Back in 2016 I went to see Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership rally in Leeds when he was being challenged in the aftermath of the EU referendum by Owen Smith. One of the main reasons (apart from being sad and nerdy enough to have thought going to a political speech was a fun use of a free evening) for going was that I wanted to see and hear first hand what Corbyn had to say and to get a feel for who he was talking to and how it was received, without the intervention of the media. I found that, perhaps surprisingly, in person, Corbyn didn’t come across all that differently to how even our apparently hideously biased mainstream media reported him.
A lot has happened since then (!) and when I find a moment I’ll write up my reflections on the 2019 General Election campaign (as I did for the 2017 Election) when I was the election agent for the Conservative Candidate in Leeds North West. One of the big things that has come out from the result of the General Election is that Labour is once again looking to choose a new Leader (and Deputy). As far as I can tell, the hustings events being put on by the Labour Party itself are restricted to members and others who have a vote (and the media – they are also streamed live), as was the case for the hustings for the Conservative leadership campaign last summer (which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to write up). But individual candidate events don’t have to be – not least because due to GDPR, the candidates themselves ought not to have access to the lists of members and affiliates. So this meant I was able to go to Leeds Minster on a chilly Friday evening in January to hear what the likely front runner in the contest, Sir Keir Starmer QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, MP for Holborn & St Pancras and Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, had to say. One thing that we should have learned from the last few years is that the quality of the Opposition and the approach it takes can have a significant bearing on what the government of the day can do, as well as making the case (or otherwise) for what it might do were it to form the government itself. So it is important not just for the Labour Party who it chooses, but for everyone.
Obviously as a Conservative member and constituency association chair, I will not pretend to be unbiased, but I will try to be fair in my summary of what Starmer had to say. Whether my commentary on it is fair is for you to judge.
The first thing to note is that the event was very different in feel to the Corbyn rally. Indeed, it doesn’t really sit right to describe it as a rally at all, more a speaker meeting. There was no real stage management and only two other speakers. So there were no queues round the block or an undercard of other speakers who could address the room while Starmer stood on a soapbox outside to give an impromptu speech to those locked out of the room. More than half the session was given over to questions and answers from the floor – this was much more of a listening exercise than a mere broadcast. One of my comments in my blog of the Corbyn rally was half-jokingly, that I’d have feared to have mentioned quite liking Hilary Benn (in whose seat both events took place) let alone outing myself as a Tory. At the Starmer event, I was spotted by the chief of staff for the Labour MP who I’d spent 6 weeks last year campaigning against. We had a nice chat and I went to take my seat. Different times.
The first speaker was the Priest in charge of Leeds Minster welcoming everyone. He turned out to be the most witty and humorous of the three – joking that he didn’t need to give out any information about fire alarms, because the church didn’t have one, and that after pointing out the exits, if they were all blocked, he’d pray for us. One lady sat behind me commented “he’s good, we should have him as our leader”. So plus one to the Church of England.
Next up was Cllr Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council. She spoke briefly and unsurprisingly about the cuts to local government expenditure over the last 10 years and how all the leadership candidates needed to set out what they proposed for local government. She commented “Isn’t it cool to be from the North now?!”. This was the lead in to how she knew that “our aspirations have been raised but we know the promises won’t be delivered” but unintentionally also gave away quite how successful Boris Johnson and the Conservatives had been in appealing to people outside London. The perceived London-centricity of Labour in the Corbyn era was a theme which cropped up several times later in the event and Starmer himself representing a London seat seems to be something he is conscious he has to “deal with” in a way that neither Johnson nor Hunt felt the need to when I went to their hustings in York last summer. Cllr Blake ended by introducing Starmer as having likely spent several of his happiest years in Leeds as he had studied at Leeds University.
Keir Starmer’s speech
In this section I will precis what Starmer said, using his own words as much as possible and not commenting myself until the end. I won’t attempt a defence or rebuttal of his argument here.
Starmer started his speech on that theme by announcing “I love Leeds” and mentioning that apart from having studied here he also came back several times a year to work with the Leeds University Law Faculty. He then addressed the issue of support for local government by saying that the last few years had been very tough for councils which had had their budgets cut and how councillors were “the last line of defence and the first line of support” and how his local council (Camden) had twinned with Leeds to share best practice to learn from the innovative solutions Leeds had found. He then moved on to the main part of his speech.
