Caution and fear define Labour

October 8 2023 / The Sunday Times

One afternoon during the Labour leadership contest of 2015, I visited Liz Kendall at her Westminster office. Her candidature was being cruelly caricatured as “the Blair Witch Project” and it was obvious even early in the campaign that she would lose, although some of the party’s smartest strategists were on her team.

Her campaign was being managed by Morgan McSweeney, now Labour’s campaign director, and I was greeted at her office that day by Pat McFadden, now national campaign co-ordinator. Also working for Kendall was Matthew Doyle, now Keir Starmer’s director of communications, and she had the support of emerging MPs such as Wes Streeting and Peter Kyle, now both prominent in the shadow cabinet.

In the end, Kendall was humiliated in a contest won resoundingly by Jeremy Corbyn: she finished with just 4.5 per cent of the vote (for a while afterwards her personal Twitter handle was “4 per cent Liz”. Despite their political differences, Kendall formed a close personal bond with Corbyn as they toured the country, and after her defeat she retreated quietly from the frontline and did not become embroiled in the civil war that consumed the party until its epic defeat at the 2019 general election.

Corbyn and the radical left may have emerged from the 2015 contest victorious but in retrospect the ultimate winners turned out to be Liz Kendall and her closest allies, who today have iron control over Labour’s general election planning and strategy. Call them Blairites, centrists or whatever but they have vanquished the left, unified the party and are remaking it as a formidable and disciplined election-winning machine.

In September Kendall completed her comeback by being promoted to the shadow cabinet as the new shadow work and pensions secretary. “Liz is the ultimate symbol of our return to the centre ground,” one of her senior colleagues told me.

Labour strategists spent much of last week observing, with horror and fascination, events at the Conservative Party’s conference in Manchester. Despite Rishi Sunak’s positioning as the self-styled candidate of change against a failed consensus – a hard sell when your party has been in power for 13 years – many Conservative MPs are acting as if they have already lost. Different factions from the reactionary populist right to the Trussite libertarians are competing to shape the post-election identity of a fractured party.

“The Conservatives’ desperation makes them very dangerous,” one shadow cabinet minister told me. “Not least because they are flirting with a new kind of post-truth conspiracist politics.”

Labour is bracing itself for relentless personal attacks on Starmer in the months ahead over his record as Director of Public Prosecutions, his previous support for Corbyn and what the Tories consider to be his “flip flopping” on key policies. But Labour is prepared and emboldened to occupy the moderate centre ground, forcing the Tories even further to the right.

Labour would agree with the Tories’ Reginald Maudling who once quipped that England is “a Conservative country that sometimes votes Labour”. That is why the Starmer leadership, once he had taken full control of the party, has been largely about creating reassurance. Ed Miliband was never trusted by the electorate and Corbyn even less so.

Starmer is a hesitant radical. Before Labour can be radical, he knows it must first be trusted on defining national issues on which it has been traditionally mistrusted: the economy, security, defence, law and order, immigration.

But an overwhelming desire to reassure can also lead to excessive caution, to Labour being forced into what the shadow cabinet member describes as its current “defensive posture”. Labour wins well when its leader has an instinctive feel for what George Orwell called the social atmosphere of the country and can articulate a sense of national purpose or mission. “We were looking towards the future,” Clement Attlee once said of Labour’s 1945 landslide victory. “The Tories were looking towards the past.”

Speaking to the party conference in 1995, less than two years before he became prime minister, Tony Blair was also looking to the future. “I want us to be a young country again with a common purpose, ideals we cherish and live up to, not resting on past glories, fighting old battles,” he declared.

Blair is a progressive; he believes the arc of history bends towards progress and enlightenment. I think he is wrong but that is irrelevant. Inspired by the Clinton Democrats, he knew the kind of country he wanted to lead back then: liberal, meritocratic, unburdened by the past and open to the world. A country that would embrace the new market-driven globalisation and serve as a transatlantic bridge between the EU and the United States. A “young country” no less, led by a new party: New Labour.

What kind of country does Starmer want to lead? He still hasn’t told us. “Keir is not a Blairite,” one of his closest allies said last week. “He’s a centre-left pragmatic, problem-solving type. But he is ruthless about winning.”

No one doubts that Keir Starmer wants to win. Comprehensive victory for Labour in the Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election last Thursday confirmed that he leads a government-in-waiting. But he needs to do more, starting today at the party’s conference in Liverpool. He needs to find a different register, to quicken the pace, to inspire as well as reassure. Above all else, as well as occupying the centre ground, he needs to convey a sense of hope and common purpose and pull Labour out of its defensive posture.