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NOT BEING CORBYN ISN’T ENOUGH

It’s hard to get excited either way about Keir Starmer. He’s just not someone you can get worked up about. One can admire his approach to Prime Minister’s Questions: thorough, careful, meticulously researched. After the generalised statements we had from Jeremy Corbyn this is progress.

No doubt Starmer would have been a marvellous Home Secretary in a reforming Labour government, cleansing the Augean stables of the Home Office. But leaders, specifically prime ministers, are made of different mettle. They need fire, audacity, colour, glamour even. The odious Johnson has all these in spades. Labour could have fielded such a leader; it funked it.

Now worrying signs are accumulating. At the last PMQs before Summer’s ridiculously long recess, Starmer expostulated: ‘…the Labour Party is under different management’, a phrase widely celebrated in the Conservative press. This revealing phrase suggests he sees his job as a managerial position. No doubt it also expresses frustration at being unable to force an acknowledgement from Johnson of the different direction towards which he is leading Labour.

At some point in the coming years, the Tories will tire of Johnson. They will pick a new leader and invite us to believe they are a new government. This chameleon tendency has been rewarded with long periods in office: 1951-64; 1979-97; 2010-20. British voters are disposed to be complicit in their own deception.

What is Starmer’s strategy? It does not appear to lie in the field of economics and finance. Anneliese Dodds is certainly capable, but picks bizarre issues to major on. At Home Affairs Nick Thomas-Symonds communicates a sense of injustice. As a result he has made the most headway. At foreign affairs Lisa Nandy mouths vague orthodoxies, gets upset about very little (Lebanon?, Belarus?), asks no questions about the Atlantic alliance. ‘Vote Labour to be confident most things will stay the same’ seems to be the message. Party leaders simply do not convey that Labour can be the change growing numbers yearn for after months of Boris’s bungling.

And there is another danger. The membership, apart from a few loud Corbynophobes, is sullen and resentful. Next year come London mayoral and Scottish elections where it needs to be roused; soon, by-elections will crop up. 2019 might have shown that enthusiasm without strategy is not enough. I dread the electoral prospects if Labour has neither.

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SACKED FOR THE WRONG REASON

Rebecca Long-Bailey was yesterday sacked from her Shadow Cabinet role as Labour’s Education frontbencher. I have for some time viewed Ms Long-Bailey as an inappropriate standard-bearer for the Left (see earlier blogs). She never impressed as a gifted, or even likeable leader. She had displayed none of the qualities a successful leader needed. I regret the blame lies with Jeremy Corbyn who should have used his five years of leadership to bring forward a younger generation of potential leadership candidates, women ideally.

And Long-Bailey had hardly sparkled in her new role. After all her opposite number was the hapless Gavin Williamson, floundering at Education, once even sacked as a security risk by Theresa May. The government made an utter mess of its attempt to re-open schools this term. Why wasn’t Long-Bailey on our screens nightly during that fiasco putting the Labour case? I must be fair. The Waugh Zone (25 June) reports ‘an insider’ claiming Long-Bailey had impressed the leader with her behind the scenes work on summer free school meals, a campaign picked up by footballer Marcus Rashford to force a memorable government U-turn. Admirably, she also worked closely with the teacher unions but she fluffed a golden opportunity to reach a wider public at a time of raised awareness.

Her offence was to retweet a tweet from actor Maxine Peake which allegedly contained an anti-Semitic trope. This is not the place to discuss anti-Semitism. I yield to no-one in my admiration of Maxine Peake, who combines great talent with fierce political commitment. But surely a prominent Shadow Cabinet member should have checked the claims were accurate? Labour List (26 June) reports Peake retracting her earlier comments, saying in a statement: “I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources. I find racism and antisemitism abhorrent and I in no way wished, nor intended, to add fodder to any views of the contrary.” Long-Bailey was signalling support for Peake’s Corbynista position. She was sloppy.

