THERE is a strong possibility that Sir Keir Starmer will not be Labour leader by the end of the year. He might not be leader by the end of the summer.
Sir Keir’s authority in the Labour Party is shot. He had already alienated the Socialist Campaign Group, which is pretty much a default position, but his botched reshuffle shows his writ increasingly does not run over the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). And it is only the PLP over which he has any degree of true authority. The party as a whole is run on Soviet lines with a politburo-in-all-but-name called the National Executive Committee, and Sir Keir’s influence on this body appears to be waning. In the wider party, Sir Keir seems to be a lame duck leader.
When he was elected slightly over a year ago, his main platform was the eradication of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. In this he has provably failed. Labour’s close association with the anti-Semitic pro-Palestinian demonstrations is in spite of Sir Keir’s leadership rather than, as under his predecessor, because of it.
There is another compelling example of Sir Keir’s failure. An official party organisation called London Young Labour (LYL) tweeted a blatantly anti-Semitic post calling for the destruction of Israel. This post, at the time of writing, has not been deleted. When the elected ‘chair’ of LYL, Henna Shah, was asked about the offensive post, she stated that official communications in her organisation were not her responsibility. ‘Present, but not involved’ is the phrase that comes to mind. According to Labour List, a semi-official party blog, Shah was the pro-Starmer candidate in her contest.
If Sir Keir cannot get the party which he allegedly leads to force the taking down of a racist Twitter post made by an official party organisation, he is not actually leading the party. This is exacerbated by the fact that when a senior Unite union official and NEC member made a racist online post targeting the Home Secretary which he deleted within minutes, the official was suspended from the party within a few hours. The fact that Labour has done nothing about an anti-Semitic post on an official Twitter account shows the structural nature of anti-Semitism within the party. It might not be too mischievous to suggest that had the party still been led by Jeremy Corbyn, more would have been done.
There are other indications of Sir Keir’s decline in the Labour Party. At least three big beasts (or what passes for big beasts in the modern Labour Party), are on manoeuvres in a manner that is almost, but not quite, like Michael Portillo’s during the Conservative Party leadership contest of 1995. Yvette Cooper made a non-denial denial about running for leader during a recent BBC interview.
The Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, one of Labour’s few sucesses in this month’s ‘Super Thursday’ series of elections, suggested that had he won the 2015 party leadership election Labour would have fared better in Northern constituencies in the 2019 General Election. Why Burnham is now talking about the Labour’s catastrophic result under Corbyn in 2019 just after Labour’s catastrophic results under Sir Keir in 2021 invites speculation. Burnham has also started writing a regular column in the London Evening Standard. At the same time, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose own re-election was far tighter than expected, has been touring Yorkshire. Not-quite-a-big-beast-yet Deputy Leader Angela Rayner also seems to have assembled her own pseudo-electoral team as her power in the party has increased.
In the midst of this there is the Batley and Spen by-election in late July to consider. It is reasonable to suggest that the former MP, Tracy Brabin, stood for a regional mayoral position because her parliamentary career was in jeopardy. Her majority was slashed from slightly under 9,000 in 2017 to slightly over 3,500 in 2019. Before the murder of Brabin’s predecessor Jo Cox forced a by-election in 2016, the seat enjoyed fairly consistent Labour majorities of about 6,000.
Labour had, as in Hartlepool, a shortlist of one for selection as candidate. That person is Jo Cox’s sister, who was not even a Labour member at the beginning of the year. It is nice to see Labour embracing the dynastic principle, although this does recall the Castros of Cuba. Seeking a sympathy vote by conscripting the relative of a murder victim looks like an act of desperation. Labour could not make use of Jo Cox’s more activist widower as he has a clouded history.
The by-election runs the risk of being a referendum on Sir Keir’s leadership, as there have been calls for him to step down or face a challenge should Labour lose. It therefore might be in the interests of Labour supporters to vote tactically if they want a change of party leader. On their own, the Socialist Campaign Group, which seem to be united in their opposition to Sir Keir, cannot amass enough votes to trigger a leadership ballot, but if they are joined by other Labour MPs frightened for their jobs into seeking a change, there will be an election. It will be ironic if the supposed unity candidate of the last leadership election causes Labour’s still-absurd ‘broad church’ to unite against him.
To add to Sir Keir’s woes, the government’s poll ratings are sky-high, in the upper 40s, while Labour is alternating between the low 30s and high 20s. People are saying that Sir Keir is worse than Corbyn. But this is a selective interpretation. When Corbyn and Labour were crashing in the polls, this was on the back of the party providing more or less united opposition to the Conservatives, and also having a distinct and recognisable policy platform. Under Sir Keir’s leadership, Labour has little of the former and none of the latter, which is yet another indicator of his current failure.
The only consistency in the Labour party has been the ongoing public displays of anti-Semitism. It is only a matter of time before people stop accepting Sir Keir’s excuses in the same way they did with his predecessor when visual evidence keeps indicating the opposite.
The core problem remains that Labour is squeamish about firing underperforming party leaders, never having formally ejected one, not even George Lansbury, who believed expansionist fascism in the 1930s could always be accommodated, even to the point of national surrender, in the name of peace. Lansbury quit when he realised, possibly to his surprise, that this policy had hostile opposition in the wider party.
Events have not been kind to Sir Keir, with fully adversarial politics suspended since just before he became party leader, but he has not helped himself through a few unforced public blunders.
However, the suspension is (at time of writing) coming to an end. It might be that given more time Sir Keir will overcome the challenges associated with being the most inexperienced politician to be Leader of the Opposition in the last 100 years. But time is not what Sir Keir has got. His political survival appears to depend on the voters of Batley and Spen. The inexperienced leader thinks he may hold on by fielding an inexperienced candidate. It remains to be seen if the by-election voters are more sentimental than they are pragmatic. Or kind. They may seek to put a man who is clearly out of his depth also out of his misery.