The real test for Starmer will come post-Covid

2 September 2020

12:44 AM

2 September 2020

12:44 AM

Labour is gearing up for its first big Commons clash since returning from recess this afternoon, with shadow education secretary Kate Green taking on Gavin Williamson after his statement on the opening of schools and colleges. On the surface, the party has had its easiest summer in a long while, with no real factional battles or rows about its leader. Keir Starmer has bedded in quietly, and some Labour MPs have been able to switch off from thinking about the party for the first time in years.

MPs who thought their party might have been over a year ago are now in an upbeat mood. ‘This is the first summer I’ve had in a long time where there isn’t lurking at the back of my mind an existential threat to the party I’ve spent my life in,’ one backbencher told me during recess. Another explained: ‘For about 85 per cent of the party, it’s oh, thank God, can we now get on with trying to be the Labour Party again and good luck Keir, we’ll do whatever we can to help.’

Indeed, Labour MPs who weren’t Corbyn fans (which was most of them) are so relieved that Starmer has taken over that they are willing to forgive a great deal. For the first time in a long while, most Labour MPs are comfortable with the idea of their leader becoming prime minister and are therefore prepared to pull together to make that happen. Marcus Roberts, who does polling for YouGov and previously worked in the party, explains: ‘In 2015, some were of the opinion that they would rather see Ed Miliband fail in order to demonstrate that the soft left could never succeed. Then it was very clear how much opinion was against Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Now you have a Labour leader who easily has supermajority support in the party. Everyone in the Labour Party wants there to be a Labour government now.’

Any off noises are even quieter than they might be because of coronavirus. It’s not just that everyone is distracted by the pandemic, but also that it’s very difficult to plot at the moment. Constituency parties aren’t meeting, there is no party conference, and even in parliament, MPs have to stay 2 metres apart, which makes a gossip in the tearoom rather difficult.

It’s also worth noting that before he became leader, as shadow Brexit secretary Starmer had become pretty good at managing his party’s factional divisions – which is no mean feat given the party’s divisions on the matter. His team became used to persuading MPs to back what would often seem a nonsensical position in order to ‘keep the party together’; practice which could stand them in good stead for the next few years. A frontbencher, who often disagreed with these positions, says: ‘His behaviour was always beyond reproach even when we disagreed. And the problem in the Labour Party over the past few years hasn’t been factionalism so much as it has been behaviour. Keir’s own behaviour is important and he can help end bad behaviour between others.’ Starmer is currently enjoying good relations with MPs from the Blairite wing of the party and the left-wing Tribune group. Even some in the Campaign Group, which counts Corbyn and John McDonnell among its members, are working closely with the leadership.

What does worry supportive MPs is that Starmer’s main pitch is one of competence. At the moment, they say, that’s perfect as he’s responding to the government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. Given the number of false starts from ministers, and the damning statistics suggesting that Britain will have had one of the worst Covid in Europe, competence is exactly the right pitch to make. But a lot of MPs – both on the front and backbenches – worry that Starmer will think this is enough. ‘Being self-evidently competent is necessary but not sufficient,’ explains one currently loyal MP. ‘You need to be able to set some fires too. It’s pretty rare for people just to vote for competence. They also need to vote for something they feel enthusiastic about.’

Most people in the party – and certainly all of those around Starmer – agree that Labour has become a toxic brand and that a lot of work over the next few years will be on detoxification. There are obvious topics: tackling antisemitism and getting Labour to a place where it can talk with authority about the economy. But look beyond that and you can start to see where the fault lines will open up in the coming years, from the grassroots of the party all the way to the leader’s office. Will Starmer be able to stop his party from having philosophical conference battles about things that voters in ‘red wall’ towns don’t care about, or will he listen to those around him who want Labour to make the everyday worries of voters the bread-and-butter of the entire party? Some of these everyday worries aren’t at all interesting to the party’s activists, or they involve difficult conversations about immigration which don’t start in a place where Labourites naturally feel comfortable.

Coronavirus has given Starmer breathing space to not worry about Labour’s faults just yet – and to work on convincing voters that he is sufficiently competent to be worth listening to. But rebuilding Britain after this epidemic is not going to involve obvious, easy choices for anyone, let alone someone at the head of a party that, until a few months ago, only knew it stood for getting rid of its last weak leader.

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