Hartlepool and all that

Hello again! I realised that I’d rather forgotten about this blog. The last times I wrote were in the aftermath of the 2019 General Election when I went along to see the speeches of Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey in their bids to become the next leader of the Labour Party and to take on the huge task of trying to overturn the 80 seat majority won by the Conservatives. Since Starmer’s victory, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has intervened to postpone the winner’s first electoral test in the elections scheduled for May 2020 and Long-Bailey has been sacked from the Shadow Cabinet and been largely unheard of for nearly a year.

So, from an elections point of view nothing much has happened until yesterday when there was a bumper crop of local, mayoral, PCC, Scots Parliament and Welsh Senedd elections. Plus a by election in Hartlepool, won by a majority of nearly 7,000 by Jill Mortimer for the Conservatives. It used to be conventional wisdom that governments, let alone ones which had been in power for 11 years simply did not gain seats from the opposition in by elections. They also didn’t tend to make gains in local elections. But that seems to be a thing of the past.

The cheapest house for sale in Hartlepool. But this is also a town with higher than average owner-occupier rates.

There will be many postmortems and detailed analyses by experts of why this has happened. Some will be on the basis that it is all about Brexit. Or that now we are finally seeing the vaccination programmes in England, Wales and Scotland in full flow, there will be an inevitable sigh of relief and thanks to the incumbent parties of government. I don’t think anybody really knows for sure.

However, the one thing that is clear is that Starmer hasn’t, for whatever reason, made progress in the long and hard journey towards winning a majority in 2024. This surprises me somewhat as it seemed a little more than year ago that there wasn’t further for Labour to fall or the Conservatives to rise. But more surprising than the bare numbers today is how little progress seems to have been made even against the objectives Starmer set for himself which I summarised in my earlier blog. Indeed, in some ways he has gone backwards as the impact of suspending former leader Jeremy Corbyn has been to make criticism from his supporters louder than that from the Conservatives. There is little sign of harmony breaking out. The impact of coronavirus has not only removed space to talk about policy, whether continuing the previous agenda or creating a new one, or to enable Starmer to speak more directly to his colleagues or the electorate about anything else.

The one aspect from Starmer’s speech that has been taken forward is the intense distrust of Boris Johnson. Over the months he has tried to build a narrative about dodgy awards of contracts and receipts of donor largesse for the gaudy redecoration of the PM’s Downing Street flat. This has been couched in terms of “sleaze” harking back to the tail end of the Major government in the mid 1990s. But, as many of the results coming out this week suggest, maybe this is not something that is really persuading many people who did not already feel that Johnson was untrustworthy and would in any case already not have considered voting for him. Boris is someone who has said many outrageous things over the years, but is also somewhat endowed with shamelessness so hard to shame (compare Trump’s Eulalie). Maybe this is wrong and it is worth carrying on until the message is taken in. After all, many of Corbyn’s foibles were well known and well reported both before his election and for years afterwards (eg Beware of what you wish for) but seemed to make little difference to his electoral performance in 2017 while being repeatedly brought up by the constituents I spoke to across several constituencies in 2019. A long game may be needed. On the other hand, it might also be that while many of these allegations are bad, they have little salience because they are about things which are just not the biggest priorities. Even if there were clear failings in the approach to coronavirus last year, we are seeing that nobody anywhere was infallible in that respect and relatively few believe the government was deliberately psychopathic in its response rather than trying, perhaps at times ineptly, to deal with unprecedented situations where every approach would have significant potential downsides. Now, things look much better. That is probably reasonably more important to most people’s everyday lives than who paid for the Downing Street wallpaper (there’d likely have been more outrage had it turned out that we as taxpayers were paying for it than party members and donors).

This brings me to what I think might be the real problem with the approach. It is not bad because allegations of sleaze are unimportant. They’re very important because we all have and interest in good, clean government. No, the problem with it being the central theme of opposition is that it relies on things turning out bad. This was the fatal error of Ed Miliband’s leadership. That was in many ways predicated on the economy performing obviously badly. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’s flatlining gesture appeared to take glee in it. It also set a very low bar of expectations of the government. Similarly, the approach of Corbyn and Starmer to Brexit was largely to expect it to fail and to take the Tories down with it so they had no interest in stopping it failing or stepping in with a practicable compromise to make it better than they or their supporters feared. It very nearly worked. But when it didn’t, it again led to defeat, this time heavier than in 2015. Is Starmer doing this again in hoping that the sleaze he highlights overwhelms the government and undermines its ability to govern or to take any credit for anything which happens to go well? That can work, as the relatively sound economic management of Ken Clarke and John Major post Black Wednesday was largely disregarded in the years up to 1997 and landslide Blair victory.

