When Jeremy Corbyn and I stood down from the leading positions in the Labour party, we agreed Keir Starmer should not be treated the way we were by some Labour MPs, doing all they could to undermine us.
Although it was a bit tongue in cheek, I said I would become an elder statesman and until this last week that is exactly the role I have tried to play, offering constructive, and occasionally critical, support to the new leader and his team.
It’s now, though, time for some hard talk. By the time Labour’s conference ends, we could be just 18 months off a general election. Boris Johnson won’t want to risk going to the polls in the last year of the electoral cycle and he’ll be desperate to avoid exposure in the Covid inquiry, which I doubt he can put off much longer.
So it’s time for all Labour members to make a realistic appraisal of where we are electorally and why. When you have been in the frontline of two election defeats, no matter how close we came in 2017, you become pretty sanguine in assessing the party’s electoral prospects.
Labour support in the polls is bouncing along behind the Conservatives with a corrugated trajectory. As each Johnson failure or ministerial gaffe is exposed, the Tory lead over Labour narrows, mainly because Conservative voters move to undecided. When coverage of the incident fades, the Conservative lead is restored.
The other consistent story from the polls is the worrying scale of the slide in Starmer’s personal ratings. This has been in a period when, in comparison with its treatment of past Labour leaders, the mainstream media have been relatively benign and the Conservative artillery has been barely trained on the opposition leader. Of course, being the leader of the opposition in a period of national emergency is always tough. People naturally expect politicians to suspend the usual knockabout party politics and pull together in a national crisis. Nevertheless, they still want to hear someone sticking up for them and offering the hope of something better when things go wrong, as they so badly have during the pandemic: the highest death toll in Europe and among the G7 second only to Trump’s US.
For too long, they haven’t heard the voice of Labour sticking up for them loudly enough and apart from a few sporadic policy announcements there hasn’t been much of a Labour offer of something better. The result is that people have been left without knowing what or who the party stands for.
The fear is also that the public may now have a settled opinion of Starmer and, judging from the polls, it’s not one that believes he is a prime minister in waiting. He has abandoned the platform on which he was elected Labour leader, sidelined much of the broad team that got him elected and has reached for the Blairite playbook and resuscitated Blair’s old crew of Peter Mandelson as his consigliere, combined with an appetite for internal factional purges that makes the Kinnock era look tame.
We are witnessing something akin to the performance of a Blairite tribute band
The result is we are witnessing something akin to the performance of a Blairite tribute band with the same old stunts and strategies being rolled out on schedule but with a great deal more venom. It starts with setting up a confrontation with his own party members to demonstrate the strong leader, exercising mastery over his party. Serious political analysis within the party is replaced with meaningless statements that have been focus-grouped to absolute banality. In prospect is a policy review that subjugates a meagre policy programme to the lowest common denominator demands of the rightwing media, big business and the City.
The New Blairites have had to adapt their strategy to the massive surge in membership under Corbyn and they have done so by an old-fashioned, ruthless purge of party members and an attempt to stitch up rule changes that neutralise the power of the membership.
The party conference has been planned as the major relaunch of Starmer. It’s blindingly obvious that he has to change course if Labour is to stand any chance of winning the next election but rehashing New Labour just won’t work. That model crashed to defeat in 2010, with Mandelson running the campaign, in which the party slumped to 29% of the vote. The truth is no faction of Labour has found a winning formula post-bank crash – and we need to unite with some humility to find that. Starmer became leader on that basis, but is squandering goodwill internally and looking increasingly out of touch to the electorate.
The next six months could determine Johnson’s fate as the economic blizzard of rising energy prices, increasing inflation and a public sector pay freeze blows in hard. This is the opportunity for Labour to come out fighting and break down that defensive shield around Johnson that has protected him so far.
That’s why at this Labour conference it is so foolhardy to be blundering around stoking up internal disputes over the party’s rulebook, when Starmer should be setting out the argument for radical change and the programme that would bring that change about. It should be a conference to inspire our members, not attack and demoralise them.
As it is, we’ve wasted five days now that have completely overshadowed important policy announcements by Lucy Powell on housing and by Angela Rayner and Andy McDonald on workers’ rights. All the while, the government has been floundering as petrol stations run dry and energy companies collapse. Before any attempt at a New Labour rerun, it might be best to consider the words of an old German philosopher: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
John McDonnell has been the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington since 1997. He was shadow chancellor from 2015 to 2020