IT SEEMS amazing that a few weeks ago Parliament seemed to be moving back to a semblance of normality after an interlude of many years. It is not just a majority government, it’s the prospect of a proper Leader of the Opposition after the two stinkers Len McCluskey foisted on Labour. But there is an extra element: a proper Speaker. The House of Commons has been lacking such a person since Betty Boothroyd retired. Her successor, Michael Martin, was a man not known for his quick-wittedness and command of detail. Martin was the first Speaker to resign in over three hundred years following his incompetent handling of Parliamentary expenses payments to MPs and peers, which landed more than a handful of them in jail, with one escaping being banged up after being caught on the fiddle by pleading a nervous breakdown. It was Martin’s quitting that probably allowed his appalling successor to hang on for a decade; it would be unseemly for two Speakers to resign in succession, even if John Bercow (try to say his name without spitting, there’s an epidemic) abused his position to cause a constitutional crisis.
So all the boxes had been ticked for a return to Parliamentary business as usual after a gap of more than a decade. Then the Chinese government delivered the world a rather unpalatable takeaway that literally went viral. Ah well, there had to be some spoiler.
Amidst all the images to marvel at of the masked superheroes who work in our hospitals, there has been the continuing saga of the Labour leadership contest. Although previous contests have been longer, they have all straddled the summer recess, so 42 days should be subtracted from them. It might be a form of karma that a combination of Mother Nature and the incompetence of the Chinese Communist Party effectively imposed a kind of recess on the current competition for leader by sparing us more of those boring hustings meetings. It seems clear that the Right Honourable Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC is set to win. Either that or Labour Party members genuinely do not want to win another General Election for a generation.
I do have to repeat once again that it is only modesty that prevents me from entitling my autobiography How I Was Right All Along, as the news has filtered down that, for all of his talk of uniting the ‘broad church’ of the Labour Party, Starmer plans a purge of the Corbynists, as I suggested here slightly over a month ago.
But what kind of opposition leader will Starmer be?
From a policy perspective, it is likely he will not be much different from Jeremy Corbyn. Both men are democratic socialists rather than social democrats. He is a Left-wing QC, and has form on supporting communists in their ‘struggles’, notably by pro bono work in the McLibel trial of the 1990s.
Starmer is by no means a moderate, but is moderate in comparison with Corbyn in that he is of the sane Left, rather than the 1980s-legacy loony Left of Corbynism. He has been in Parliament for less than five years, and the jump from backbencher to Opposition spokesman to Leader resembles the rises of Ed Miliband and David Cameron. It seems like Starmer has been around longer because there has been an awful lot of politics since then, perhaps too much, and also Starmer was in the public eye as Director of Public Prosecutions. He will give Boris Johnson a good run. But it will not be Macmillan/Home vs Wilson, or Major vs Blair. It will be more like Thatcher vs Kinnock, but minus the Thatcherism.
He will provide proper opposition in that the moderates who have been relatively silent can unite behind him. The best argument any non-Corbynist Labour MP can make is that they stood last year not to put Corbyn into No 10, but to save their own job for a time just like this. And Johnson had better watch out. Lawyers who become Leader of the Opposition have a tendency to become Prime Minister thereafter.
Buy the main difference will be that Starmer will return Labour to Parliamentary politics. When Corbyn spoke of ‘transformative’ politics and policies, the t-word was actually code for ‘revolutionary’ in the literal meaning of the word. Corbyn was not interested in radical reform as Margaret Thatcher was; his political tradition is more associated with achieving its aims through the use of coercion, violence and intimidation. Female Labour MPs told Corbyn in a letter that it was ‘abundantly clear’ that Labour politicians are ‘targets of threats, undue vilification, intimidation, abuse and violent rhetoric’ from his supporters. Corbyn did nothing, probably because he regarded this kind of grassroots agitation as normal.
So Starmer may be as extreme as Corbyn, but within the bounds of existing tradition and without making use of a private army of bullies and thugs. He will be better at the Despatch Box, simply because he can’t be worse than Corbyn, who could only drone on from notes written for him by Seumas Milne. PMQs will be more interesting – another return to normality.
It remains to be seen, however, which will end first: the current pandemic, or Labour’s deliberate acts of self-destruction. At the very least, the social distancing and lockdowns may be enlivened by a party split of epic proportions.