But that sketch ignores the other side of Blair’s success in offering an optimistic and confident alternative. Now, the particular prescription that worked to appeal to the public in 1997 will not be the same as is needed now and might well look very different in substance and ideology, but the need for such content and for such presentation is ever present. I’m not sure any government has won election in the UK without that sort of vision designed to appeal broadly across the country and across different classes. I’m not sure that “anybody” could have won a landslide in 1997 against Major’s government, even if someone like John Smith could have steered Labour to a solid but unspectacular majority,

It is in this lack of a vision beyond being merely decent and managerial in doing things in a more soberly reflective manner that is lacking. After more than a year of Starmer’s leadership, it does seem that he is not someone with the charisma or ability to inspire with an image of what the future could look like. But I’m not sure the opposition benches have anybody else who could do that any better. And such a failure of imagination is ultimately what might prove fatal to Labour against a Conservative government which has been able to reinvent itself completely in the public’s view three times in 11 years.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

After going to see Keir Starmer (write up here), I took the opportunity to hear his main challenger for the Labour leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey. As before, I will try to be fair in my summary of what she said and make it clear where I am commenting in italics so that (if you so wish) you can read my comments in the context of my being a Conservative activist. Unlike Starmer, whose skills as a barrister could be seen in how structured his speech was, Long-Bailey’s was much less constructed, although she was referring to notes, so I put my comments inline rather than at the end.

This was a very different evening to Starmer’s in its feel. In part this was due to the difference in venue – The Wardrobe is a live music and comedy venue rather than a large church. The audience was also different in being much more vocal, not just because of the venue, but the way in which the event was organised and compered by Leeds Momentum and the tone of the “warm up act” speakers. There was much whooping and cheering throughout, although thankfully, no chanting and attempts to sing Long-Bailey’s name to the tune of Seven Nation Army.

The undercard

The three introductory speakers were from Leeds Young Labour, a Pro-Choice Activist and an LGBT/Asylum/Disability Campaigner. The first referred to Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech to promote the Green Industrial Revolution and bemoaned the current lack of hope for young people with no security, Zero Hours Contracts, debt and lower minimum wage. She declaimed that Long-Bailey offered a secure future, communal housing and scrapping of Universal Credit and that for her, Socialism was not theory but hope.

The second speaker, a Liverpudlian who is an activist in Manchester, declaimed that “it is so fucking boss that one of us can be leader”. She was angry at the state of the world and wanted to fight against the evils of austerity and the callous Tories. She recalled how in the 1970s in Liverpool everywhere there were football clubs in the community but that Thatcher had turned her home town upside down with the pubs all shut and converted to posh flats and her nan now needing someone to help her with her benefits forms because it was too complicated to work out what she was entitled to. Labour is a vehicle for socialism and Long-Bailey will “take no shit from anyone”. Abolishing the House of Lords will be great and that message gets through to ordinary people. Labour is for the homeless, those on benefits, and on Zero Hours Contracts, the many who deserve better.

The third described the fight for justice for LGBT, refugees and climate justice as a single fight and not just against the Tories. He said that during the Blair years the system was institutional torture for asylum seekers and improvements since had not been evenly distributed. HIV had now become a chronic manageable illness, but that meant that sufferers were being moved off PIP and on to Universal Credit but there were no good jobs. He loved how when giving advice surgeries to LGBT asylum seekers, they’d all sat in the waiting area chatting and flirting. The rates of suicide and Spice smoking were like he’d never seen before. There had been a collapse of hope and a dark 10 years in Wakefield.

The three speakers were united in rage and painted a very dark picture of the world as it is. The nearest to lightness was a slightly awkward running “joke” between them, the compere and Long-Bailey about those of them who came from “the wrong side of the Pennines”. They set the tone for Long-Bailey’s pitch to be about feeling and Socialism as the one hope, which contrasted with Starmer’s more managerial and methodical approach to the practical tasks facing the next Labour leader. I had an interesting conversation with the man sat next to me before the event started where he mentioned that, even though he didn’t believe it, he could see why people had been drawn to Boris Johnson as offering a positive, light and likeable message. Most people, even if they wanted better, didn’t see their lives as terrible and blighted by a lack of hope so maybe Corbyn had been too doom and gloom to appeal. He was in two minds about whether to support Starmer for being able to dismantle Johnson methodically but being a bit boring and wooden “like a bank manager” or Long-Bailey and could see that there was a conflict between being appealing to members and being appealing to the electorate, and in particular those who had shifted away from Labour.