He said that the General Election result was devastating. That there was no hiding from it and no pretending there was any good in it. Labour needed to identify each and every reason for losing and to address each and every one and to tackle each and every one. This arranging of points by repetition of phrasing in groups of three is of course a very common rhetorical method and its deliberate use here and throughout was a reminder why Starmer was a very successful barrister before entering Parliament. I think he often comes across on TV as rather wooden, but in a live setting you get more of a feel for him speaking calmly, methodically and persuasively to a jury.
He said that it was important to focus on why they lost seats in “traditional Labour areas” in the North but noted that if all Labour did was win them back at the next election it would still lose and be in the same position it was in in 2015 or at best 2017. Having started the 2019 campaign in Scotland with 7 MPs and dozens of seats having small majorities, they should have ended it with 20-25 MPs rather than one. The task was to win everywhere across the UK (sic). They’ve lost 4 General Elections in a row and losing a fifth in 2024 would mean the longest period out of power for Labour since WW2. But there was a mountain to climb.
He went on to say that he believed that he didn’t think there had ever been a time when the country didn’t need a Labour government more than it did now. It wasn’t just income inequality that had risen but inequalities of all sorts – life expectancy was falling and within the space of a mile and a half in his own constituency there was a disparity of 10 years in life expectancy between the richest and poorest. The moral fight against poverty and inequality had not disappeared just because of the General Election result. So Labour needs to be very clear about what to do:
- Unite: No more division and factionalism. No more fighting each other. No more asking “which bit of the Party are you from?” Divided parties do not win. He wants tolerance. His experience running the CPS is that this needs to be modelled by behaviours from the top.
- Be a very effective opposition: In his time since being elected in 2015 he has faced three Tory PMs and Boris is by far the worst of the lot. Theresa May had a deep sense of public service so he could trust that there were some things she simply would not do. Boris doesn’t. He doesn’t care. He will do or say anything to stay in power and he doesn’t know truth from untruth. He’s already stripped out the commitment in the Withdrawal Bill from before the election on unaccompanied minors – a disgraceful thing and the Queen’s Speech started an attack on Trade Unions, limiting the rights to strike of rail workers. An effective opposition needs to be seen to win the arguments in Parliament and the media but it won’t win many if any votes in the Commons. It needs evidence. It needs to start from fighting hard in the local elections. It doesn’t have 4 years it has to start now. Boris doesn’t like being confronted.
- Forge its way to victory at the next General Election: If you’re in Opposition you are losing. You aren’t changing lives. In his first year as an MP he voted 172 times and lost 171 times. That’s opposition and it does nothing.
Underlying these three tasks were the values and principles he would lead Labour by:
- Do not trash the last Labour government: It achieved many great things (Sure Start, building lots of schools and hospitals). It didn’t get everything right (Starmer opposed the Iraq war).
- Do not trash the last 4 years: Corbyn was right about being anti-austerity, about investing in public services, in industry, in a Green New Deal.
- Focus on the future: Now it is the next manifesto that counts. It needs to be forward looking into the 2020s. The party that looks after the vulnerable needs to be brave enough to say that free market trickle down economics doesn’t work and a new economic model where government sets the parameters to focus on long term investment rather than short termism, climate proofing and protection of workers.
- More power to local government: decisions about people should be made by bodies closer to them is the thing to take away from why so many supported Brexit.
- Green New Deal: It is the only way. Some argue that if a measure is not good for the economy it is not a good way to save the environment. He believes that this should be turned around so that if something is not good for the environment it cannot be good for the economy.
- Internationalism: Peace and justice and human rights based foreign policy.
These are, he believes, radical and relevant ways in which Labour can change lives. It is how they will get a hearing. By spelling out a better future, like they did when they achieved the NHS, the welfare state, decriminalisation of homosexuality, Sure Start, the Good Friday Agreement. Making impossible dreams possible.
He finished by calling for people to support him by being alongside him, not behind him. It will be tough, but they have a chance to shape the Party and the future. He wanted to give hope back and he was not standing to become the next Labour leader but to become the next Labour Prime Minister.
