Sat. Sep 18th, 2021

During his punt for the top job, Keir Starmer named Harold Wilson as the Labour leader he most admired, and his predecessor’s advice remains apt. “The Labour party is like a stagecoach,” Wilson once observed. “If you rattle along at great speed everybody is too exhilarated or seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop everybody gets out and argues about where to go next.”

A recent poll suggesting Labour could lose next month’s Hartlepool byelection sent tremors through the party. Defeat would further cement the Tories’ authoritarian populist grip on the country – but remains unlikely: constituency polling is notoriously unreliable, Labour’s get out the vote operation gives it a formidable edge, and the government has only taken a seat from its opponents twice in the past half century. But Labour’s current malaise is real and keenly felt among its parliamentarians.

Starmer’s team believe they deserve credit for reversing a huge polling deficit. Labour, they feel, has won back the right to be heard and has a leader who is an electoral asset rather than a liability. They acknowledge their lack of cut through, but attribute that to a pandemic that consumes all media coverage. Starmer frequently complains that he has never delivered a speech in front of a packed audience, while his team believe that the dearth of talent in the parliamentary Labour party has left him doing most of the heavy lifting. Their Starmer-or-bust strategy is underlined by the party’s phone-banking script, which asks voters what they think of the Labour leader rather than the Labour party.

This is a risky move. Although Starmer’s team blame the vaccine rollout – which eviscerated their charge of incompetence against the prime minister – for his polling slump, Starmer’s ratings began their steep descent before then. He now lags behind the prime minister on every measure, is no longer more popular than the party he leads, and his support among those who voted Labour in 2019 has sharply deteriorated. In some polls, Labour has returned to its 2019 vote share, and far below what it chalked up in 2017.

This collapse has not been accompanied by the all-out media assault or highly public civil war that defined the Corbyn era. However, across their different factions, Labour MPs believe that the leadership is bereft of vision and direction and have increasingly concluded that Starmer will never be prime minister. Much Westminster politicking normally happens in snatched conversations in parliamentary corridors or bars, and the pandemic has shielded Starmer from plotting by virtue of MPs being siloed, confined to video chats with those they’re closest to.

The easing of lockdown is now allowing MPs to better communicate with constituents, who rarely talk of Starmer but do mention the lack of decisiveness and frequent Labour abstentions. Shadow ministers complain of not knowing the party’s position on fundamental questions; Labour’s recent indecisiveness over vaccine passports has led party spokespeople to decide to improvise on broadcast slots. Many simply fear Starmer has no coherent political vision and his policy chief, Claire Ainsley, relies exclusively on focus groups of 2019 first-time Conservative voters rather than developing a policy offer of her own, hence the recent emphasis on law and order.

While some hope that once the pandemic subsides a vision will emerge that is far more ambitious than that of the New Labour period, there is rarely talk of the “10 pledges” made during Starmer’s leadership campaign – a commitment to uphold the core domestic policies of the Corbyn era – and Labour’s recent critique of the Tory plan to hike corporation tax violated those promises. Champions of the Labour Together report fear that the party is wasting its opportunity to implement its findings. The cross-factional postmortem of the 2019 rout committed the party to a transformative economic agenda that proved popular with voters. A much-trumpeted speech on inequality in February – hailed as laying the foundations for Labour’s 21st-century offer – failed to offer bold policy commitments suited to the scale of the task at hand.

A lack of killer instinct to get the Tories – which Tony Blair and his spinner Alastair Campbell had in the 1990s – haunts the party. “We’re too committed to being supportive of the government,” as one shadow minister puts it. “It leaves people thinking: ‘if you’ve not got anything to say, why should we listen to you?” Shadow ministers complain almost everyone except Rachel Reeves is kept off the airwaves, including deputy leader Angela Rayner, who they say is shut out of leadership decisions by Starmer’s aides.

This strategic vacuum is filled by the Labour right, which is conducting an aggressive and highly coordinated briefing war. Its ranks include Peter Mandelson, who believes the policies of the Corbyn era must be comprehensively eliminated and the left permanently buried. While cold water is poured on suggestions of a close association with Starmer, the leader’s chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney, is Mandelson’s protege.

Briefings have particularly targeted the shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, who hails from the party’s “soft left”, but whose own allies concede is bedevilled by excessive caution. The Labour right hopes to displace her to enable the ascendancy of Reeves and Blairite Bridget Phillipson (who shares a large part of the blame for preventing the development of a radical economic agenda). As bereft of ideas as Labour’s right flank is, it will predictably respond to poor election results in May by demanding a reshuffle that promotes their own, accompanied by a clear abandonment of Corbyn-era policies. Starmer’s own team – who some senior figures believe are as arrogant as they are adept at giving “terrible advice” – will concede to this pressure.

The “soft left” around Labour’s Tribune group have settled on a strategy of hugging Dodds tight; how they would respond to the declaration of war which her sacking would represent is unclear. Starmer’s purported hero Harold Wilson upheld the principle of a “broad church” – his cabinets spanned Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot on the left to Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Shirley Williams on the right – but leadership election promises of party unity have not been upheld. The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey and abstentions on pernicious Tory legislations – leading to resignations – have emptied the top team of most leftwingers.

Already, MPs are preparing for life after Starmer. The right is cohering around Yvette Cooper, who alongside Chuka Umunna assembled a leadership campaign in expectation of a rout in 2017. Others raise the question of a leadership election unprompted, but note Labour historically never topples its incumbents.

If Hartlepool falls, the left will be scapegoated, despite Corbyn’s leadership holding it twice. Hartlepool (a seat once represented by Mandelson) was a solidly leave seat in which in 2017 Labour won its highest vote share and majority since 2001. While Mandelson claims Labour’s 2017 surge was fuelled by remainers angry about Brexit – contradicted by polling evidence at the time – constituency polling suggests overwhelming support for Corbyn-era policies. The current machinations of the right reveal a refusal to accept any positive lessons from the previous administration.

If Starmer wishes to avoid being trapped in every politician’s cycle of doom – falling polling mixed with constant relaunches – salvaging popular transformative policies to construct a coherent vision remains his best shot. Otherwise, political death by attrition beckons.

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