Keir Starmer will not have been surprised by the predictable criticism he has received since he chose to utter some restrained words of praise for Baroness Thatcher in an article for the Telegraph. The Labour leader may also see such carefully sculpted outrage for what it is: performative and unconvincing. And, ultimately, irrelevant.
For all the online theories about Starmer’s electoral calculation in deliberately antagonising his party’s Left – a fresh attempt to reassure unhappy Conservative voters that it’s once again safe to switch their support to Labour – there is little consideration of the possibility that he meant what he said.
“Every moment of meaningful change in modern British politics begins with the realisation that politics must act in service of the British people, rather than dictating to them,” he wrote. “Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism.”
Since Starmer is right, why have his words caused such (faux) offence to the faithful?
Labour leaders either try to change their parties in order to make them more popular, and therefore more likely to win office; or they go with the flow, indulge their activists’ prejudices and hope that the electorate, rather than their party, will change.
Ed Miliband fitted neatly into the latter category, as did his immediate successor, Jeremy Corbyn, and both reaped the electoral rewards their strategies deserved. But Sir Keir prefers to follow in the footsteps of Labour’s most effective election winner, Tony Blair. Some Labour strategists suggest that his words are unnecessary, or worse, that they will damage the party’s drive for unity in the crucial run-up to next year’s general election. They are wrong.
Labour’s opinion poll lead has been large and consistent for two years now. But it would be strange indeed if its 20 point lead were to translate into a similarly sized advantage when votes are counted on election night. Had Tony Blair’s opinion poll leads been replicated at the ballot box, his margin of victory in May 1997 would have been more than 20 points rather than the rather more modest (but still impressive and decisive) 12 per cent.
In other words, while the public may have made up its mind that this era of Conservative government should now end, the size of Labour’s victory is still unknown. Between now and polling day, if history is any guide, there is likely to be a swing back to the Conservatives, albeit one not large enough to save them from defeat. It is Starmer’s job to minimise that swing.
But what about the truth of his tribute to Mrs Thatcher?
It’s odd that the younger the Labour activist, the more intense (and ill-informed) their hatred towards Britain’s first female prime minister becomes. People who are too young even to remember the early years of Blair’s government are happy to vent their anger at Thatcher’s administration and its “sins”. That many of these – privatisation, the selling off of council homes, support for Britain’s nuclear arsenal – are also supported by today’s Labour Party is neither here nor there.
Being a member of the Labour Party is a juggling act: how to convey to others that your Left wing, radical, socialist conscience is alive and well, while maintaining your support for a party that falls short of your aspirations? How to keep open the possibility, however distant, of one day being selected as a candidate for office while at the same time broadcasting your thirst for social justice?
Expressing personal hatred for Mrs Thatcher is one way to achieve it. In doing so, however, it’s convenient to ignore that Mrs Thatcher was elected to Number 10 thanks to the support of Labour voters, those same voters who supported the premierships of Harold Wilson and even Clement Attlee years but who were, by 1979, thoroughly disillusioned by their leadership and tired of policies which were lowering their living standards. Council house tenants, trade unionists and even the unemployed voted in large numbers for Mrs Thatcher’s party throughout the 1980s.
In truth, Keir Starmer need lose no sleep about the chorus of condemnation from his own party supporters. In recognising the importance of Mrs Thatcher and the changes she introduced – and the necessity of those changes – he is simply accepting history, however uncomfortable it might be. Perhaps one day the rest of his party will follow suit.