Some observations: the tone of the speech was very measured and rather dry. Even though in content politically it sought to retain many of the main themes of the 2019 Labour manifesto, it was a long way away from the style of Corbyn. Although there were repeated references to Sure Start as the totemic policy of the Blair era, there was none of the pantomime call and response worship of the NHS that Corbyn spent a long section of his 2016 speech on. It was a practical pitch for what needed to be done to win, synthesising Labour history, the achievements of the last Labour government and the last Labour leadership. The nearest to passion came from his clear distaste and distrust of Boris Johnson and I think an implicit belief that he is best placed to dismantle him forensically. That is probably true, but I can’t help but think back to 97-01 when William Hague, who is also a very good speaker and debater, regularly outperformed Blair at the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions but this had absolutely no traction whatsoever when it came to the subsequent election. Similarly, if you go back and read the Hansard reports of debates on Gordon Brown’s reforms to financial services regulation and granting independence to the Bank of England, the Shadow Chancellor and other Opposition figures (including, interestingly, Diane Abbott, who gave some particularly forensic speeches in a lonely place on the government back benches at the time) pretty much foresaw and warned against precisely the sorts of things which ended up contributing to the environment for the crash in 2008. Being right in retrospect and expressing that clearly and forcefully doesn’t mean you win when you could do something about it.
There is also a risk in taking a morally righteous line as considered in this Spectator article.
Questions were taken in groups of three or four but I set them out one at a time with their answer. I prefer questions in these sessions to come one at a time but can understand that this risks limiting the number of questions that get put and ending up with questions turning into a debate between the audience member and speaker, which can result in a loss of control without a very firm chair.
A Councillor from Morley & Outwood (Ed Balls’ old seat, in which Andrea Jenkyns increased her majority in December) raised the issue of Adult Social Care and asked what approach Starmer would take to the cross party discussions Boris had proposed (interestingly calling Boris by his first name).
Starmer replied that this was a big issue and there was a desperate need for change. Dignity should be put at the heart of social care. He would always enter cross party talks if there was a chance of improvement, as he did in the Brexit talks offered by Theresa May. But he doesn’t trust Johnson. He’d do the talks but they’d need to be clear on their outcome and he doesn’t know what Johnson is proposing.
This answer seemed a little vague or deliberately evasive on what Starmer’s own position beyond “dignity” in care was going to be. Nobody is going to propose a care system which doesn’t focus on dignity, even if you might think that some might deliver one. It is a difficult area politically (as May found out in 2017), but this can be contrasted with his competitor Jess Phillips, who has at least set out what she would like to see (free social care and for it to be funded by taxation). While it will play well to a Labour member audience and might be justifiable, is the degree of bare mistrust of Boris actually a viable negotiating stance? The reference back to the ill-fated negotiation with May over Brexit reminded me of the exasperated comments that came back from those meetings that when Starmer’s own publicly stated words on Brexit were quoted back at him he entirely disagreed with them and in an interview when asked which specific changes he wanted to May’s Withdrawal Agreement, he didn’t have any and admitted that it would allow for Labour’s proposed future relationship agreement to be negotiated were it to be passed unamended and Labour to form the government that negotiated it. These are potential traps for someone who is running on the basis of providing effective and constructive opposition against a PM who won a large majority in part based on having made the opposition to Brexit seem like game playing.
Another audience member asked what Starmer’s specific priorities were.
He replied that on the economy, it was very important to refocus both public and private investment decisions to being looked at on a long term basis and short term investment decisions should be discouraged. Regional Investment Banks lending on long term returns would drive this. On the Green New Deal, it was easy to set targets for the public sector but he wanted these to apply to the private sector too and that businesses should be required to report to Companies House on environmental measures as well as their finances. On Trade and Foreign Policy, these should be driven by a human rights basis. Parliament should be able to scrutinise trade deals properly.
The question was interesting and perceptive because it highlighted how limited Starmer’s speech had been in terms of policy specifics. The answer didn’t go much further than reiterating a couple of policies from the 2019 manifesto and recasting foreign policy in similar terms to those used by Robin Cook. That’s not necessarily bad (it is part of his first and second “values and principles” of not trashing either the last Labour government or the last Labour leadership). But it doesn’t tell of a particular new and distinctively Starmerite thing he might be driven to achieve beyond being a continuation of Labour past, smoothing the factional edges. Is that something to appeal to the broader public?
A Leeds University Student said she’d been let down by the mental health services available to students and asked what he’d do about it.
He replied that mental health was shockingly underfunded and it is something highly prevalent in society. This was the impact of cutting public services.
This didn’t really answer the question.
A wag asked who he would have as his Shadow Chancellor.
He said he was focused on the leadership election and not appointing people to positions. Whoever it is needs to see the need for fundamental change and to share his vision to be bolder than before and not just fiddling round the edges.
