Stuff can happen in election campaigns, and the Labour leadership contest is not yet at the halfway point — but Keir Starmer is in a strong position and party members start voting online on Friday. Most people in these kinds of elections vote straightaway or not at all, so Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, the remaining candidates now that Emily Thornberry has been eliminated, have little time to turn things around.
In this critical phase of the campaign, the candidates have started to strike poses in an effort to be noticed. Long-Bailey quoted Tony Blair approvingly, saying, in a speech on Friday, that Labour had to be the “political arm of the British people”. It was one of Blair’s odder phrases, but it is significant that she signs up to the ambition of representing all the people, instead of expressing the usual Corbynite contempt for Conservatives and the people who vote for them.
Nandy took the most aggressive line against antisemitism in the Jewish Labour Movement hustings on Thursday, and was rewarded with its nomination for the leadership — an impressive feat for someone who is also chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. Perhaps she could broker peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Starmer published his “10 pledges”, which went the whole socialist worker hog, including a “Prevention of Military Intervention Act”; “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”; and ending “outsourcing in the NHS”.
Some of his supporters are alarmed by his refusal to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn, but this is an internal party election. Long-Bailey is trying to reach out from the Corbynite core group, which so far has given her a maximum of 37 per cent in one poll of party members. And Starmer is trying to fend her off, knowing that most party members, while they came to have their doubts about Corbyn’s leadership ability, agree with his policies and respect loyalty and unity. (Nandy, meanwhile, has run the best campaign, which will count for little in the end.)
The question, then, is whether Starmer — or indeed either of his rivals if they win an upset victory — can hold the party together in the next phase. I have long argued that this will not be as hard as it looks, because Corbynism will not outlast Corbyn. As Long-Bailey’s campaign has shown, the hard core among the membership is quite small. Most members were drawn to Corbyn because they wanted full-fat socialism, not because they agreed with his views on Europe (quickly modified), Russia or Venezuela.
I have belatedly caught up with a brilliant book that sets out how the next phase might work. Warring Fictions by Chris Clarke was published in October, before the election, but it is essentially about what happens after 4 April when the new leader is announced. It is the most productive contribution from a non-Corbynite to Labour’s internal debate for some time.
Subtitled Left Populism and its Defining Myths, it argues that Corbynites and non-Corbynites share the same values but differ radically in their view of the world. While the Corbynites (or “left populists” as Clarke calls them) tend to think that elites are morally corrupt, inherently right wing and conspire to maintain their power, the non-Corbynites (or “left pluralists”) are less suspicious of those in power, more likely to assume their political opponents are motivated to do good, and “lean towards chaos-based explanations” of society’s problems.
Thus both groups could feel equally strongly about making Britain more equal, and promoting world peace and environmental sustainability, while having radically different views about what prevents those goals being achieved, and therefore how to go about achieving them.
For left populists, inequality, conflict and global warming are the deliberate policies of what Clarke calls dark knights and puppet masters; whereas for left pluralists, they are the unintended consequences of people mostly trying to do the right things. This is a reading of left-wing politics that suggests a road ahead for Starmer, whose discipline in avoiding taking any public position that would divide opinion in the Labour Party is impressive.
Since he rejoined the front bench in 2016, after resigning in the mass attempt to depose Corbyn earlier that year, he has avoided any kind of factional positioning.
The only exception was when he said in his 2018 party conference speech “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option” in any second EU referendum — a view overwhelmingly supported by the members, although not at that stage by Corbyn himself.
As Long-Bailey might recognise, there is a precedent for a Labour leader signing up for radical egalitarian ends while being carefully unspecific about means. I have been re-reading a few of Blair’s early speeches as leader of the opposition and in his first term as prime minister. They are all about huge ambition for change — abolishing child poverty, and world-class public services — while maintaining the broadest possible support among the wider electorate.
Labour has done it once before, and whoever is the next leader can do it again.