The main event

Rebecca Long-Bailey (the lighting on stage was rather blinding!)

The main attraction came on to the chorus of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” – “I get knocked out, but I get up again”. She said that as a child she’d spent a lot of time in Leeds as her Auntie Mary lived there after marrying her Uncle Roy, who was as Yorkshire as anyone could be.

It was interesting that even as a “northerner”, Long-Bailey felt the need to establish her local link and credentials in Leeds. It wasn’t surprising that Starmer did so, but while there is much rivalry between Leeds and Manchester, I’m not sure that people are now so steadfastly parochial as to need to be reassured that anyone from anywhere else has sufficient Leeds link to support them. Perhaps unkindly (or due to the reference to Uncle Roy), I had an impression that Long-Bailey comes across as the sort of character that might have been played by Caroline Aherne, but without the humour.

She said that “we are the greatest force for social change” and that Labour would unite and win. The policies she promoted were the ones in the 2019 manifesto and they came from her own experience. Her dad was a trade union rep and her earliest political memories were of listening to him from the top of the stairs when he came home from work in the early 80s and talked of pay disputes and redundancies. Her first job was at 16 in a pawn shop before there was a Labour government and then she remembers in 1997 people springing down the road with a bounce in their step with hope after the election. The last election was the worst defeat in years and included losing 9 seats in Yorkshire and the Humber. The 2017 coalition of votes broke down.

On election night, her mam and dad came over to babysit while she went to the count with her husband. They arrived as the exit poll was announced and she felt like the rug had been pulled from her feet and everything she believed in had been ripped up. Her mum said “the hope’s gone” and cried.

What she believed went wrong was:

(1) This was a Brexit election. They were right to try to bring everyone together but it wasn’t enough for Remain voters and Leave voters didn’t trust that they weren’t trying to reverse the referendum result.

(2) There was no overarching narrative and they lost sight of the need to tie all their policies together and explain how they would generate good, unionised jobs in the areas hit hardest.

(3) Get Brexit Done was so clear a slogan and resonated so much that during the election she’d been shopping in Asda with her son and he’d shouted it out.

Is Green Industrial Revolution really going to have a similar resonance?

(4) Labour didn’t talk about its concrete plans, the Green Industrial Revolution, Electric Vehicles

(5) They lost trust due to anti-semitism claims and a lack of unity. Divided parties don’t win elections. Labour was designed to keep the Tories out forever and should only have rows and disagreements in private, but then once they’ve agreed a position, should publicly all get behind it and the leader to win.

This last point can be contrasted with the way in which Starmer sought to explain how to achieve unity. His proposal seemed more like a mixture of truth and reconciliation, whereas Long-Bailey wanted debate behind closed doors then discipline to obey her as leader once a position had been reached. But there didn’t seem to be any real consideration of how to achieve agreement and unity beyond demanding it. Given that she elsewhere strongly defended the full programme of the 2019 manifesto and that many in Labour have questioned it, merely asserting the authority of the mandate of the leadership vote to follow the leader doesn’t seem to me a realistic approach.

She asked why did Labour see increases in votes in Leeds North West and Leeds North East but falls almost everywhere else in Yorkshire.

This is a very good question and one which has been, at least as far as I can see from the reporting of the internal reviews into the General Election by Labour so far, not asked or answered. She also didn’t answer or suggest any possible answers. From my personal experience of the campaign in Leeds North West, I’d suggest that having a candidate with a clear position on Brexit and a clear position on anti-semitism made a very big difference. Alex Sobel, made it very clear that he opposed Brexit and had little time to pay lip service to respecting the result of the referendum and he also made it very clear that anti-semitism was unacceptable and inexcusable. In both of these he was much clearer and stronger than his leadership in a seat where both positions played well in the areas with the strongest potential support. In Leeds North East, the withdrawal of support for the Conservative candidate due to anti-semitic comments made while he was a UKIP MEP so that there was no campaign at all from the largest party challenging Fabian Hamilton was likely to have had a significant effect and was probably not going to give a great deal of information about how Labour should proceed nationally.

