Starming to victory

3 Apr 2020

DRD Partner, Pete Bowyer, a Labour Party member for over 37 years, takes a look at how Sir Keir can make the most of his moment in Labour.

Nobody knows when the Coronavirus crisis will be over. But we do know that by midday on Saturday, the Corbynavirus that has wreaked havoc at the heart of the Labour Party will finally come to an end. Over the past four years, Corbyn has been responsible for “leading” a party that suffered its worst Election defeat for almost 100 years, is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for institutional anti-semitic racism and has plumbed new depths in sheer political incompetence. It will be the responsibility of the party’s new leader, in all likelihood, Sir Keir Starmer, to change that so by May 2024 Labour is in a position, if not to win the next General Election, to at least deprive the Conservatives of a majority.

It is a tough ask. During a leadership contest that seems to have gone on for an eternity, there have been many times when Sir Keir tried to face both ways: continuity with the Corbyn project, whilst recognising the need for change. That might be fine when appealing to a party selectorate, but when Saturday comes he will need to start appealing to the country’s electorate. It will be a time, not for party unity, but for acting decisively, ruthlessly and immediately. So, what’s to be done?

Tackling anti-semitic racism

In normal times, his first act would be to turn up at his local synagogue and show solidarity with Jewish people who the party has wilfully abandoned over the last four years. Of course, these are not normal times, but nevertheless he needs to send out a strong message to the Jewish community that they are welcome back into the party, that the party will co-operate completely with the EHRC investigation and accept its findings in full, expelling not just those who have been found guilty of anti-semitic behaviour, but acting against those who have been complicit in allowing such activity to fester.

 A completely new Shadow Cabinet

Once he has done that, he should start putting together his Shadow Cabinet. It needs wholesale change. With one or two honourable exceptions (like Jonathan Ashworth at Health), he should get rid of the whole lot and replace them with new talent that is brimming on the backbenches but largely refused to serve under the previous regime. People like Wes Streeting MP, Alison McGovern MP and Neil Coyle MP, all of whom have the intellectual capacity and energy to serve with distinction.

Of course, he will be saddled with a deputy chosen by the party membership (most likely, Angela Rayner MP, who whilst having Corbynista connections, is more of a Kinnockite soft-left figure), but his most important appointment will be that of the new Shadow Chancellor. There’s an old joke amongst moderates that the only thing worse than an incompetent Trot, is a competent one – and for the most part, John McDonnell MP has played that role, in his Hyacinth Bucket living room, to Corbyn’s inanities. What Starmer needs though is a highly competent technocrat, a Gordon Brown to his Tony Blair, and there’s no-one better suited for that role than Rachel Reeves MP. True, she will have to give up her influential position as chair of the Business Select Committee, but that surely will be a price worth paying for becoming central to developing the party’s economic response to the current crisis and beyond, while positioning herself when the party starts to look for its next leader.

 A purge of backroom staff

Once Sir Keir has assembled his frontbench team, he then he needs to turn his attention to a wider shake-up of key backroom staff to establish an iron grip on the party. A good, old-fashioned purge, if you like. The first to go must be those who have done the most to shield the hopelessness and haplessness of Corbyn himself: Karie Murphy, his chief of staff; Ian Lavery, the party chairman; Jenny Formby, the party’s General Secretary, and, most notoriously of all, Seumas Milne, his director of communications.

Fortunately, there are a wealth of decent candidates to replace them. Morgan McSweeney, who ran Liz Kendall’s campaign in 2015, is a brilliantly efficient organiser who would make a perfect chief of staff; Chris Matheson, the affable MP for Chester who held his marginal Northern seat against the grain, would be well-suited as the new Party Chairman; and Emily Oldknow, currently COO at Unison, is a long time party servant who could seemlessly fill the shoes of the General Secretary. The most tricky position will be his new director of communications. Benn Nunn, his current spinner in chief, is perfectly competent, but he really needs a big hitter to take the helm, an Alastair Campbell-type figure, who intrinsically understands the media and treats them not as the enemy, but as a useful conduit to get the leader’s messages across to the public.

Values not policies

Finally, a word about policy. It can wait. There are four long years until the next General Election and the party can afford to take its time to develop a suite of policies that will provide a platform for that campaign. Sir Keir’s first duty, however, is to understand why the party lost, and lost so badly. The previous leader, clearly, and his disastrous Brexit policy are culpable, but the rot goes much deeper than that. The party has now lost four elections in a row, and only one leader born within the last hundred years has led it to victory.

It’s not simply a question of aping what Blair did, but it is a question of truly understanding modern Britain like he did in the late 1990s. The party needs to reconnect with the values of the people across all four nations, their aspirations, the fact that it’s not an anathema for working class parents to want middle class kids who can go on and achieve more than they did. It needs to truly understand the patriotism of the British, whilst recognising the role of local communities in binding the whole country together. And it needs to become as passionate about the generation of wealth as it is about wealth re-distribution. It is only when the party confronts these difficult questions and produces answers that chime with the people, that it will ever be in a position to get back to power.