Is competence enough? Keir Starmer has been helped by the coronavirus crisis. It has made the government look bad; it has helped him look serious; and it has suppressed dissent in his own party.
In his first eight months as Labour leader, Starmer has come across as a competent lawyer in much the same mould as his predecessor John Smith once came across as a competent bank manager — although Smith was a lawyer too.
Now Starmer is entering a more difficult phase. The immediate challenge will be how to respond to the EU trade deal that is likely to be struck in the next few days. It looks as if he will ask Labour MPs to vote for the legislation needed to put such a deal into effect, against the instincts of many of his senior colleagues, who think that they should abstain. (Most Labour MPs accept that they cannot vote against the bill, because that would imply that they wanted a no-deal exit.)
Starmer has been trying in private to persuade his MPs that a positive vote is better than sitting on the fence. Yesterday the Financial Times reported a “party memo” suggesting that Labour should support the apparent agreement between the UK and the EU on an “evolution” clause tying both sides to higher standards in future. It will ensure that “there is a safety net of some sort to prevent radical deregulation from the UK government”, according to the memo. “It crucially provides a platform for a future Labour government to build on to increase standards and rights across the board.”
There is likely to be a rebellion when it comes to the vote, although I take reports that junior shadow ministers are poised to resign with a pinch of a special salt called Biwisi (Believe it when I see it). But it will be a passive sort of rebellion, because abstaining lacks the derring-do of actually doing something.
As very much a side issue — although it is significant that it is a side issue – it will be interesting to see how the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs vote, and which way the independent MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, goes. They are historically pro-Brexit, and they are used to voting in the same lobby as the Conservatives, but will they want to be voting with Starmer, the witch-hunter general?
By voting for the EU deal, Starmer hopes to continue the long work of winning back Leave-minded working-class voters who switched to the Tories last year. Many of them have detached from the Tories already because of their doubts about the government’s handling of the virus, according to the British Election Study. But Starmer believes that getting them to trust Labour again is going to take what Barack Obama called “strategic patience”.
Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, has argued that abstaining would not stop those voters coming back to Labour, but that it would allow the party to criticise the terms of the trade deal over the next few years. Voting for the deal also adds to Labour’s problem in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party will ruthlessly punish the party for being “pro-Brexit” in a country that voted by 62 per cent to remain in the EU.
That is one reason Starmer is planning to give a speech next week about Labour wanting to devolve power to preserve the United Kingdom. Labour people say that the speech has the marks of Gordon Brown all over it, and that Starmer is taking advice from the last Scottish prime minister, whose case for the Union in the 2014 referendum was one of the few positives of the No campaign. That seems sensible, as far as it goes, but does it mean that Starmer’s identity is simply an updated Brownism? To return to our question: is competence, a change of leader, and one more heave – the prospectus offered by John Smith, another Scottish Labour leader – enough? Neutralising Brexit, having something to say to Scotland, and saying “I told you so” about coronavirus: they are all necessary, but they are not sufficient. The bigger problem for Labour is that the economic crisis wrought by coronavirus has driven left-wing idealism into a rut. If socialism simply means more public spending funded by borrowing, then Rishi Sunak has cornered that market. Not only that, but he is considered to be competent as well.