There’s a Starmer Waiting in the Sky

Owen Hatherley
Feb 13 · 17 min read

He’d like to come and elect us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.

Notes on the Labour leadership election

For some reason, I’ve felt the need to write at some length about the Labour leadership campaign. Not on Twitter, because of the sense that absolutely nobody is listening to each other, and forming instead into rival bunkers subtweeting each other, and not on one of the left-wing media outlets, because of the assumption one is from a particular faction if writing for them. Reading ‘Left Twitter’ in the last two months went quickly from a surprisingly comradely space of people sharing their awful experiences into a sort of trauma ward, with the random lashing out that makes social media so delightful working as a way of getting out some of the rage people feel at what they’ve been subjected to. On the face of it, all the venom from each side makes little sense, given that — with the departure of Jess Phillips — each candidate claims to stand for a programme of public investment and public ownership that is at least more radical than anything Labour have stood on since 1983. So why all the rancour?

A huge amount about this election, and especially why the frontrunner is the frontrunner, makes sense as a response to an absolutely horrendous experience, one that many people will take years to recover from, and will be scarred by for life. Hundreds of thousands of people stomped around marginal seats — many, evidently, much less marginal than we thought, missing how many safe seats were in reality marginal — in pissing rain and freezing cold. Hundreds of people put their lives on hold for weeks to become Momentum full-timers. In London, it sometimes felt like the first days of a revolution or a Civil War, with places like Chingford, Putney and Golders Green plastered with homemade posters made by previously ‘don’t vote it only encourages them’ leftists, drawing attention to the appalling poverty amongst wealth we could see all around us — the fires, the deportations, the tents, the scores of people shivering in doorways, the luxury flats above them — and saying we can make this end, raising hopes and throwing horror in people’s faces at once. In return, canvassers, especially when they ventured out of London and the core cities, were abused, had doors slammed in their faces, and were often physically attacked. In one of the first post-election responses, Katrina Forrester described the Corbyn-backing Labour base as having been ‘let down’ by the leadership, and that stuck out for me for its unusual sympathy with the people who were actually on the frontline. First we were treated by the media — much less inclined than in 2017 to give us a fighting chance — as crazed cultists, engaged in totally imaginary assaults on Tory MPs, and we were then led, it turned out, completely disastrously, by a campaign which seems to have thought it could win an election just by repeatedly throwing us into housing estates. Who could blame them — us — for settling on what seems like an easy option and a quiet life?

It’s a commonplace to find Labour left activists divided between large age blocs — roughly speaking, the 20somethings and the 60somethings, with the space between either empty or filled by the people who appear to think the strategies of 1997 are eternal, changeless truths. In that, Keir Starmer played an absolute masterstroke by putting out as his first campaign video — what felt like mere hours after the defeat — a panoramic view of 1980s and 1990s history with him at the centre, much as Jeremy Corbyn was (in neither case are we exactly dealing with a central figure in these events, but then most members were like that too — footsoldiers, not leaders). He was there through the struggles of the 80s — Wapping, particularly, a long, hair-raising, violent strike. Defence at the McLibel trial, that was him too. A smooth London lawyer became an ex-Trotskyist from a working class background, albeit in Reigate. I will admit I couldn’t quite believe that the response to a disaster in Brexit-voting Northern seats would be a wave of enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer, QC and increasingly hard Remainer, but it isn’t senseless — it’s based on trying to find someone principled, reliable and I daresay slightly boring. I don’t see any reason to doubt any of the truth of any of his claims — I don’t think he’s a fake or a fraud. But beginning with this — and enlisting the permanent midlife crisis of Paul Mason to promote it online and in the New Statesman — was smart in promoting Starmer to a generation who have seen two horrendous crushings of socialist hopes - first in the mid-1980s and now in the late 2010s — and couldn’t bear another.