There was a grieving process, but Labour should never doubt in itself that what it promised was deliverable. The aim was to show how life could always get better with no-one left behind. A collective vision of hope.

She said that she had worked hard, studied and got good jobs, but she knew other people who had worked just as hard and not done so. Too much was down to luck at birth, lucky breaks at work, good fortune, or their absence. As a child she’d been excited at the future. She went to the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology and saw how amazing the future could be. But now, life was getting worse, hope was gone, young people can’t buy homes and there is no welfare system.

Hers is an aspirational message. Aspiration doesn’t mean a ladder for a few people but that “we all rise together as communities”. Not social mobility for a lucky few but where insecurity for all is gone. Collective solidarity from the Trade Unions to the NHS. She was nobody’s continuity candidate but stood up for what she herself believed in. She had nominated Corbyn twice because he believed in the same things as her. She voted against the Welfare Bill and she stayed in when the coup happened. She will stay true.

She believes in the Green Industrial Revolution and that public ownership will never be given up. It is consistently popular and necessary because the privatised business could not be trusted – eg Yorkshire Water committed in 2017 not to pay dividends until it had done necessary investments but since then had redistributed £217m in intercompany debt repayments, Royal Mail, instead of solving issues with workers had taken their unions to court, on Huawei you could see how selling off telecoms had meant that we were now lagging behind and reliant on foreign companies, and the £400m of public subsidy which had gone to Northern Rail was an indictment of the current model.

She was fully committed to a manifesto of nationalisation of key utilities. This was the foundation of Labour. The policy was smeared but nobody voted Tory because of nationalisation, it is very popular. She will stand up against rip off privatisers. This has a critical effect on society – we need to make sure that everyone can afford heat and water. There should be democratic ownership, co-operatives and workers rights.

The Green Industrial Revolution will be a silent revolution. It is the biggest lever to bring public ownership of wind and solar power. Collectively owned to give a new era of public luxury with the technology of the future. Access to electric vehicles for all, regardless of income. Good unionised jobs and becoming a world leader in the technology to battle climate change. “It will be our NHS moment and we must fight for it”.

This is clearly the policy area she is most comfortable with as it is the one she is credited with having written. Measures to combat climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels are good. But it is not clear how these policies really work in practice. For instance, nationalising the existing power companies is only affordable if they carry on operating commercially as they currently do, otherwise, they will cost more than currently and need that money to come from the state. If they are also then run down in favour of renewable energy, this will have a cost that hasn’t been considered. There is also no real path from here to there for mass provision of electric vehicles so that they are available to all, let alone any consideration of whether providing electric vehicles to all is a better idea than reducing the reliance on cars, whether electric or not. I also wonder where the people to do all the “good unionised jobs” are. The sorts of jobs involved are skilled trades like electricians, heating engineers and plumbers. These are typically currently trades done by independent tradesmen (the white van men derided by fellow candidate, Emily Thornberry) and it isn’t clear at all that they want to become unionised state employees or that the people with those current skills would appreciate losing their livelihoods to a state heating and power service. Or that such a service would find people wanting to train in those skills. Is there a clamour among the workers in Amazon fulfillment centres on zero hour contracts to retrain as electricians which can only be met by the government instigating this Green Industrial Revolution?

She also wants a democratic revolution. It isn’t just about where power sits but who has it and what they can do, so not about moving the House of Lords to York but having an elected Senate (not in London) with a mandate to hold government to account. Salford’s motto is “the welfare of the people is the highest law” and this should be the role of the Senate to protect. Every decision should be reviewed by it on the basis of what it does for quality of life, impact on well being and the climate and, sustainability. She would devolve real power to the regions and work with Scots and Welsh Labour. Taking big money out of politics and ending “the gentlemen’s club”.

I think there is a case for reform of the House of Lords to replace it with an elected body (see here for instance) but I’m not sure that it is a positive move to give it such a limited remit in how it reviews legislation and policy. I can see the appeal to Labour of such a body when it is in opposition and believes the government not to care about such things and where the government might not have a majority in the Senate. But if that was its role, why would a Labour government not charge itself with the duty to maximise the welfare of the people without the need for a Senate to hold it to account? And, while Labour supporters might scoff, the welfare of the people is considered by most politicians and voters of every party to be paramount. The real differences are almost always in the ways the different parties believe are best to achieve that and it would be very peculiar to create a Senate which had to interpret things through the lens of what Long-Bailey though was right rather than what was supported by the electorate at any particular time.

