Skip to main content
Mile End Institute

Starmer's First Year: The Signal and the Noise - Dr Robert Saunders

A year ago, as Keir Starmer strapped himself to the mast of the Good Ship Labour, I joked that "leading the Opposition is not so much a job as a multiple personality crisis". Twelve months later, as he picks through the wreckage of his first big electoral test, Starmer could be forgiven for wondering in what role he has been cast: as the captain, the albatross, or the first violin, bravely playing on as the ship goes down.

Published:
news image

Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings. 

By Rwendland

From a historical perspective, it is hard to reach a judgement on Starmer's first year - because no Leader of the Opposition has ever had a first year like it. He inherited a shattered parliamentary party, reduced to its lowest number of MPs since 1935; a party that was broken financially, divided ideologically, and under investigation by the EHRC for institutional anti-Semitism. The political landscape was being rewritten by Brexit, while Covid had suspended the normal rules of both politics and economics, in a way that left little scope for traditional opposition. The vaccine has handed the government an almost unprecedented public policy success: one that is experienced directly by almost every household in the country. Nearly everyone in the UK has either been vaccinated themselves or has a parent, grandparent or loved one who has been vaccinated. It would be hard to think of another government programme in peacetime that has carried such a powerful (and personal) political punch.

So the challenge for the Labour Party, as it reflects on the last year, is to separate the signal from the noise. What is temporary or contingent - like, perhaps, the vaccine bounce - and what is lasting or structural? And what lessons might it draw from the party's history?

Must Labour Lose?

Losing elections is not an unfamiliar experience for the Labour Party. In the whole of the twentieth century, it won a comfortable working majority only three times: in 1945, 1966 and 1997. Tony Blair, who has just turned 68, is the only man alive to have led the Labour Party to a general election victory. He is one of only two Labour election winners to have been born since the party was founded, more than 120 years ago. Labour has only once won a comfortable majority from Opposition [1], and until 2005 had never completed two full terms in office.

The reasons for that are partly structural. Labour has never been able to match the Conservatives financially and is grotesquely under-represented in the press. For most of its history, the party has been locked out of at least one part of the United Kingdom. Only once, in 1945, has it out-polled the Conservatives in the South of England, a region that returns about a quarter of the House of Commons, and it currently holds just one seat in Scotland.

Factionalism is not new either. Labour has always been an uneasy coalition of forces, that have wrestled for control of the party. Even Clement Attlee, the secular saint of the Labour movement, faced at least three attempts to remove him from the leadership - one of them on the day he became prime minister in 1945. Harold Wilson plotted against trade union leaders, secure in the knowledge that they were also plotting against him, while Neil Kinnock had fist-fights in the toilets at the Labour Party Conference.

Because Labour aspires to represent a particular cohort of the electorate - because it cares intensely about who its voters are - it has always been vulnerable to social and economic changes that threaten to undermine its electoral base. In the 1950s, concern centred on the so-called "affluent worker", who owned a television, a car and increasingly thought of himself as "middle class". In the 1980s, the decline of heavy industry, the sale of council houses and the decline of trade union membership struck terror into the hearts of Labour strategists, threatening as they did to abolish the party's core vote.

For that reason, the fear that Labour might never win again is also far from new. As early as 1908 - less than a decade after the party was founded - the dockers' leader Ben Tillett asked in a celebrated pamphlet Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure? In 1960, an influential book by Mark Abrams and Richard Rose posed the question Must Labour Lose?, while the 1990s saw much ink spilt on "Labour's Southern Discomfort" and the rise of "Mondeo Man".

In one respect, Labour might take heart from these memories. After each of those crises, Labour did win again - and won well. Political parties do not have a divine right to survive, but nor are they doomed to disappear. That is especially true at a time like the present: an age of extraordinary political volatility when the impossibilities of one day become the conventional wisdoms of the next. If the Conservative Party, in 2019, could go from 9% in the European Elections to a landslide General Election win, Labour can also turn its position around. But that will require honesty about the scale of its problems, creativity in the search for solutions, and humility about its relationship with the electorate.

Building Back Better

So what might Labour learn from its past?

Whenever Labour has won, it has offered a positive and optimistic vision of the future - and persuaded people it can deliver it. In 1945, it was the "New Jerusalem": the "Modern Mecca" of the welfare state. For Harold Wilson, it was a country forged anew in the "white heat" of the "technological revolution". In 1997, it was Oasis, D-Ream and "New Life for Britain". In each case, that optimistic vision was set against an account of the costs of Conservative rule: from the "hungry thirties" and the Great Depression, through the "thirteen wasted years" of 1951-64, to the "22 Tory tax rises" of the 1990s.

Offering a compelling vision of change is not just a matter of policy. It requires good story-telling, that links together an account of the past ('how did we get here?'), an analysis of the present ('where are we now?') and a programme for the future ('where will we take you?') Labour is currently struggling with all three elements of that package.

Whatever his other faults, Boris Johnson is a very skilful storyteller. He consistently sets the vaccine success, freeports, spending announcements and even the demise of the Super League within a larger story about Brexit, "Global Britain" and "levelling up". He offers an optimistic vision of what Britain stands for and where it is heading under his leadership. Labour may think that story is bunkum, but it can’t just play the grim reaper, polishing its scythe and waiting for night to fall. It needs to give people reason to hope for a Labour government. That requires it to tell the public what Labour likes about the country, what it thinks is holding it back, and why voters should believe that their lives will be better if Labour is in power.

If, as Keir Starmer has predicted, Covid is to usher in a more social-democratic age, Labour will need to shape how people understand and remember this period. It will need to tell a story about why Britain was so unprepared for the crisis and why the effects were felt so unequally. It must offer an account of the government's failures during the crisis that goes beyond "incompetence" - an explanation that carries little political charge - and that links problems with out-sourcing, testing, contracting and schooling to the political values that underpinned them. But the party also needs to show how the best of this crisis speaks to Labour values - solidarity, collective provision, public service and equality - offering a template on which a future government could build.

That story needs to be matched with serious policy work. In the 1930s, at the lowest ebb in Labour’s electoral fortunes, it launched the most ambitious policy exercise in the party’s history. The result was the first detailed policy programme Labour had ever generated, which set out much of the agenda for the 1945 government. In the 1990s, New Labour launched a really serious attempt to rethink what the Labour Party was for, in a world where the Cold War was ending, Britain was moving to a new kind of service economy, the male-breadwinner model was breaking down, and issues like gay rights and racial equality were moving up the agenda. That programme did not solely come from the right of the party: it drew on the work of Eurocommunists, cultural theorists, left-wing councils, the TUC and external groups like Charter 88. We might disagree with the conclusions it reached, but Labour needs that ambition again now.

If anything, the need for new thinking is more pressing today than it was in the '90s. Issues like climate change, the gig economy and the fracturing of the United Kingdom were barely on the agenda twenty years ago. Now they require urgent solutions. Brexit has returned great swathes of policy-making from Europe to Westminster; yet it remains wholly unclear what Labour proposes to do with those powers, save to regret the reason for their existence.

Addressing these questions will carry Labour far outside its intellectual comfort zone. The Labour Party was founded in 1900, at a time when British politics was moving away from the constitutional questions that had dominated the nineteenth century, and towards the economic and distributional questions that would dominate the twentieth. If politics is now moving back towards constitutional and cultural questions, Labour will need to orient itself to a political environment in which it has few deep roots. If it fails, it risks being as stranded in the politics of this century as the Liberal Party was in the politics of the last.

Dropping the Ming Vase

If it is to tackle these questions effectively, Labour will need to avoid three historic failings.

First, it has to find a way to manage its internal divisions. It is no coincidence that the worst periods of Labour infighting - the 1930s, 1950s, 1980s and the last six years - have all seen it plunged into electoral exile. By contrast, Labour's most successful governments brought together people from radically different traditions. The Attlee government harnessed the talents of men who were barely on speaking terms. (Told that Herbert Morrison was "his own worst enemy", Ernest Bevin replied "Not while I'm alive"). Wilson's cabinets stretched from Tony Benn to Roy Jenkins and from Barbara Castle to Denis Healey. Even New Labour, in its early years, brought together figures as diverse as David Blunkett (formerly of the "Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire"), Chris Mullin (who edited Tony Benn's speeches), the Eurocommunist Geoff Mulgan and civil liberties campaigners like Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt. 