  1. Starmer, Chameleon?

Starmer’s appeal is above all to unity and to electability. Yet, it is these, rather than his programme, which is vague but far to the left of Kinnock, let alone Blair, or his pleasant personality or the fact that he’s southern, which worry me most. On the question of Unity, he is effectively standing as the ‘Stop the Civil War’ candidate, backed by the PLP, but committed to policies much of the PLP actively fought against when they came from Corbyn. Now that isn’t totally stupid or opportunistic. While it’s a blindlingly obvious truth that the papers, increasingly the BBC, and a coherent and ruthless system of outliers like Guido spreading poison across Facebook, will try their best to make mincemeat of anyone as far left as say, Edward Heath, Corbyn was an exceptional politician — there simply cannot be a ‘continuity Corbyn’ because nobody has his record, or his baggage, depending on how you want to look at it. Nobody else has a 40 year history of fighting for unpopular local and international causes. Nobody has been so close to anti-imperialist movements. Of course in reality the worst thing Corbyn did as such was some Facebook Dad-posting on an antisemitic mural he should have properly looked at (which is not to say there wasn’t much worse going on around him), but it wasn’t hard to throw at racists a load of pictures of Corbyn with Palestinians and Irish Republicans. I’m amazed and horrified that strategy worked as well as it did — given it’s not hard to find pictures of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton with Arafat or Adams, or indeed Ian fucking Paisley bantering with Martin McGuinness — but it’s simply not a strategy that is repeatable.

On ‘unity’ the main mark against Starmer is having backed the ‘coup’ of 2016. There’s an idea around on the soft left that we should start again from 2017 and ignore all of this for the sake of not dredging up irrelevant old arguments, and while that has its uses — sometimes political memory in Labour really is too long — the point is not the politics of the coup itself, but what it revealed about political groupthink. There was no logical reason to blame Corbyn for the referendum result — the ostensible reason for the coup. The barely visible Labour In campaign was led from the right, by Alan Johnson. ‘Corbyn is a secret Brexiteer’ was always purest nonsense, and the lack of full-throated Remainism from the Labour Left was owed to the obvious and continuing fact that the left is genuinely divided on the politics of the European Union, always has been, and probably always will be, and so too was Labour’s electoral coalition. The referendum was opportunistically used as a pretext for what was a completely pointless, gratuitous and, notoriously, inept wrecking campaign. It is the instinct of listening to what the sensible people in the Guardian and the PLP tell you before thinking that is worrying; not the frankly unsurprising and eminently defensible worry as to whether Jeremy Corbyn could win a general election, but the ludicrous belief that Owen Smith could. A similar point could be made about his role in Labour’s generally foolish policy on Brexit. It was Starmer who put the commitment that ‘freedom of movement will end’ in the 2017 manifesto, because that’s what the very sensible people were saying then. Two years later, the very sensible people were saying Labour should go hardcore Remain, and so was Starmer. This is a question of who you’re listening to, and why.

Which brings us to ‘electability’. Again, we should be honest on the left that we didn’t particularly expect Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister when we elected him in 2015. He was widely considered to be a similar figure to George Lansbury, a figure of the radical left who in the 1930s rebuilt the Party, made peace of some sort between factions, encouraged radical local governments and social movements, gave Labour a 7% rise in its vote from its disaster in 1931, setting it up to win the next election, before resigning. What stopped that strategy was the 2017 election. While in 1935, Labour’s 38% was behind a staggering 53% for the Tory ‘National Government’, in 2017, Corbyn was 2% behind May, and a few thousand votes and probably another week or campaigning from becoming Prime Minister. It is fair to say that this went to everybody’s heads.

But how electable is Starmer? One reason why he is electable is that he looks nice. At my CLP selection in south London a councillor repeatedly said ‘vote for the hair and the suit’ as her pitch for Starmer, claiming that these represented ‘aspiration’ for working class northern communities (she was one of several northerners getting up to speak at this meeting in London SE17). Well, many of those working class northern communities just voted for this guy. Given what is currently happening to hair and suit politicians like Varadkar, Macron and Trudeau — yes, all to Starmer’s right — this seems a baffling thing to do, and a continuity 1990s notion, rooted in a time, now long gone, when all politicians had to be men, look good in suits, and have quiffs. This just isn’t serious.

