openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Keir Starmer is Labour's Iain Duncan Smith

Quiet men in their party's comfort zone on Europe don't have a habit of winning.

Peter McColl
9 May 2020
Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking at a leadership hustings
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Rwendland/Wikimedia

A party riven over Europe, whose last electoral collapse was overseen by a leader from the ‘wrong side’ of that debate. The victorious candidate represents the position of the membership and the parliamentary party, but not the country at large. Happy with their choice, who’s run a rearguard action against the outgoing leader, the party membership see better days ahead. 

His leadership launches in the middle of a pandemic, and he struggles to gain attention, traction, or the poll bounce that new leaders hope for. It could be Keir Starmer, and COVID-19. Or it could be Iain Duncan Smith and Foot and Mouth disease. 

I’m quite sure that those happy that the Labour party’s leadership is no longer in the hands of the left, will disagree. As will those happy to have a leader who’s always been a Remainer. 

But it’s worth remembering how the Iain Duncan Smith leadership went. He was an understated politician. Like Starmer. He was very much in the party’s comfort zone. Like Starmer. The maxim that divided parties lose elections was a significant factor in the election of Duncan Smith. As it was for Starmer. 

The Parliamentary Labour Party can now back their leader at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Labour HQ can focus their efforts on winning elections, rather than finding other priorities. 

But there’s a more profound similarity. For the Tory electorate choosing Duncan Smith was putting the key issues of the day at the heart of their party’s appeal: Labour were popular in 2001 on almost all issues, except for Europe. The salience of the European issue was, of course, the problem. It wasn’t – at that time – important for the electorate. 

Iain Duncan Smith was not a charismatic leader. His leadership came to an end with a Conservative Party Conference speech in which he tried to turn this to his advantage. ‘Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man’ was his line. At the following Prime Minister’s Questions, he was met by Labour MPs shushing the chamber for his question. He was removed by party grandees weeks later. 

Keir Starmer makes a similar appeal. He is serious, unshowy and competent. But his position on the key issues will sabotage him. The commitment to Remain that won him the leadership looks exactly like the Tory obsession with Europe in the early 2000s to many of the voters he needs to win back. 

He might be comfortable for those who longed to have the leadership back from the left of the party. He may play well with Remainers. But those aren’t the voters he needs to persuade. 

Most significantly he has misdiagnosed the problem. Labour can never again win by appearing credible to the swing Labour-Tory voters who they won in the 1997 election. This strategy depended on the rock-solid support of Labour voters in the seats lost in 2019. You can only tack to the centre if your core vote won’t desert you. 

Labour’s strategy needs to be one of building broad social alliances on issues where the Tories can’t win. Starmer’s approach is to eschew those movements for media approval. And that media approval is fickle and almost inevitable to vanish before the next election, just as it did for Ed Miliband before the 2015 election. The media swallowed the Tory line that a Miliband government would lead to ‘chaos’. 

And it’s simply not possible to pursue both a movement approach and the media-oriented elite strategy Starmer is pursuing. The media are jealous partners and won’t countenance the development of a social movement – which is why Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg were so keen to report an unverified claim that a Labour activist had ‘punched a Tory advisor’ in the December 2019 election. It turned out that this claim was false. But it fitted their narrative that having activists is but one step away from street violence. 

Corbyn’s approach was much more sympathetic to the movement strategy, which is what drove success in 2017. It was never completely implemented, as can be seen from the failure to deliver meaningful democracy in the pro-Corbyn Momentum organisation. 

Of course, the election of Iain Duncan Smith was fortuitous for the Tories for many reasons. The 2005 election that Blair may have lost to Ken Clarke was the election to lose. Coming as it did before the 2008 crash. The Tories economic reputation had taken a terrible hit on Black Wednesday in 1992. Had they been standing up when the music stopped again in 2008, there may have been no way back. 

We can see a scenario where Gordon Brown becomes Labour leader after the 2005 defeat. He fights the 2010 election as the most successful Chancellor ever. He faces an incompetent Tory party that had been unlucky with the economy twice in 20 years. He wins with a huge majority. For the Eurosceptics, there would have been no way back. Their choice of a very poor leader worked out well for them. 

Almost unbelievably yesterday marked the end of the term that Ed Miliband would have served had he won the 2015 election. The electorate thought they were rejecting ‘chaos’ then. Until Labour has a leader that can create a link with the electorate without the capricious support of the media we’re destined for a lot more chaos. 

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