Now there is great danger. Keir Starmer has already made a strategic blunder by supporting the government over easing the lockdown – even though this has been marked by the usual Johnsonian incoherence and lack of thoroughness. Yes, his careful preparation and examination of the prime minister is gaining him ground at PMQs. But he displays little fire or magic, nor any awareness they might be needed: it’s like watching a snail chasing a butterfly.

This sacking, the first from his Shadow Cabinet, has had a predictably polarising effect. The Left is pouring energy into a ‘reinstate Rebecca’ campaign; the Right is dancing on her grave in glee. I don’t believe Starmer is a Blairite-in-Disguise, waiting his moment to gain power by scotching the Left. I admire his thoroughness. Like many on the Left I acknowledge his leadership victory and want to give him a fair wind: who but Labour can lift Johnsonian fog from the land? But he is now thrust into a position where his next moves will be overinterpreted. And all because of someone who should not have had the job in the first place.

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VOTE BAILEY, GET STARMER

The battle lines seem to be clearing in Labour’s dispiriting leadership contest. Jess Phillips, an open Right-wing candidate, has withdrawn. Emily Thornberry’s path to the required number of nominations is obscure. As the smoke of the early skirmishes clears, we seem to face a choice between three candidates.  This is written ahead of the first televised leadership debates.

Lisa Nandy ( as of 11 February, 57 nominations (+ NUM, GMB, Chinese for Labour)

Lisa Nandy is promising to ‘give power and resources back to people in every town, city, region and nation in the UK’. That’s a start and it’s a good one: this specific point was a clear omission from Labour’s 2019 general election campaign. Her only substantial policy pronouncement thus far was on anti-Semitism. Here she promises zero tolerance, culture change, membership education & training, transparency, staff training, and an independent procedure. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) whose disgraceful role should be punished, not rewarded, will have a place in the procedure. Nothing is said about the calculated confection of anti-Semitic charges against Corbyn himself.  Nandy’s problem is not her campaign commitments but her persistently disloyal approach to the Corbyn leadership and incredulity about key planks in its platform.  Fairly clearly a vote for her is a vote to drop public ownership.

Keir Starmer (295 nominations (+ UNISON, USDAW, SERA, Community, Labour Movement for Europe, Labour Business, Socialist Health Association, Labour Campaign for International Development)

Starmer has the lion’s share of nominations so far which makes the hacking charges against his campaign implausible.  Last weekend my constituency Labour Party (easily the largest in the country) preferred Starmer to Long-Bailey by 250 to 155. His pledges include: higher income tax for the top 5%; abolition of universal credit; a green new deal; a Prevention of Military Intervention Act; common ownership of rail, mail, energy & water; voting rights for EU nationals & freedom of movement; Trade Union Act repeal; a federal system and Lords abolition; removal of obstacles to equal opportunities; “forensic” opposition to the government and ‘robust action’ against antisemitism.

Rebecca Long-Bailey (136 nominations (+ Unite, BFAWU, FBU, CWU, Socialist Educational Association, Disability Labour, ASLEF)

It is hard to summarise the themes of the Long-Bailey campaign because there don’t seem to be any. Her most distinctive contribution is the ‘green industrial revolution’, reflecting her time as frontbench Business speaker. But this seems derivative. Her Winter 2020 Tribune interview is thin gruel: we learn that she’s a unionist (‘I’ll always fight for the union’); that 2019 was ‘a Brexit election’ where people ‘didn’t trust us’; that she seeks better messaging and ‘professionalism’ for Labour campaigns;  that there should be a ‘democratic reset’.  As so often with the present generation of Labour leaders, Long-Bailey is more able to explain what she is against than what she is for. Clichés and slogans are fine but Labour needs someone who can articulate how socialism in practice will benefit people. Her colleague and (I’m told) flatmate Angela Rayner is a far more fluent and persuasive advocate whose failure to put herself forward has baffled many.

It’s harder and harder to talk sensibly to Long-Bailey or Starmer advocates. The former retreat into purity tests; the latter scorn anyone associated with Corbyn (though their man proposes policy continuity). Perhaps televised hustings will provide much-needed clarity.