What worries me much more is a combination of presentation and, of course, ‘baggage’. Starmer is charismatic in photographs — what cheekbones! — but he is not on television, where he has the nervous, strained stiffness of Ed Miliband. Every Starmer supporter argues that he’ll ‘be forensic at the dispatch box’, from which he will ‘tear Johnson apart’, but that misses what sort of politician Johnson is. Throw figures at him and he’ll stammer and scoff. Through facts at him and he’ll giggle. Aside from that, nobody who isn’t already ‘interested in politics’ watches PMQs. It could be argued that we need a fighter, an orator, rather than the collection of lawyers and career politicians we have here — and Labour doesn’t have many. It had Laura Pidcock, who tragically seems to have decided to use her time out of office to join the national bullying campaign against trans women; and it has Angela Rayner, who appears unassailable in the deputy campaign. It has some young MPs who are already powerful speakers and fighters, like Zarah Sultana. But none of these people are standing for leader.

Then there’s the ‘baggage’ of Starmer’s role as Director of Public Prosecutions. These can be defended, and have been, on the basis that he was just doing his job — never a particularly great defence. On this, his record, when it gets properly scrutinised — which it hasn’t been, as yet — will serve to alienate just about everyone who isn’t in the dead centre politically. On the left, his role in advising draconian sentences for ‘benefit cheats’ and on locking up people for trivial offences during the student protests of 2010 and the riots of 2011 will be considered a signal that we’re going right back to New Labour’s authoritarianism, when people like David Blunkett competed with the Tories in a daily ignorance and machismo contest. Moreover on the right, the simple fact that he wasn’t locking people up and throwing away the key will be more than enough. Most worryingly, his role in the John Worboys prosecution (one person who very narrowly avoided becoming one of Worboys’ victims was the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds) has already been the feature of a minor tabloid scandal. Maybe in many of these cases Starmer’s involvement was minimal or non-existent, but if you think that will prevent the press serving up fabricated or dog-whistle stories on him throughout his tenure as leadership, especially if he continues to maintain most policies from 2015–19, then you’re extraordinarily optimistic. Put simply, if there aren’t ‘loony left leader of the opposition let out the man who nearly raped the Prime Minister’s girlfriend’ stories within the year if he were elected leader, I’d be very surprised. This is not necessarily Starmer’s fault — but if your main criteria is ‘is he electable’ and ‘the press will give him an easier time’, then he’s a bizarre choice. When an inevitable press honeymoon ends — and it may last mere weeks — I worry we’ll actually have elected the least resilient, and least ‘electable’ of the candidates — a weathervane being blown in dozens of directions.

2. Lost in the Starmers

Which brings us to the other three candidates. All of them are women — and that in itself is an issue, as if a Party has never elected a woman as leader (facing one that has had two female Prime Ministers) and a man is a frontrunner in a group of four, that man must surely be spectacularly talented and charismatic to deserve that prominence. Starmer may be solid on some things, but spectacular he is not. Out of those three, Emily Thornberry is not going to win or come anywhere near winning, and her politics are basically those of Starmer except with a sense of humour — and with the valuable fact she didn’t take part in the 2016 ‘coup’. She remains the candidate I’d most like to go to a Joe Orton play with. That leaves Lisa Nandy, and Rebecca Long-Bailey.

I worry that I’ll be excommunicated from the ‘hard left’ for saying this, but I was initially really quite impressed with the Lisa Nandy campaign. That’s for two reasons, one of them political and one of them presentational. On the first point, while Starmer’s focus seemed to be on ‘look what a top lad I’ve been over the decades, and by the way, I won’t roll back on most of the last four years’, Nandy’s was based initially on a) a focus on the exact places where the Labour meltdown happened (and where it had been predicted to happen in 2015 and 2017 — the boy who cried wolf effect here is underrated) — towns of under 200,000 people in the Midlands and the North and b) on encouraging community organising to try and rebuild some of the social links and infrastructures that helped make those places Labour in the first place. Nandy was saying this from the communitarian right, but it’s a project that would obviously interest the left. We all know the only way the energy and anger and zeal that went into the 2017 and 2019 campaigns can be used usefully is local government, workplace activism and social movement rebuilding — it would also give us something to actually fucking do, other than wait for a general election in five years. I’d rather take that from Manchester Momentum — who are actually doing it — than from one of Blue Labour’s fellow travellers, but you take it where you can get it. The second point, on presentation, is simply the fact that she’s been vastly better on TV than Starmer — sharper, clearer, less waffly. Her ‘with respect, how would you know?’ to Piers Morgan will have got her hundreds of votes alone. This stuff matters — Corbyn’s alternating politeness and peevishness (and the fact he was always funnier and warmer when either he thought the mics were off, or when he was addressing a rally) was a genuine problem, as unfortunately most older people still encounter politics on telly.

