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Keir Starmer is haunted by the ghosts of two former Labour leaders; one who is hated by his party and one who was hated by the country.
Jeremy Corbyn holds the hearts of many activists even though he led Labour to its worst defeat in decades and, in the words of one frontbencher, “it is impossible to exaggerate how much he offended voters”. His suspension from the parliamentary party, for denying the scale of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, is a ticking bomb under Starmer. Tony Blair by contrast is unloved by members, made so toxic by the Iraq war that his successors refused to trumpet the successes of the party’s longest period in office. Yet he overshadows all who followed for his clarity of vision and electoral acumen.
In his leadership campaign, Starmer’s only strategic insight was not to choose between those two contrasting leaders. His pitch was merely unity. This meant he never secured a mandate for any vision or change of direction. It is not at all clear that he had one in any case.
After 18 months, against a canny opponent and facing an enormous electoral mountain to gain power, Starmer is still battling to convince a doubtful party and a sceptical electorate that he has what it takes. What has changed, however, is the recognition that unity was an illusion.
He has now made a choice and for proof one need look no further than his inner circle. His office is filled with those who served Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His conference speech is being crafted by Philip Collins, Blair’s chief speechwriter. His strategy chief is Deborah Mattinson, Brown’s pollster; his director of communications, Matthew Doyle, is another former Blair aide; Sam White, his chief of staff, was special adviser to Alistair Darling. The hard left has been marginalised. New Labour figures, including Blair himself, are tapped for advice.
Starmer has recognised power can be won only from the centre-ground, by addressing the concerns of mainstream voters rather than the obsessions of party activists. But this correct call also highlights his core problem. New Labour was not just an exercise in political triangulation but an economic and social strategy. It was sold as a modernising response to harsh, outdated conservatism and dire public services. Starmer has bought the tactics but lacks the underlying strategy.
His first task, then — and one he hopes to begin at his party conference and in a new pamphlet — is to build a critique of Britain under Boris Johnson which resonates with the voters and goes beyond being merely a voice of the disadvantaged. This will also help define him. For all the calls for more policies, what voters really want is to understand a leader’s core values and sense that he is on their side. This has been missing. One shadow cabinet member sighs that “apart from criminal justice policy it’s not clear where Keir’s north star is”.
An added challenge is that Johnson has already claimed the change mantle with pledges to address regional inequalities, poor public services, neglected towns and so on. Blair, for all his skill, was running against a collapsing government. Starmer cannot reclaim these agendas until voters believe the Tories have failed.
So competence and delivery are key battlegrounds. Starmer’s appeal might be that while the government talks a good game, it is chaotic. It is good at slogans but has no real plan for the great strategic challenges. Two years on from Brexit it cannot even create a customs system to manage EU imports without risking food shortages.
The New Labour playbook also demands that he reassures voters. This may mean steering his party away from knee jerk big statism. That the Tories are borrowing, taxing and intervening cannot be carte blanche to offer even more of the same. If a case is to be made for, say, a wealth tax it must be as more than the answer to a passing funding question. Labour must also look like a party of law and order, so expect to be reminded often that Starmer once headed the Crown Prosecution Service.
Another problem is that comparison with Blair does not flatter. His forceful interventions during the pandemic upstaged both Starmer and Johnson.
Blairites are also increasingly assertive, notably pushing for the party to support electoral reform and for him to continue the confrontation with the Corbynite left — including standing firm on refusing to let the ex-leader stand as a Labour candidate at the next election.
But even this takes Starmer only so far. Nor can he rehash 1990s polices; the economic landscape has changed. He must show how his values will be applied to the public’s fears. He talks of a cost of living crisis, of more rights for workers. But these must fit a wider narrative, perhaps of economic security and opportunity in an era of technological change. Before voters choose a new knight, they must see a new dragon.
His greatest problem is that for now, with levelling up, the green industrial revolution, the Brexit reboot, Johnson owns the modernising mission. Labour cannot win until it reclaims it.
Every successful Labour leader has won by defining a problem for which voters saw them as the answer, often framed in the narrative of a new era; Attlee’s postwar deal, Wilson’s white heat of technology or Blair’s “New Britain”. Starmer may be exorcising the right ghosts. But Labour still looks like a party searching for a problem the country might want it to solve.