The first step on a long road for Labour

by Jonathan Todd

Saturday was a tremendous day for Labour. Having been knighted for services to law and criminal justice, Keir Starmer brings more impressive professional experience than perhaps any previous Labour leader. He is a serious figure for serious times. Winning on the first round with over 56% of the vote gives him a strong personal mandate.

Angela Rayner has great potential as the new deputy leader. Other deputy and leadership candidates – Lisa Nandy, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Ian Murray – emerge with credit and higher profiles. The many talents on the Labour backbenches will be brought to the frontbenches.

Candidates backed by Progress and Labour First swept the board in the NEC elections – congratulations to Johanna Baxter and Gurinder Singh Josan. The party machine can be remade in Starmer’s image.

But challenges confronting Labour remain vast: fewer MPs than at any time since 1935 and an unprecedented context of national peril.

When shortages of tests, PPE and ventilators mean people die, the new political currency is thought to be competency. Less than a week after testing positive for Covid-19, Matt Hancock appeared in public to open an emergency health facility with many people around him not observing social distancing rules. While Hancock is considered one of the government’s more competent members, this visual communicates something else.

Whereas competency might imply a politics of cool rationality, we live in a country where 5G towers are set on fire. Because, deaf to the protestations of those that told us we’d had enough of experts, they are somehow supposed to spread Covid-19.

With emotions running high, the ability to mould how people feel remains politically central. Competency means using Gantt charts to get the right stuff in the right place at the right time. That is politically necessary but insufficient. We also now seek connection with newly treasured emotions: reassurance, reliability and hope.

Speaking to the nation on Sunday evening, the Queen summons these feelings for many much more effectively than Keir Starmer – who, for all his attributes, is the leader of a deeply mistrusted party. While Starmer enjoys a reputation for competency, he confronts the formidable challenge of moving Labour beyond associations with extremism and anti-British sentiments to find new emotional connection with an anxious public.

There are fine lines for Starmer to walk: sufficiently moving on from Corbyn to earn Labour a hearing with the public, while not shattering the party unity that he has carefully preserved; scrutinising a government that is failing to deliver desperately needed health equipment, while not seeming overly partisan amid crisis; acting in ways that continue to exude competency, while growing his emotional resonance in febrile times.

There’s no guarantee that Starmer will pull this off. But he might – and deserves forceful and sympathetic backing from across the party as he attempts to. As there was no chance of Corbyn succeeding with these tasks, there is new cause for cautious optimism.

In some senses a progressive future seems suddenly around the corner: FT editorials argue, “radical reforms – reversing the policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be on the table”; the case for increased NHS capacity grows indisputable; and Covid-19 – like climate change – is a global problem that will only be solved with coordination and leadership closer to Gordon Brown in 2008 than Donald Trump in 2020.

All these might seem arguments that Starmer can advance more effectively than Boris Johnson. But many saw a progressive future of tighter regulation and more state intervention awaiting beyond the financial crisis of 2008. Rather than this outcome, we ended up with Brexit and Trump.

When the G7 cannot even issue a statement due to US insistence upon references to the “Wuhan virus”, it is, sadly, obvious that the legacy of Covid-19 could be even more ugly than that of the financial crisis.

There are new emotions for politicians to sail. Some might lead in newly progressive directions. Others to much darker places. The stakes could not be higher.

Covid-19 reshapes the US presidential election, for one thing. With Joe Biden having potential to be a transformative president in the form of a contemporary FDR and a second term Trump presidency threatening equivalently grim outcomes.

Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change, for another. With Biden in the White House, it is possible to dare to hope that the world will take the steps necessary over the next decade to avoid catastrophic climate change. With Trump, this possibility seems eliminated.

Another future is possible, said the Starmer campaign. Another future now seems certain. Whether this will be a future to Labour taste or not remains to be determined.

Nothing is inevitable. But we do know that Labour is more capable of helpfully contributing than before Saturday.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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4 Responses to “The first step on a long road for Labour”

  1. Anne says:

    There are further adjectives I would add – optimistic for our party and proud to be a member.

  2. Alf says:

    Surprised Rachel Reeves got a job. She will terrify unemployed and disabled voters.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Jo Baxter was fighting the nasty bullies form Momentum at conference and although I disagreed with Guridner, on PV he had support form Corbynites through to ex libdems
    just cos Progress backed Jo Baxter that doesn’t mean she asked for their support

    Not sure what being in charge of prosecutions has to do with running the labour party, and the battles and structures and those who bend and break the rules

    he may have ideas for a future government ,but someone so loyal to the Corbyn opposition can only be seen as supporting the bullies the ridiculous manifesto and ignoring those who’ve be side lined in the culture war, namely Women and the working class

  4. John P Reid says:

    Mike Homfray who use to post here has quit the Labour Party

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