There’s problems with all this. As Stephen Bush has pointed out, the focus on ‘towns’ is a misreading of what really happened, which is the collapse of the Labour vote among a certain demographic — 50 plus homeowners and pensioners, who even in mostly working class towns have been relatively insulated from the worst of austerity and the housing crisis, much more than young people on zero hours contracts or renters in the big cities. ‘Towns’ themselves are a silly rubric — throwing Devizes and Kirkcaldy and Reading and Worksop and Leigh and Dudley together is meaningless. But what has been much more worrying in the last couple of weeks — which was obvious from the start, perhaps, but we clutch at straws sometimes — is her obvious closeness to the hard right. Not just her employment of the UKIP strategist and charlatan Ian Warren, but increasingly, her messaging. Not just the disingenuous stuff about bringing council leaders into the NEC — which was presented as empowering some sort of plucky local champions, but in reality, would mean a permanent veto on anything remotely creative or left-wing from superannuated continuity Blairite barons such as Richard Leese, Joe Anderson, Nick Forbes and Peter John. Even more so, her comments on how Labour needs to be more ‘socially conservative’ and the absolutely relentless garbage on her recent Newsnight appearance — which entailed awful and illiterate concessions to the Tories on economics, alternately denouncing the abolition of tuition fees and claiming to support it a few minutes later, and outright lying on at least one issue, buses, where she berated Labour for not talking about something that the left did in fact put in the manifesto and which Corbyn was regularly mocked for by the sensibles for bringing up at PMQs. With Phillips gone and Starmer refusing to shift right so far, she’s obviously seen a niche and is ready to fill it. Beginning left and then shifting sharply right in a few weeks of a leadership campaign suggests the same would happen in even quicker time if she won.

Which leaves Rebecca Long-Bailey. So far I think she has made one very big mistake, which is the off-the-cuff ‘10/10’ rating for Corbyn, a stupid answer to an utterly moronic question. This didn’t just annoy the New Labour irreconcilables — many of those people who were publicly humiliated during and after the 2019 election campaign were obviously furious about this, and that matched the media narrative already in place that had her as the ‘continuity Corbyn’, a cipher without her own thoughts or ideas according to a particularly gross claim by Zoe Williams, and an apparently long ‘anointed’ successor — an odd claim given that it seems her final decision to stand was genuinely quite last-minute. That aside, I think she is by far the most convincing candidate, and I say this not just because it’s the ‘Party Line’ of the organised left — Unite, Momentum, Tribune (hello!), Novara and New Socialist - but because I think she’s been enormously misunderstood, in some cases by her supporters.

There has been an attempt to make her into a streets of Salford battler, but I’m not sure this suits her calm, tactful style, and her working class background isn’t at all unique among the candidates. Starmer also had a father who worked in a factory in a socialist family, and then rose to become a (much more senior) lawyer. Even Thornberry has her bizarre Angela Carter background of council estates and UN diplomats. Ironically given her prolier than thou posture, the only candidate from a straightforwardly middle class background is Nandy, who follows the Milibands in having a Marxist academic father well to her left (Dipak Nandy, and just wait til the Mail find out about him); what is more interesting than these, though, is Long-Bailey’s attempt to talk about what Salford specifically means politically, as a poor, post-industrial city with a left-wing council and a living history of struggle, rather than just a backstory.