The first part of this is a classic politician answer and it makes perfect sense for him not to set out who his team would be ahead of the election – he might well have in mind one of the candidates for leader or deputy leader who he will arguing against for the next 3 months. Just as Boris appointed Sajid Javid to be his Chancellor but might not have said so at the beginning of a campaign in which Javid was a competitor for leader. The second half was more interesting in that it hinted at going beyond the approach of John McDonnell, itself considered radical enough to have had McDonnell wargaming responses to major levels of capital flight and other serious economic instabilities in the first days of him entering Number 11.
Someone asked how he would work more closely with the Greens and SNP who shared Labour values.
He said that where he could, he should, just as he’d done on Brexit, but that he was working for a Labour government.
Well, what else was he going to say? I suspect that he was biting back the temptation to say that the SNP did not share Labour values, having again wiped them out in Scotland as was implicit in his comment in his speech about how if Labour had succeeded in the General Election it ought to have come out with 20-25 Scots Labour MPs.
A former councillor from Elmet and Rothwell (another Conservative held seat whose predecessor seat was held by Labour in the form of Richard Burgon’s uncle, and in which Alec Shelbrooke MP in 2019 won the vote in every polling district of every ward) commented that in the town he was from, the last Labour councillor had been lost to the Lib Dems and asked how seats like that could be won back.
Starmer replied by saying he had visited lots of leave voting towns already. He supported innovation. He wouldn’t talk towns down. He’d come and visit. Whenever he visits towns, like Leigh, where he’d been recently, nobody complains he’s from London, they always appreciate him coming to listen to them.
This was easily his weakest answer in a lot of ways. First, he showed he hadn’t done much local research, even if Elmet and Rothwell is not a target seat for Labour, as nothing much he said had any relevance to it or the towns in it. One thing which I remember from the Conservative hustings was that there was a question about infrastructure investment in Yorkshire. In his answer, Boris volunteered that he was in favour of making the A64 dual carriageway all the way to Scarborough. Hunt was asked specifically about the A64 and replied that he didn’t know the road itself and would have to look it up. This was interesting because it showed that Boris had been briefed AND for someone generally criticised for being too lazy to do the reading, had actually taken in a point about a local issue. It is an easy trick to do, if you believe it worth at least sounding like you care about the place you are visiting. Hunt’s answer was not bad and the right and honest thing to say when you don’t know rather than bluffing. Starmer in his answer could have just admitted he knew nothing of any of the towns in Elmet and Rothwell but would be interested to hear their issues with Labour (Wetherby and Boston Spa are somewhat different from Leigh).
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the loss of “towns” is something which is being made an issue of by at least one of his competitors (Lisa Nandy) who has at least tried to listen to people in seats like her own to understand why they were moving away from Labour. The New Statesman recently commented that the issue was not so much towns themselves but their demographic of older, less likely to have gone to university, voters, who Labour lost in large numbers even in Corbyn’s own seat, but who are a larger proportion of some Midlands and Northern “town” seats. To not address either the “town” issue or the demographic one might be a mistake.
A guy called Des said “I’m fed up of losing. I want to know how we can win. I voted twice for Jeremy but knew he couldn’t deliver what he was promising. What do we do?”
Starmer replied that he too was fed up of losing. He totally respected the other candidates. He felt he had the skills and leadership needed as he had run a big organisation when he headed the Crown Prosecution Service. You need to pull people together to work together. He’s radical and has devoted his life to fighting for the powerless, his first big work was a legal challenge to pit closures. “I’ve never walked on by any injustice”.
Again, this wasn’t much of an answer in my opinion. Apart from the experience of leading the CPS, it could have been said by any other candidate. Or Corbyn. Which doesn’t address why he could deliver beyond having had senior management experience his competitors don’t.
A young woman from Sheffield asked how he as a white, middle class man in his 50s could represent those who weren’t any of those things (to the only “hear hears” of the evening).
He replied that his dad was a toolmaker and his mum a nurse. He knew what it was like to have little money. His mum became ill and was in hospital a lot. He worked in a factory for a year before coming to Leeds to go to University. It shouldn’t be that you need to trail your background but he finds himself having to do so because people make assumptions about him. He then told a story of a young person being stabbed to death in his constituency and him quietly going with the leader of Camden Council to visit their mum to comfort and console her. They didn’t tell anyone and she didn’t care that he was a white man.
I share his frustration at being asked the question as the logical consequence of it would be that nobody could be leader or PM because their own personal characteristics would not be representative of many people who didn’t share them. But in part that is a characteristic of policies and approaches Labour has long taken, whether in its rhetoric about the working classes or in more modern identitarian/privilege discourses. So Labour politicians need to be able to address such questions or move their party on from such discourse. It is also slightly odd to talk of going to comfort the mother of a stabbing victim without publicising it, by publicising it. It reminds me of the Harry Enfield/Paul Whitehouse DJ Smashie and Nicey characters who’d talk respectfully of celebrities “does a lot of good work for charidee, doesn’t like to talk about it”.
A Co-operative Party member from Barnsley asked about the role of co-operatives in doing the things local government no longer had the funding to do.
Starmer replied that he’d loved going to the Co-operative conference. Lots of people talking about doing things and no procedural motions all day. He thought the co-operative movement was a great way of delivering change from the bottom up.
Not a lot of substance in question or answer. A bit of an in joke for the audience, used to going to party meetings filled with procedural point taking.
A lady from York said that she’d long been a Unison member but never active as a member of Labour. After the election, inspired by Starmer’s approach to Brexit, her children had joined and persuaded her to join to support him. How could he make people understand that Labour is patriotic and cares about people outside London? How can Starmer avoid being labelled as boring just because he cares about substance?
He replied that the media vilified Corbyn. When he was campaigning on the doorstep, people brought out media lines whole and they amplified Tory lies. He said there were 80-90 clear examples of such lies. But this can’t excuse Labour’s losses. Every Labour leader gets it and has to deal with it. As for patriotism, everyone in Labour is patriotic, why would they go out in all weathers campaigning if they weren’t willing to give up their time and energy to make things better for the country. That is the deepest sense of patriotism.
This was a slightly odd and stilted answer to someone who had personally been inspired by Starmer and wanted him to be able to inspire more broadly. On the patriotism point, while some Labour supporters might disagree, the reality is that almost everybody supporting any party, and certainly those who gave up their time pounding the streets and knocking on doors in the cold, wet and dark of a December election are doing so because they believe their Party or their candidate would make things better for the country. As a Conservative Association chair and election agent who organised a campaign, I know that people who aren’t that fussed about the issues are really not going to bother. It is nice to recognise that effort as patriotic, but it isn’t something that distinguishes Labour supporters, however much they’d like to believe it does. The questioner wasn’t, I think, looking for such soft soap, but was pointing at the perception that Corbyn, who has often in the past taken positions which are not entirely unfairly characterised as being against the interests of the UK, wasn’t patriotic. To skirt around that by talking about media vilification and Tory lies might get a pass in a meeting like this, but won’t for whoever becomes Labour leader when they are addressing a public which doesn’t believe it has been lied to in forming its view of Corbyn. Particularly when making an apparent reference to a study “proving” that 88% of Conservative facebook ads were lies (the “80-90 clear examples” Starmer mentions) when closer examination showed it was itself extremely misleading. It is understandable that he didn’t even attempt to refute the suggestion that his focus on detail might make him seem boring, but I think the questioner made a good point that this is something which does need to be addressed in the context of taking a forensic approach to opposition.
It was an interesting evening and my feeling beforehand that Starmer is probably the most credible and effective candidate at the job of trying to win the next General Election for Labour was confirmed. While I didn’t expect him to be addressing his approach to me as a supporter of his opponents, a sign that he was closer to being able to doing that (which is how elections are won – by getting people who used to vote for the other lot to vote for you) than Labour ever was under Corbyn. Not least by the fact that I felt a good deal safer in a room full of his supporters. I think that he’s right to be looking to form a conscientious, productive and effective opposition to take Boris on rather than just to shout slogans and tales of woe at him and the public. I’m glad that there wasn’t the hint of a chant or a song. But like the last questioner, I do wonder whether a movement which was so energised by Corbyn will feel the same way for someone who is infinitely more competent and analytic, but not a whole load of fun. And whether people who don’t think a couple of hours in a church listening to a politician is a good sort of Friday night (ie 99%+ of people) and who generally don’t pay a lot of attention to the minutiae of politics and policy, will think him more appealing than Boris. Maybe everything in the next few years will be so obviously and irremediably terrible that it won’t matter and people will gladly vote for a safe and sensible pair of hands. But relying on people’s lives getting generally and unignorably worse is not, I think an attractive approach, and it is doomed to failure if people in 2024 conclude that actually things are OK or better, just like Boris said against all the “doomsters”. If he’s Tigger, best be Wol than Eeyore.