That is not only a challenge for the leadership but for the party more broadly. Labour cannot survive a social media culture in which the most anodyne statements are cast as acts of war. There is no middle course to be steered between the mutually incompatible ultimatums being fired off by every section of the party, whether on Brexit, Corbyn, electoral reform or the next manifesto. What Labour needs is not ‘unity’ - which usually means "agreeing with me" - but the ability to disagree fraternally. Only then will the pluralism of the Labour tradition become a source of strength, rather than an engine of disintegration.

Second, Labour needs to break its historical reluctance to take defeats seriously. Labour has an unhappy tendency to inhale its own myth. Because it thinks of itself as the party of the people - or, at the very least, as the party of the working class - it consistently struggles to explain election defeats, except by invoking some extraordinary external shock or internal betrayal. In Labour mythology, it would have won in 2019, if not for Brexit; it would have won in 2017, if not for treason at party HQ; it would have won in 1983, if not for the Falklands; and it would have won in 1978 if Callaghan had not dithered until the following spring. From the Zinoviev Letter and the Campbell Case to the Post Office Savings Scare, the Bankers' Ramp and the Treasury estimates in 1970, Labour history is riddled with excuses that prevent it from engaging honestly with its own failures. It should not wait for a fifth successive defeat before doing so today.

Finally, Labour must resist a tendency to conflate opposition to "Toryism" with hatred of "Tory voters". All Labour's election winners have understood that good people can vote Conservative - and that the task of the Left is to win them back again. Attlee had been a Conservative himself; Wilson was married to a Conservative, while Blair's father had hoped to be a Conservative MP. That did not prevent them from trying to draw Tory voters back to Labour, but it inoculated them against the 'Tory Scum' rhetoric that too often disfigures the party.

This is not simply a question of manners; it affects how the party understands its electoral dilemma. Labour sometimes talks about Brexit voters, or Red Wall voters, as if they belong to a degenerate alien species; as if the dilemma facing the party was whether to pander to their prejudices or to bid them good riddance, in search of a more elevated electorate elsewhere. Yet the voters that deserted Labour in 2019 were not bigots, xenophobes or class traitors. As recent research by YouGov demonstrates, they held many of the same social attitudes as voters in other parts of the country. They cared about their families, their communities, and the wider country. If they saw the Conservative Party, or Brexit, as a better vehicle for those aspirations than the Labour Party, that should be a cause for reflection, rather than recrimination, on the Left.

If there is one lesson that Labour desperately needs to relearn, it is its faith in ordinary people. Labour should be confident in its ability to win the electorate back for a progressive vision of politics - and, indeed, to believe that those voters might have something to teach it about what progressive politics should look like. But that will require the party to talk with voters, and not simply at them, and not to treat elections as a moral test that the public has sadly failed.

In short, Labour should be serious about the scale of the challenge, but optimistic about its ability to meet it. Doing so will require good faith from all sides in the party, and a greater humility in their relations with the electorate. If they fail, the party will lose again, and again, and again; and that will let down not just the Labour Party, but the people for whom it claims to exist.

Dr Robert Saunders is a Reader in British History and a former Director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London

This piece was originally published on The Gladstone Diaries, a personal blog by Dr Robert Saunders. 

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Mile End Institute or Queen Mary University of London.

 

Notes

These comments are based on remarks to the Mile End Institute webinar on "Keir Starmer's First Year" on 11 May 2021. The full event, with Caroline Flint, Anthony Wells, Ailbhe Rea, Eunice Goes and Patrick Diamond, can be watched here.

[1] In 1997. Strictly speaking, Labour won from Opposition in 1945, but it had just emerged from five years of government as part of the wartime coalition.