There are two tasks for a defeated political party seeking to return to power. The first is to become a credible opposition; the second to become a credible alternative. Under Keir Starmer, Britain’s Labour party has taken some impressive strides towards the first goal. The second is going to take longer.
The early months of a new party leader are always spent scraping away the barnacles of the previous regime. It is the easier part of the job but Sir Keir has done it ruthlessly. In his speech on Tuesday to a virtual Labour conference he buried the hard left legacy of Corbynism with gusto. It was striking that while Tony Blair, leader of the “New Labour” project of the 1990s, was mentioned twice, the name of Jeremy Corbyn was not uttered.
Sir Keir showed revulsion at the anti-Semitism that tainted the party in recent years. He pledged Labour would never again go into an election not being trusted on national security, with voters’ jobs, communities and money, and said Labour had to accept and adapt to the harsh judgment voters delivered in last December’s election. In so doing, he consigned the Corbyn era to its rightful place as a shameful footnote in Labour history.
It is not only Mr Corbyn’s legacy he has buried. On Brexit, he has of necessity ditched his pro-Remain stance for the more effective position of challenging prime minister Boris Johnson to deliver on his pledge to get Brexit done and deliver a good trade deal.
Sir Keir has also built up a coherent assault on the government, homing in on incompetence on the pandemic and on Brexit. Coronavirus is a difficult issue for Labour. The line between constructive opposition and opportunism is fine. The new leader has not always got it spot on. But he has scored some parliamentary wins and as the government’s mistakes increase few doubt he will be effective in holding it to account. On restoring Labour as a party of opposition, then, Sir Keir scores highly.
On the second task, the picture remains fairly murky. It is too early to expect detailed policies but while the Labour leader’s rhetoric hits the right notes it is hard to discern the true strategic goals that underpin it and will ultimately inform those policies. We know what Labour is not, but not what it is.
Sir Keir’s economic principles are vague. Has he or has he not disowned the Corbyn manifesto of multiple nationalisations, and substantial rises in taxes and spending? The current crisis lets Labour off the hook for now; all parties back big government and high spending. But Labour must not be gulled into viewing a crisis economy as a permanent position.
Equally, the former lawyer must find a path between his progressive middle-class membership and the social conservatism of Labour’s lost voters. In his leadership election he essentially promised the best of Blair and the best of Corbyn. He knows there is little overlap. His speech showed many Blairite flourishes. Repetition of the phrase “new leadership” evoked memories of Blair’s New Labour. His core positions will differ from Mr Blair’s but he needs the same clarity of values.
Restoring Labour’s credibility and highlighting the government’s failures will get Sir Keir a long way. There are good reasons to believe the Tories will disappoint their voters. But he cannot count on Mr Johnson being his opponent at the next election and voters will focus not only on where the government has failed but on why Labour would do better. Sir Keir has made a strong start and it is good for the country to have a viable opposition. But the hardest yards are still ahead of him.
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