After Labour’s byelection victory in Wakefield, Keir Starmer pledged that a future Labour government will have a ‘restless, reforming zeal’. The word ‘reform’ is popular in politics because it sounds like big change and creates a sense of forward-thinking (are you for or against reform?) without having to say much.
Yet here lies the opportunity for Labour, after their byelection boost, to tackle the thing that is still missing from Starmer’s leadership, and has led to the party’s political momentum being consistently checked: a sense of political purpose. In short, what is the leader of the opposition in politics for? And how does that translate into priorities and judgements about what to do for the country? This was the focus of an article Patrick Diamond and I wrote for Renewal at the end of last year.
For Labour to advance from here, and build momentum, it’s critical that Starmer makes up his mind about his politics, and shapes the politics we have now.
Johnson’s electoral reputation has been badly damaged, but the problem for the Conservatives is much bigger than the current leadership crisis. Few can predict who might win a future contest, and what kind of politics may follow.
This is as much about ideology as personality – the potential candidates offer either very divergent visions of a Conservative future, or not much at all. Amidst the chaos, ‘rebel’ MPs need aspiring leadership candidates to start sketching out some coherent alternatives.
The philosopher Mary Midgley wrote, in an essay aptly titled ‘Practical Utopianism’, that ‘good visions are the necessary nourishment of effective idealism’. We need them, she thought, because otherwise we simply exist with bad ones instead. As Labour wrestles with its perceived weaknesses, and reacts to Conservative attacks – such as the ludicrous claims about the recent rail strikes – there is a danger that Labour simply exists to react to the bad.
Starmer has offered a range of outlooks. As a leadership candidate, he sought to put a lawyerly stamp on some of Jeremy Corbyn’s themes, resulting in ten pledges; the leader’s Fabian Society pamphlet, published last autumn, offered ten principles and a ‘contribution society’; and at the beginning of this year, three buzzwords words were proffered – security, prosperity and respect.
What does the ‘contribution society’ mean when Labour addresses the cost of living crisis? Does ‘respect’, perhaps, speak to Britain’s uneven democratic development, and the need to empower communities? What is the plan to put ‘prosperity’ in the hands of the many? I’m not sure anyone really knows yet, in part because it’s always tempting to simply move on to the next political event.
Of course, those looking at the Wakefield result, and thinking this article is yet another unnecessary complaint about ‘ideological’ matters, have some strong arguments – indeed, they would be part of a longstanding Labour tradition.
Starmer has improved Labour’s electoral performance, they might say. He has made speeches. He has written a think tank pamphlet. A book is forthcoming. What more do you want? Focus on beating the Tories, as Labour just has, and let the Tory leadership crisis play out.
Starmer’s book may well turn out to be great and meet the concerns. But so far, his big ‘vision’ moments have seemed to be the narratives of a politician who doesn’t really think narratives matter much; that the unravelling of Johnson’s Conservatives means Labour just needs to keep one foot ahead.
Labour has made progress. The party has begun the hard process of addressing serious institutional problems. That process isn’t complete, but Starmer appears committed to it. And the party is winning votes again. All of that is to the good, and to Starmer’s credit.
The big thing now for Starmer is to make his mind up: what does the Labour party exist to change? Two big ideas have shaped British politics over the last decade or so – austerity and Brexit. They were filled with meaning and seemed to define the politics of a (relatively short) time. And they should act as a warning to those who don’t think big ideas will matter the next time the country goes to the polls.
If Starmer can shape the politics of the next year (or two), the ‘boring’ thing can be put to bed, and he could be prime minister. Without that clear political purpose, it could be a waiting game, wondering whether the Conservative government is about to reinvent itself again.
Karl Pike is Lecturer in British Politics/Public Policy at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London