Terina Hine interrogates a year of Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party and the disappearance of the Opposition
A year today the Labour Party elected Sir Keir Starmer as the new Leader of the Opposition.
It was supposed to be the return of the grown-ups, to a new era of serious, competent, electable opposition. But, in spite of the disasters of the pandemic, Starmer now languishes 10 points behind Johnson in the latest YouGov poll. In the course of the year, there have been 206 opinion polls - 16 showed a Labour lead, 16 a tie and 174 a Tory lead - reflecting more than a vaccine bounce. It is not a good record.
Recently, some high-profile supporters have used a string of adjectives to describe the human rights lawyer, peer of the realm come Labour leader: they called him “tepid” and “timid", “competent but controlling”. One MP suggested he was more a civil servant than a politician, while another commented “he’s not very political” - this is from his friends.
Purging the left
A year ago Starmer promised to unite the party and take the fight to the Tories, but instead has ripped Labour apart and betrayed many who voted for him. In an unprecedented act of reprisal, he even removed the Labour whip from the former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
He has undermined party democracy, rigging the elections of Labour’s ruling body, the NEC, imposing ‘special measures’ on left-led constituency parties, and more recently produced a ‘long list’ of one for the selection of the Labour candidate for the Hartlepool by-election.
Under his leadership Labour has failed to oppose the most corrupt and dangerous government we have seen for decades, focussing on purging the left rather than attacking the Tories. Even when faced with the government’s incompetent and callous Covid response, Sir Keir chose silence and abstention over active opposition. It was left to footballers to fight for hungry children, the NEU to argue to keep our schools safe and Independent Sage to propose an alternative Covid plan.
The party’s opposition to the corporate tax rises in the budget indicate how far from the ideals of democratic socialism it has moved in a matter of months. Rightward shifts on the environment, policing and defence show how keen they are to disassociate themselves from the Corbyn era.
The last few days have seen column inch after column inch sympathising with Starmer, suggesting he faced a Herculean task to rebuild Labour following the 2019 election defeat and years of Corbyn mismanagement. But there has been no mention of the deliberate sabotage of the election by the parliamentary party and Labour machine (supported by a hostile media) which resulted in the demonisation of Corbyn and made Labour unelectable.
Nor has there been any mention of Corbyn’s inheritance: the damage caused by the Iraq war and the near pariah status of former leader Tony Blair; the party’s embrace of neoliberalism and its economic and political fallout.
Now the old guard are back, literally - with Margaret Beckett chairing Labour’s ruling body and ‘big hitters’ such as Peter Mandelson, not only providing supportive prime-time interviews, but officially advising Starmer and his team.
Starmer’s programme for his first year was to distance himself from Corbyn and purge the party of his supporters. Policy was relegated to the back burner. Hence his first conference speech as Labour leader was stuffed with generalities and devoid of actual plans: principles replaced with flags and policy with platitudes about family values and patriotism. The main take-away from the conference address was lightly veiled attacks on Corbyn and Corbynism.
The purge of the left began in earnest from the outset and continues today. Within three months Starmer had rid his shadow team of its only left-winger Rebecca Long-Bailey, an avid Corbyn supporter and the left’s candidate in the leadership race. The sacking was clearly motivated by Long-Bailey’s support for the NEU who were vocally opposing the government’s plan, shamelessly supported by Labour, to reopen schools in the pandemic. It was a move that showed Starmer’s colours in more ways than one: it excluded the left from high office, laid bare Starmer’s prioritisation of the economy over health and exposed his contempt for the unions.
Standing with the Tories
The NEU in fact won the day and schools did not return fully until after the summer, but no lessons were learned and the whole sorry charade was repeated in January, when Labour once again chose to side with the Tories over scientific advisers, unions and the general public. Again, both the government and Labour U-turned (Labour 24 hours before the Tories once the writing was on the wall), and schools opened for one day only.
This lack of foresight and inability to read either the public mood or take heed of scientific advice is a failing Starmer has shared with Boris Johnson, yet he had the gall to call the PM indecisive. As late as January, Starmer stood by the government in refusing to call for a national lockdown (eventually caving in on the eve of its announcement) regardless of his knowledge of the highly infectious new Covid variant, the 1,000 daily deaths and the NHS being on its knees.
Labour has failed to challenge and expose the government throughout the pandemic - be it over the PPE scandal, cronyism, the £billion failure of track, trace and isolate, or the repeated lockdowns. The government’s multiple U-turns were a result of public outcry or celebrity tweets rather than the Leader of the Opposition fulfilling his role and holding the government to account.
But Starmer’s failure has not been confined to the pandemic.
Take, for example, his response to the Spy Cops bill (the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill) described by Amnesty as a “licence for government agencies to authorise torture and murder.” The ‘forensic’ human rights lawyer insisted that Labour abstain, and even whipped his peers to reject the Chakrabarti amendments in the Lords which sought to prohibit state agents from breaking criminal law with impunity. Starmer was accused of playing the woman not the argument - Chakrabarti had been a leading figure in Corbyn’s team as shadow attorney general.
Or the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill which prohibits the right to protest. Again, Starmer called for his MPs to abstain until his hand was forced following the outcry over the Clapham Common vigil. And just a few days later, Labour’s font bench was once again playing into the hands of the authoritarian, anti-protest views of the Home Secretary and damning protester violence rather than police violence as Kill the Bill protests spread around the country.
Starmer paid lip service to movements for justice, but failed to take real action when evidence of racist and sexist behaviour by Labour staff was leaked. He showed support for the Black Lives Matter last summer by taking the knee in a photo-op, but revealed his lack of empathy and political awareness by dismissing the BLM protests as a “moment”. More recently, he claimed to be troubled by violence against women but has supported the police watchdog’s report that the policing of the Clapham Common vigil was “appropriate”.
And it gets worse: this weekend, we were greeted with election material, produced by Charlotte Nichols MP, shadow minister for Women and Equalities, promising that Labour would “deal with Traveller incursions”. A throwback to the days of Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug if there ever was, and a very depressing sign of the direction the party is headed.
Starmer has proved himself to be an ineffectual opposition leader by refusing to challenge the government. The focus of the party has been to purge the left and distance Labour from Corbyn but with no policies or strategy to win the 127 seats needed for a general election victory - as if simply not being Corbyn would be enough. Now even the shadow cabinet are asking ‘what is Keir for?’ with “deep frustration” being reported about his lack of vision.
In his mission to demonise Corbyn and Corbynism, Starmer has failed to recognise that Corbyn’s policies were popular, that the public admired a principled politician and wanted a new kind of politics. It is Starmer’s leadership, rather than Corbyn’s, that is backward looking - seeking to reclaim the ‘glory days’ of Blair: its smart suits and bland politics, its cosying up to big business at home and US neoconservatism abroad. But the world has changed.
Starmer’s year as leader has left Labour rudderless, leaving the public unsure what Labour is for or what its leader stands for.
 Polling data compiled by Politico reporter Andrew McDonald
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