Get Serious

I’m a new member of the Labour Party, though a long time Labour voter. Not that I joined the party with any sense of hope, optimism, or even conviction. I joined wearily, just as I’d cast my Labour vote in the 2019 general election with a sense of fatalism about the outcome.

So to this seemingly interminable Labour leadership race. Viewed from my sofa, via TV screens and social media, it was becoming tedious, the candidates simultaneously bland and irritating. I found myself observing it all with a sense of detachment. I was always going to vote for Keir Starmer, though that was more a hard-headed assessment of who, of those on offer, would be best placed to make the party functional again. I have also watched the others with interest.

Early on, I was interested in what Clive Lewis had to say. As the field narrowed, the clear rift between sections of the so-called ‘left’ over Rebecca Long-Bailey, and her increasingly anxious attempts at presenting herself as a women in her own right, rather than the hostage of a faction, made me soften towards her, though strictly in personal, not political terms. Her rapid elevation with the patronage of old men who thought they could control her, could end up killing her career dead.

The third candidate, Lisa Nandy, was the biggest disappointment. She looked like an interesting contender at first, with important things to say, but as time has gone on, she has shown herself to be shallow and opportunistic. Her bid to paint all front benchers as equally complicit in the disaster that Labour has been as an Opposition over the last five years is not the ‘hard truth’ telling that she pretends it is. It comes across as a pitch to journalists to increase her profile as a political contrarian (they have been very fashionable of late). But it’s also divisive, and very negative. There are hard questions to be faced, but they need to be faced by putting forward answers, not by impugning the motives of others. Nandy has shrunk, rather than grown during the campaign, a combative performance with Andrew Neil notwithstanding. But no one had exactly excited the membership, let alone cut through with the public. There was a bit of a feeling of ‘going through the motions’ about it all.

So it was with no great sense of anticipation that I went along to a rally yesterday to see Keir Starmer. Like many Labour voters, I’ve spent several years seeing him as one of the few adults in the Shadow Cabinet, though his competence has plainly been a source of irritation and resentment to those in charge. Mostly Starmer has kept his head down, concentrated on the Brexit brief, and modelled loyalty to the leader. In this campaign the front runner according to polls, he seemed to be following the Boris Johnson rules for contesting a party leadership: say as little as possible in public, in order to cruise to victory.

As I sat waiting for the meeting to begin, watching people in respectable numbers coming through the doors, I thought of the only other such rally I have ever attended. That was in 2015, and the candidate was Jeremy Corbyn. The contrast between the two events could not have been starker.

Corbyn in 2015

The event five years earlier had been closer in mood to a revivalist religious gathering than a political rally, albeit one in which quite a lot of the audience, myself included, were definitely in the agnostic camp. ‘Jeremy’ was raised up above us at his pulpit, and many of the young people in attendance gazed at him in awe, for his words, however anti-climactic his style, were wholly new to them, and thrilling. We old timers, who knew these hymns of old, had become amnesiac about the man who was singing them. Jaded by years of timidity in power, we had forgotten that the magic of 1945 was not the property of those whose real dream was of 1917. More pertinently, we had forgotten how those factions operate politically, and their obsession with ‘seizing the levers of power’ in the party to the exclusion of actually doing anything with that power.

2020 felt very different. A corporate events room in a chain hotel, and an audience of the battle-hardened made for an atmosphere of hopeful realism tinged with scepticism. Keir Starmer would receive a warm welcome, but he would have to work for his applause.

He must have given the same speech a hundred times, but it didn’t feel like that. Where Lisa Nandy has banged on in public about being ‘the only candidate to talk honestly’ about where Labour failed, and what it got badly wrong, Starmer calmly set out a devastating, but implicit analysis, all the time spelling out exactly what needed to be done, when, how, and by whom. He didn’t blame people, because he and we know where blame lies, and we know that the immediate satisfactions of the blame game are negated by the rancour and division it generates. We can’t afford the luxury of that.

I joined the party because I want to be able to cheer for a competent PLP with a front bench of all the talents, not place men and women chosen for their ideological purity or simpering obedience. Keir Starmer set out how he would build such a team with urgency, holding the ‘dangerous’ (Starmer’s description) Johnson and his government to account, refuting their lies with alacrity, and ruthlessly honing Labour’s message to voters from the start.

But others, perhaps most others, in the audience were more concerned about the party on the ground. As a new party member, I don’t think it my place to detail the stories told by good people frustrated beyond endurance by the institutional incompetence and sectarian myopia of party administration and governance over the last few years. But broadly, some of those stories included things I have read in the media, or heard discussed on podcasts, about the hobbling of CLPs, the imposition of unsuitable candidates, and a general drag on effective local political strategies by the party machine. As angry people laid out their frustrations in the starkest terms, it all felt very raw, and deadly serious.

For all the trappings of the modern political age – the selfies with Starmer, the handshakes and backslapping, the phones videoing the event – there was something fundamental happening in that room. The resetting of a political party of government at every level from grassroots to local and national power, and international cooperation and influence.

It was about much more than what had gone wrong. It was very much not about ‘reverting’ to some golden age. It was a very raw glimpse of a party recognising that being fit for purpose, rooted in community, and respected in the world was not going to be easy, but it could, with the right leadership, be done.

Labour, to be successful in the 21st Century, needs to let go of the 20th. The party’s history is honourable and inspiring, but it can’t be the message now. I’ve been as guilty of anyone in having been enraptured by Attlee’s government and its achievements, but that was a different time, and a different world. And even Attlee’s government made bad decisions.

The people Labour needs to speak for, and to, can’t be thought of in sentimental terms as ‘the working class’. Widening economic divisions no longer map those old class (and cultural) markers. There is no ‘Red Wall’. The skilled working class, the “labour aristocracy” that was the backbone of the party for much of the last century now consists of their grandchildren, the insecure but highly educated precariat, the urban public sector workers, teachers, medics, administrators, tech wizards. Many of them are, objectively, ‘poor’, with insecure jobs and pay, high rents, and a need for good services.

But nobody ever thinks of themselves as ‘poor’. There’s something alienating to normal people when Labour speaks a language of ‘poverty’. We don’t see ourselves in it. But nor is it better to speak a language of ‘aspiration’, of ‘entrepreneurship’, which can make people feel like failures, when the failure is that of politics.

There are big debates ahead for Labour on how the party roots itself once more in the reality of life as it is lived.

But first, we need a leader.