Meticulous Starmer needs to plan for unknown futures

by Jonathan Todd

“Other characteristics [Keir Starmer] brought to [his legal career] have remained with him to this day,” Martin Kettle writes in Prospect. “He was meticulous. He has integrity. He looked at the detail. He planned things out. He was extremely orderly. He was very good at spotting the winning point in a case.”

The known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, create a vast spectrum of possibilities between now and the next general election. In this uncertain context, it will be challenging for Starmer, likely to soon be Labour leader, to plan a course to Labour general election victory.

Winning general election pitches typically promise to resolve the zeitgeist’s issue. For example, with their “long-term economic plan” in 2015, the Conservatives committed to maintaining a focus upon deficit reduction and economic recovery. Ed Miliband’s Labour did not sufficiently junk a reputation for profligacy to disrupt this message. More recently, Boris Johnson told us that he would “get Brexit done”. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour lacked equivalent clarity or a credible method for addressing the dominant issue of Brexit.

Whether Brexit will again be central to this parliament and how smoothly Johnson can get it done are known unknowns. When the Labour leadership election began, coronavirus was an unknown unknown. Now it threatens to usurp Brexit as the overriding political issue. If these issues were to combine (e.g. a no deal Brexit atop supply chains undermined by coronavirus), they would be even more significant.

There’s plenty of time for more unknown unknowns to emerge before the next general election. The aggressive style of the Johnson government – not content with renegotiating all our trade relationships, it is on a war footing with the civil service, BBC and judiciary – means that unintended consequences are a major known unknown.

Events can encourage right- or left-wing instincts in the popular mood. In the US, for example, Trump’s supporters cannot decide whether to blame coronavirus on China or the “deep state”. In contrast, the left-wing response to coronavirus argues that weak employment rights, making it more likely than Americans will work when they should self-isolate, and unequal access to healthcare make the disease harder to tackle.

If Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential candidate, he will pitch to retain support from idealists attracted to Bernie Sanders and moderates at risk of slipping to Trump. Starmer also needs to calibrate an approach to the Labour left that balances conciliation and challenge.

A known known is publication of the EHRC’s report on Labour antisemitism. Starmer’s response to it provides an opportunity to move on from the Corbyn. But, with Labour 16% behind the Conservatives in a recent poll, much more than that will be required to put Labour into a winning position.

Some of Starmer’s policy commitments have raised eyebrows. It is not entirely clear, for example, what a Prevention of Military Intervention Act would entail – but Labour is not a pacifist party. It also remains debatable whether the benefits of common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water justify, next to many other demands upon finite public resources, the price tag. Similarly, if support for the abolition of tuition fees entails Higher Education being entirely financed out of general taxation, it invites hard questions about priorities amid scarce public money.

Starmer also promises “forensic, effective opposition to the Tories in Parliament – linked up to our mass membership and a professional election operation”. As leader, John Smith was such a presence at the opposition despatch box. Tragically, we will never know if he would have won in 1997. But it is hard to believe that “one more heave” would have delivered on the scale that New Labour then did. Nor does it now feel likely that “one more heave”, even combined with opposition of refreshed competency, will now get Labour over the line.

While a quite risk-averse approach seems set to make Starmer leader, bolder moves will be needed to get him to Downing Street. These need to begin early in his leadership. Because it is a known known that the opportunity to define himself as leader and redefine Labour in the public mind will be limited.

The sizzle of this needs to connect with those uninterested in politics, with the substance being a reimagining of social democracy. Not – like so many of the Corbyn-era ideas – reheated from the 1970s but truly rooted in the Britain of the coming decade.

The key to keeping together the Labour coalition that Starmer will inherit and growing it such that it can win is to reboot what social democracy means. With the changed country offered by this credo appearing appealing, achievable and unthreatening – unlike Corbynism – to everyday people.

After repeatedly not answering the question on the general election exam paper (the deficit in 2015, Brexit in 2019), it also needs to answer whatever this question is in 2023/4. While we cannot now know what this question will be, Starmer needs to act from day one like he has the answers.

Being the key to a future that we do not yet know we want is a form of political artistry that Starmer must add to his unusually impressive professional skills.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

Tags: , , , ,

8 Responses to “Meticulous Starmer needs to plan for unknown futures”

  1. Anne says:

    Events such as war and disease though world history have changed the course of circumstances – we are going through such a change at the present time, and leaders are often judged on how they respond and handle such events. The Tories have, so far, not had a great start. Richi Sunak seems like a nice young man but very inexperienced to be left to deal with crashing world markets, possible world recession, and a possible no deal Brexit.
    Keir Starmer’s attention to detail, and his understanding of complex situations does add confidence – he is the man for the leader’s job.

