appeasing the extremists in your own party and much to gain, not least the approval of the public, from dealing effectively with them.

We are some way from the next election, and Johnson has to survive as Tory Leader, while Starmer has to take some difficult internal decisions.

But it may yet be that the next General Election will, in part, be framed by the respective characters of the candidates for Prime Minister and the leadership they showed, or failed to show, when they were tested by Cummings and Corbyn.

Keir Starmer – a test of leadership