Similarly, the notion she is ‘Continuity Corbyn’, and hence will suffer his fate (the 2019 fate, people mean, not the inches from winning fate of 2017) is based on treating her as a much more isolated figure than she is. Early on, it seemed she was clearly on a unity slate with Angela Rayner, with the Party being led by two Manc politicians, one loud, more aggressively working class (and fairly right-wing), the other policy-driven and strongly of the left. Why this hasn’t been foregrounded more is puzzling to me, as it’s a more interesting approach to unity than the fact that Starmer has both left and right wing backroom advisers. The other way in which she’s obviously no sort of ‘continuity’ is, predictably, on foreign policy, or rather perception of foreign policy (actual foreign policy didn’t change an inch from the Ed Miliband years, and while it was always assumed, rightly, that Corbyn’s own views were much more radical, this had zero real effect). I remember even long before the election the crank contingent screeching on Twitter about the fact Long-Bailey had met with the Jewish Labour Movement. The antisemitism crisis has been a failure of just about everyone, on every level, especially through depoliticising it and seeing it as some inexplicable ‘cancer’, but her signing of the Board of Deputies pledges and her closeness to Jon Lansman has already infuriated the worst people on the left. Advocacy of Open selections is an issue I find it hard to be exercised about after what just happened, but giving the Party the same basic democratic abilities to choose its candidates as, say, the Lib Dems, the SNP or the two parties of the US does not seem controversial to me, and Labour MPs have played a blinder convincing anyone otherwise.

Whether Long-Bailey is ‘electable’ in the commonly accepted sense I have no idea. On those grounds, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband were electable, and Boris Johnson — chaotic, absurd, purge-minded (remember when he just removed the whip from the entire ‘one nation’ faction of the Tories, who date back 170 years?) and improvisational — was not, so it seems a pretty useless rubric. She thrives in one-to-one interviews, both with hostile and sympathetic interlocutors, but she does not orate (though the team-up with Rayner soothes that issue, somewhat). Would the electorate of 2019 have voted for her? More than Corbyn, I suspect, but then, that’s not the election we’ll be fighting.

What is crucial about Long-Bailey is that she’s the candidate of the Green New Deal — a detailed, costed, serious proposal to create a green transition to avert climate disaster, which is also, importantly, a reindustrialisation strategy, which would benefit places that used to specialise in engineering more than throwing their older voters some racism to cheer them up. She devised it, will foreground it, and can be relied on to fight hard for it. It’s this, and not them being told what to do by Lansman or McCluskey, which is really behind the enthusiasm of the organised left. She’s by far the politician most closely associated with a serious plan to alleviate by far the most serious political issue, and the one compared to which almost everything else — certainly Brexit — will look completely piffling over the next decade. Moreover, Long-Bailey has shown the least inclination to be spooked by media hostility. None of the candidates, except the car-crash that was the Jess Phillips campaign, could expect major support from the television or the newspapers. We need to build our own structures, and we need to do it everywhere — in workplaces, in housing, in towns and in cities, and in the media. Long-Bailey launching her campaign in Tribune was the only sign from any candidate that they understand this.

Starmer’s appeal is the real ‘one more heave’ — the 1980s generation getting another one of their great second acts, after Ken Livingstone in the 2000s and Abbott, Corbyn and McDonnell in the 2010s. With (genuine!) respect, I think we’ve heard enough from them. Two terrible, epochal defeats thirty years apart is enough. Nandy is dynamic and cynical, but aside from the fact I find some of her alliances and statements morally and factually dubious, they could be relied upon to lose Labour the one base it actually hasn’t lost — the English and Welsh cities, many of which were shifting to the Lib Dems, the Greens, and mostly, depressive apathy ten years ago. All that, and with no guarantee that offering a slightly quieter version of what will likely be a Tory government of roads, rail and racism will result in any electoral success — why not take it from the source? Labour is perennially haunted by its past, but Long-Bailey’s ideas have the virtue of giving out the quiet hope that there may actually be a future. This is why I’ll be voting for her.

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