The ugly stain of anti-Semitism helped make Labour unelectable in Britain. Under Jeremy Corbyn, party officials prevaricated over purging far-left elements.
Corbyn’s successor Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer, has known from the beginning that his party was lost unless he cracked down swiftly and unambiguously on this toxic tendency.
His first announcement when elected leader on April 4 was that he would “tear this poison out by its roots.” Happily, he’s proving up to the task — as is true of his leadership overall. Boris Johnson, the Tory prime minister, finally has an opposition to reckon with.
After Johnson refused to sack his chief adviser when he appeared to break lockdown rules, and a Cabinet minister kept his job despite admitting that he acted illegally to help a billionaire Tory donor’s planning application, the government is looking self-serving indeed
Starmer ran for the Labour leadership on a “unity” platform, hoping to reconcile all wings of his warring political family.
So when his defeated rival for the leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the party’s education spokeswoman and arch-Corbynite, retweeted a factually incorrect newspaper interview with the activist actress Maxine Peake, Starmer was forced to choose between party reconciliation and his principles.
While Starmer has won this first important battle, it has come at the cost of open warfare with the left of his party and with Unite, the powerful trade union that backed Long-Bailey for the leadership.
Yet he had little choice. Corbyn never recovered from his failure to condemn Russia’s use of chemical weapons in an abortive attempt to kill a defector in Salisbury.
For the party’s working-class supporters in northern English and midland towns this was the final straw: Labour’s leader instinctively preferred to heed a hostile country’s lame excuses rather than stand up for Britain.
A different boss
Starmer doesn’t see the world in the same way. In the Black Lives Matter debate, tricky territory for centre-left moderates, he has sensibly taken the stance of a progressive but law-abiding patriot.
He has been happy to take the knee in support of anti-racism, but he has upheld the rule of law throughout.
Most British voters can live with the removal of notorious slavers or imperial generals from public architecture but you cross a line if you deface portrayals of Winston Churchill. However wrong his ideas about Anglo-Saxon superiority, Churchill fought on against the racist Hitler when resistance seemed futile. Starmer gets this.
Wide appeal The new Labour leader’s broader competence matters too. He has been a forensic cross-examiner of Johnson in Parliament, cutting through the prime minister’s bluster about his government’s abject handling of the Covid crisis.
After three months in the job Starmer has a net satisfaction score of 31% in the opinion polls, matching the best that Tony Blair ever achieved in opposition. The voters think Starmer looks and acts like a prime minister-in-waiting, although they still find Johnson more engaging.
Labour is now thought to be “more in touch with the voters’ concerns” and “cares for ordinary people,” according to pollster YouGov. It is also more “trustworthy” than the Tories and outperforms the government on whether “it does the right thing or serves its own interests.”
After Johnson refused to sack his chief adviser when he appeared to break lockdown rules, and a Cabinet minister kept his job despite admitting that he acted illegally to help a billionaire Tory donor’s planning application, the government is looking self-serving indeed.
London’s excitable progressive elites have already called it game, set and match to Starmer. They compare Johnson to a Tory predecessor, John Major, who never “saw glad, confident morning again” after he presided over Britain’s expulsion from the European exchange-rate mechanism.
This government’s Covid failures will damn it forever in the eyes of the voters, believe Starmer’s cheerleaders. But they’re getting ahead of themselves. Labour has still “a mountain to climb” to reconnect with voters, as its own commission report into its electoral fortunes admits.
First, Johnson is a wilier, more ruthless opponent than Major, even though his cabinet contains vastly less talent. Second, he commands an 80-strong majority that will be hard to overturn, and his party is still eight points ahead in the polls.
After its worst election result since 1935 last year, Labour needs to win 123 seats to form a majority after the next scheduled general election in 2024. That would take a swing that only Blair achieved in the postwar era.
Starmer may look like the real deal but voters don’t trust the party to steer the economy after Corbyn’s wild spending promises.
The Conservative government can spend money like a drunken sailor on shore leave to counter the post-Covid recession, but Labour would be regarded as hopelessly spendthrift for the same policies.
Starmer has picked an unknown public policy expert, Anneliese Dodds, as his shadow chancellor of the exchequer and she has yet to make a mark.
Labour’s geographical power base has also shrunk in a long retreat from Scotland, Wales and the English towns to big, ethnically diverse cities where the young are less suspicious of its social liberalism. Starmer is campaigning vigorously to regain the non-urban seats where Blair won his majority, but Scotland is a serious impediment.
The party has one MP there, whereas 10 years ago it had 41 out of 59. A deal with the Scottish nationalists to get a workable coalition majority in Parliament would be bought at the price of a referendum on Scottish independence. To offer such a deal would alienate precisely those patriotic English voters whom Starmer is so assiduously wooing.
Labour’s leader has been sure footed on the early ascent in restoring his party’s fortunes. But the steep rock face to electability is a more treacherous climb.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator