Starmer needs to fight the next war, not the last one

By David Osland

They say generals always fight the last war, and sometimes that maxim applies to politicians as well.

A case in point is an interview with the Labour leader in the Financial Times last week, under the headline “Starmer urges Labour to embrace Blair’s legacy as he vows to win the next election”.

The favourable coverage was pegged on the impending autumn relaunch of Starmer’s leadership, due to be rolled out at conference in September.

This, on some counts, will mark the third leadership relaunch in fewer than 18 months, a frequency that makes the space shuttle look positively under-utilised.

But the big message – spelled out in symbolism that flatly contradicts the ‘electable Corbyn’ campaign pitch of 2020 – is unmistakable.

Where last year we were reassured it would be wrong to oversteer away from radicalism, Labour is now going to be turned not only inside out, but sharply to the right.

Many of the chosen soundbites have been heard before. Starmer must have uttered the words “We have a mountain to climb” more often than Chris Bonnington instructing his sherpas prior to ascending a particularly deadly peak in the Himalayas.

Labour, he insisted, is “not a party of protest”, resorting to a regular Labour right jibe at what Blairites deride as the supposed student gesture politics of the Corbyn era.

Aren’t we? The ‘party of protest/party of power’ binary is a false dichotomy: effective parties of the left must be both, channelling anger into a parliamentary majority for change.

“I’m acutely aware that among my first tasks is rebuilding the relationship between the Labour party and business,” Starmer went on.

‘Labour’s relationship with business’ under Blair was Labour’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, Bernie Ecclestone, the Hinduja brothers and Lakshmi Mittal.

That is not a relationship many voters would want to see return, especially if what is really being said is ‘Labour must rebuild its relationship with business donations’, to compensate for the financial problems caused by the departure of 120,000 members.

If nothing else, getting out the begging bowl and asking billionaires for spare change will blunt the force of Rayner and Dodds’ attacks on Tory fundraising tactics, and constrain policy initiatives lest they offend the grasping imperatives of the super-rich.

Starmer culminated in the insistence that he has one strategic vision: “To win the next election.” And that was perhaps the most unsatisfactory answer of all.

Winning the next election is a strategic goal; a strategic vision is the blueprint for how to get there. And here we remain bereft of elucidation.

I’m not sure he knows the answer himself. A measure of this is the Times report that Starmer has had to undergo a crash course in basic economics, courtesy of Charlie Falconer and Ed Miliband.

I’m all for lifelong learning. But the idea that Labour is led by a man without the first idea of how capitalism works and how Labour governments have attempted to palliate it does little to inspire confidence.

Hopefully Sir Keir has John McDonnell’s phone number. If not, I have a number of first year undergraduate texts on Keynesianism still sitting on my shelves, and I’d happily lend them to him.

Only the geeks among us would have expected a reply in the form of a learned disquisition on Bernstein, Crosland or Rawls.

But if Starmer had simply said, “I’m a social democrat, here is what I mean by that designation, here’s a set of joined-up policies I’d like to implement”, at least we’d have some idea of where he wants us to go.

Instead we are subjected to inane tautology. For a leader who is obviously struggling to connect, we need much, much more.

The counter argument is that the electorate doesn’t care about vision. Maybe that’s even what focus groups say if asked. But in a deeper sense, they surely do.

I don’t care about the underlying theory of kitchen design. But I certainly wanted the firm I paid to install a kitchen earlier this year to care, and I gave the job to one I was convinced did.

Constructing a new Britain is a vastly bigger job than constructing a new kitchen in a small flat in Hackney.

The next general election may now be less than two years away. Labour is in obvious disarray, perhaps on the cusp of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, the Tories are filling their boots and governing by lies, open graft, the erosion of civil liberties, immunities for the armed forces and the secret state, voter suppression and limitations on judicial review.

The next war is going to be different. Instead of harking back to 1990s Cool Britannia and the permanent 20 point poll lead Blair was gifted by Black Wednesday, Starmer needs to stop evading the fundamental question of what Labour stands for in the 2020s.

If he fails to do so – and do so soon – the battle is already lost.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Keir Starmer, February 2020. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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