  2. Rory Goode says:

    Let’s just go back to being Tory-lite. No need for a complex narrative. Starmer would have my support. It might just work for us in 2024.

  3. steve says:

    “his unusually impressive professional skills”

    Goodness! Ho often struggles for coherence when interviewed and certainly lacks political imagination. No chance of him responding appropriately to the known knowns, never mind the unknown unknowns.

    Sorry to disappoint but there’s much more to leadership than an overly-coiffured hairstyle and waving ones arms about.

  4. Tafia says:

    Starmer is as dull as ditch water. He is an absolutely dire performer and could cure any insomniac.

    He is monotonous, boring and takes that long to get to the point you’ve lost interest in what he’s saying and forgotten what it was about anyway. Watching him speak is like watching cricket – you can nip down the shops for a couple of hours while it’s on and not miss much. For a leader these days it is all about performance and capturing the audience. Emotion always beats intellect in politics – always has done, always will do.

    And that stupid ‘about to burst into tears, look he has is pitiful.

    @Anne, you really really need to wake up. Sunak was actually the brains behind Sajid and there are very very few people in the Treasury or Parliament with his grasp of economics. We are not seeing markets crashing – stop being a hysterical clown. We are seeing a short term reaction to temporary events by ‘the herd’. The big players are quietly buying up what the herd is dumping. Did you know money is pouring into UK bonds from all over the world at the moment, especially from Europe, despite the yield lower than at anytime since capitalism began in the early 1700s. The effect of that is Sunak has got more cheap money at his disposal than any Chancellor ever, and at just the right time.

  5. Henrik says:

    This is all very interesting for the Labour faithful – and how Starmer performs as leader is existential for the party – but in no way relevant to the national conversation. Whoever takes over from the Blessed Jeremy has the role of grubbing out the Jew-hating, terrorist-hugging entryist Trots, tankies and assorted Leftie fanbois and getting the party into the sort of shape where it’s an effective and credible HM Opposition. For now, there’s no appetite for power in the party – and no bleeding policies or agreed strategic approach, either.

    That job done, work can then start on coming up with some sort of offer which might be of interest to the electorate. That’s likely to be the next-but-one leader’s role. I have a modest sum of money invested with a bookie for who’s going to be Labour leader in 2029, which is the earliest possible time Labour can look to have a sniff of power.

  6. Tafia says:

    Johnathan, you mention Labour being 16% behind the Tories as ‘recent’.

    This is every poll since the General Election

    Latest polling at the bottom. Interesting that the floods have had no impact on the Tory lead.

    General Election 12 Dec: Con 43.6%, Lab 32.2%, LDem 11.6%, Grn 2.7%, Oth 9.9%

    BMG, 8-10 Jan
    Con: 44%
    Lab: 29%
    LDem: 11%
    Grn: 5%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 11%

    Survation, 30-31 Jan
    Con: 44%
    Lab: 33%
    LDem: 10%
    Grn: 3%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 10%

    Ipsos/MORI. 31 Jan-02 Feb
    Con: 47%
    Lab: 30%
    LDem: 11%
    Grn: 5%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 7%

    YouGov, 8-10 Feb
    Con: 48%
    Lab: 28%
    LDem: 10%
    Grn: 6%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 8%

    Opinium, 12-14 Feb
    Con: 47%
    Lab: 32%
    LDem: 7%
    Grn: 4%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 10%

    SavantaComRes, 19-20 Feb.
    Con: 47%
    Lab: 31%
    LDem: 9%
    Grn: 4%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 6%

  7. John P Reid says:

    I Starmers view on a second brexit referendum
    We went their to be a 2nd referndum in Remain so we’ve decided there’s public appetitive for a 2nd referendum for remain as we’ve decided we feel the public having not know what leave was, have now decided they es he’d remain
    And the public feeling they based it on was it became a culture war where the labour style members are middle class you d snobs who hold the working class in contempt so it’s better to aim for their votes

    As for his actions at the DPP he felt that a jury having heard girls who were groomed wouldn’t be reliable witnesses as they didn’t know that the attention and money they got for groomers they weren’t aware they were being exactly looted at the time

    But calling the accused perpetrators when its decided a accuser,Er I mean victim feels their feelings were upset based on the complainant saying they’re convinced the accused hated then when they defined that person as different to them

    Well that’s a non crime hate incident to be out in someone’s (criminal record)

  8. Tafia says:

    And you can add this baby to the list.

    Patel, Javid, Holidays, Covid, floods – all making absolutely no impact.

    KantarPublic, 05-09 Mar.
    Con: 50%
    Lab: 29%
    LDem: 11%
    Grn: 2%
    Oth/DK/WNV: 8%

Leave a Reply