The political ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic have been vast, with public opinion on the Government, the Prime Minister, and the Opposition, changing rapidly throughout 2020. After a small ‘crisis bounce’ in March, the Government’s polling numbers have fallen steadily, while Labour’s have risen steadily, until this week when the two lines crossed. Labour are now leading by 3 points according to Opinium. Given the trouncing of last December’s election, this turn-around is quite extraordinary.
Keir Starmer will be pleased with the start he has made as leader, and he has clearly succeeded in depicting himself as a man of competence and experience in contrast to a Government that too often seems all at sea. But while many have been quick to celebrate Starmer as the answer to all of Labour’s problems, the truth is that he is still at an early stage in what will be a long rebuilding process. For Labour to enjoy enduring popular support and eventually win an election, he needs to detoxify the brand, and make it a very different outfit to the one run by Corbyn.
There is a lot more to this challenge than a PR exercise. Corbyn’s Labour is embedded into the Party’s infrastructure. Many of the grassroots members are still on the left of the Party; many constituencies are run by the left; many regional organisers are on the left; and as it stands, the Party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) has a left leaning majority. To deal with this reality, Starmer has two choices: he can either try to be a true unifier and run the party hand in hand with his detractors, or he can do what Corbyn did – purge the other side and fill the Party from the bottom up with his own people.
Starmer is undoubtedly a better unifier than Corbyn was, but the first of these two options still feels idealistic. The moderate/leftist civil war within Labour is bitter and full of perceived grievances. The leftists hate the moderates as much as they hate the Tories on ideological grounds, and the moderates blame the leftists for the fact the Party is out of power. Things also got personal on many occasions as the recently leaked internal report showed. It is hard to imagine how everyone is magically going to get along, and if Starmer is surrounded by people who hate him and his tribe, the Party will never operate smoothly.
So the more likely route for Starmer will be to gradually wean out the hard left from positions of power and rebuild the Party in his image. Nine seats on the NEC are about to go up for election and moderates are hopeful that the balance could tip in their favour (thanks in part to a rule change pushed through by Starmer changing the voting system). Then there are some roles, such as regional organisers, which are appointed so where necessary the Party can simply hire new people.
The grassroots elected positions, such as the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), will take time to shift. A sizeable number of CLPs are run by the left. However, Starmer did get many more constituencies nominating him for leader than the other candidates. And a sizeable number of people joined (or in some cases rejoined) the Party to campaign for Starmer at a grassroots level, while some of the hard left members departed when Corbyn’s reign came to an end. Overtime it is looking like coalitions of support from the right of the party, the centrists, stalwarts and ‘soft left’ will join to take control of these CLPs.
The biggest challenge of all will be to undertake this exercise without making the Labour Party seem like a war zone. Leftists will not go down quietly any more than the moderates went down quietly when Corbyn weaned them out. For all of John McDonnell’s words urging his followers not to snipe from the sidelines, when the power struggle intensifies, things will get ugly. Starmer must make the war not seem like a war. He must continue to grin and pay lip service to both sides, and he must pretend that the days of factionalism ended with Corbyn. Convincing the public to buy into the idea that Labour is a happy family again and able to govern without killing each other, will remain the number one long term objective for Starmer. His first six months have been highly encouraging, but it is how he moves the Party in the next four years that will really define his reign.