By David Osland
For a Labour leader less than a year into the job, it must embarrassing to be asked whether you still command majority support among party members. But such was the ignominy endured by Keir Starmer this week, and it comes as a clear indicator that the honeymoon is over.
No sign of poll leads of the magnitude fleetingly enjoyed by Ed Miliband, let alone Jeremy Corbyn. No evidence of cut-through in the Red Wall, still less Scotland. No political vision yet forthcoming beyond bald platitude.
And to top everything, last week’s bungled PMQs has dented the forensic lawyer narrative.
Until now, Starmer enjoyed the easiest ride of any new Labour leader in my political lifetime. The ‘demon eyes’ Tory poster campaigns and belittling photographs of unsuccessful attempts to scoff a bacon sarnie have not been wheeled out against him.
But much in his past remains to be explored, as evidenced by the video clip of the younger activist arguing for a republic, unearthed by a prominent right wing website.
Bemused old hands on the far left trade reminiscences on Facebook about their erstwhile comrade’s dalliance with the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency, which will presumably make it to the tabloids and perhaps GB News, once the time is deemed right.
For now, what we are getting is previously supportive publications commencing a run of discouraging coverage, by way of a foretaste of what is to come.
Even Prospect magazine, hitherto a consistent cheerleader, describes Starmer’s leadership as ‘flagging’, and that’s probably not a pun on Labour’s recent embrace of the Union Jack.
Meanwhile – and this is always an ominous watershed in Labour circles – the negative briefing in the Murdoch press has begun.
In Party terms, Starmer’s main immediate problem is that compromise leaders must try to be all things to all members, and he has not proven to be anything in particular to any of them.
It true that he enjoyed an overwhelming vote last April. It’s just that the enthusiasm for him ran wide rather than deep. He did not preside over a factional base of his own, and he has neglected subsequently to construct one.
The left is already alienated on a range of issues, most prominently the withdrawal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey’s dismissal from the front bench, and the turn to patriotism and social conservatism.
Then there’s the hire of a former Israeli intelligence officer in a key social media role, voting the wrong way on the Spy Cops and Overseas Operations bills, and the suspension of dozens of CLP officers for daring to debate critical motions.
Some sections of the left, including MPs, are getting uppity, and openly demanding a recall conference. But these are the usual suspects, and their disgruntlement is at a discount as far as the leadership is concerned.
Contrary to what readers of the Daily Express have been told, Keir Starmer does not face a ‘leadership coup’ as “ruthless Corbynites plot to oust Labour leader”.
This is not least because there is no way any socialist MP would secure the requisite 40 nominations to mount one.
Left wing strategic thinking focuses instead on the belief that Starmer will quit, most likely next year, either because he will jump, or because he will be pushed. In those circumstances, the threshold would be halved.
The Mail on Sunday is citing unnamed “senior MPs on Labour’s left” as wishing to strongarm John McDonnell to run in the event of a vacancy.
There’s no need to dust off your leftover John 4 Leader badge from 2007, because that isn’t going to happen. The figurehead will emerge from the younger generation of the Campaign Group, although none has yet accumulated sufficient standing to be anointed uncontested standard bearer.
But whoever is chosen, the bid will be much better prepared than the 2015 Corbyn campaign, which took everybody by surprise, not least Corbyn’s supporters.
This time around, there will be a fully developed policy platform, with work on developing ideas already underway.
Meanwhile, the soft left hasn’t gone away, you know. Keep an eye on Andy Burnham – or ‘the King of the North’, as we must now call him – who has leveraged his regional role as mayor of Greater Manchester into a position of national prominence.
Asked a few days ago whether he still harboured ambitions to lead the Labour Party, he openly admitted that he would consider another run.
While Burnham has displayed a degree of ideological malleability in the past, his welcome decision to stand up to Westminster over coronavirus marks the most important display of independence on the part of Labour in local government since the 1980s.
If the contrast with Starmer’s endless reiteration of the need for ‘constructive opposition’ is not intentional, it is at least happy happenstance.
Most likely the bigger danger for the sitting Leader of the Opposition comes from the right, which has never accepted Starmer as one of its own.
Their support for him in last year’s leadership contest was only ever tactical, growing out of the realisation that it would be impossible to win the job for an overt advocate of a return to Blairism.
Sustained sniping on social media has been evident for some time, with Lord Adonis the foremost exponent. Former Labour and Change UK MP Mike Gapes has also been unhelpful, in the full-on Alastair Campbell sense of the term.
Possible right wing contenders are already being bruited on centrist Twitter, although the inside baseball will be limited to the leading denizens of that camp.
There is still time for Starmer to turn this unpromising situation around, and I hope he does.
Even now, he could adopt a more combative mien, discover some previously hidden killer instinct, articulate a plan to get the Tories out, unite the Party behind him on radical policies, and make good on a pledges that initially persuaded even hardened old cynics like me to adopt benign neutrality as a starting point.
But he does not have between now and forever. The crunch will be Labour’s performance in the 6th May local elections. Unless the results are better than most are expecting, the Starmer leadership could increasingly look like an interregnum.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.
Image: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand; Author: Rwendland; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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