She wants to build a mass movement with open and democratic policy making at every stage from the grass roots up. Party meetings should be about political education not procedural points and there should be full open selection. Members should be trusted by MPs to decide.

The reference to procedural motions is clearly a Labour in-joke as Starmer also made one. Though quite why they couldn’t ditch their love for composites and procedural pedantry without it being a leadership issue I don’t know. There was a big cheer for the call for open selections, which would require all sitting MPs to compete to be reselected for their seats rather than having to be deselected first. It would certainly keep MPs on their toes and might be the mechanism by which Long-Bailey expects to ensure that the Parliamentary Labour Party falls behind its leader and the positions she takes. However, there is an issue about whether MPs ought to be mere delegates of their local party membership or representatives of all their constituents.

There will be a real battle ahead to hold the Tories to account. Labour must have a clear plan to win back where they’d lost. The media won’t give an easy ride because some of the press want to destroy Labour.

This understates the task ahead as Starmer pointed out in his speech – just winning back what was lost takes Labour to 2015 or 2017 and remaining in opposition.

She wants to be the first woman to lead Labour and to win the next General Election. Everything has to be fought for, as the NHS was. Workers rights like the weekend were only won by unions fighting for them, same for women’s votes. Never give up. She is just one woman with thousands alongside and they stand on the shoulders of giants who suffered but fought for a better world.

I wonder whether this was intended as a nod to Newton (as quoted on the £2 coin) or to Oasis.

Q&A

Unlike Starmer’s event, the Q&A was not as long or in depth, with time only for 6 questions and time instead spent at the end for the Momentum organiser to get the audience to text straight in to Long-Bailey’s campaign and to go to their constituency party nomination meetings, with details and dates of each one happening locally. The value of Momentum’s role in organising supporters to vote like this was obvious and a contrast to the way in which Starmer didn’t even descend to the nitty gritty of imploring people to go and take the steps needed to ensure his nomination and to join his campaign (although to be fair, he has a long lead in this in any event). This might well end up being the decisive factor when it comes to the final membership vote.

A lot of the questions were more statements or speeches than questions, so my apologies if I’ve missed a nuance in trying to render them in question form!

(1) What do we need to do to sell the ideas to double the 2017 wave and win?

Long-Bailey recounted that when door knocking in her seat in Salford, most people were still coming out for Labour, but she met one couple who said “Not this time, we work hard and Labour are just for handouts to those who don’t”. She replied that no, Labour were there to pick you up if you fell. This didn’t work and they persisted by saying “Labour is not for people who do well”. Nothing worked to persuade them. The question was how to show that Labour really was about betterment. The message has to be about aspiration because that is what Socialism is. Everything we do is about improving your life, but at the election there was no unifying message and people didn’t read what Ian Lavery described as “the book of hope” (the manifesto).

This question gets to the heart of the problem faced by any party which has suffered a major defeat – what do you do to win? It started from the premise that the ideas were sound (which is understandable but if being truly reflective might need testing). The answer was telling in the anecdote of the unpersuadable former Labour voters perceiving the party as not being for those who had done well. But there was no real answer in terms of how you explain and persuade that focusing on “what if you fail, we’ll pick you up” is aspirational. Earlier in the speech, Long-Bailey had talked of improving the lives of all, which is aspirational, but is it an aspiration of the couple who felt they had done the right thing and deserved what they had? Long-Bailey described how others may have worked as hard as her but been unlucky, but is that a perception that drives people like this couple? Do many people consider themselves lucky to have a home and a job? Ought Labour to be saying that they are lucky? I think most people consider their own lives to be normal, not especially lucky or privileged and can find their happiness in it, even if there are many things they would like improved. Calling them lucky and warning about what might happen if they fail is not likely to appeal.

(2) What will Long-Bailey do to enable the participation of the 1/5th of Labour members who identify as disabled?

She said that she was doing a videoconference call with Disability Labour, would look at the local and national party doing more online meetings and thought that every constituency party should consider having a disability officer as being as much a staple of their organisation as having a Trade Union officer.

I was surprised at quite how large a proportion of the Labour membership identifies as disabled.

(3) What further detail about empowering communities is there?

When the government talks about devolution it is not about devolving power but about devolving responsibility for cuts. Their focus is on helping their seats rather than where the need is. This is not just about bins, councils provide life and death services. She wants real investment, real powers, real strategy on local industry and infrastructure by local people because they have the best insight into what their areas need.

This doesn’t really provide more detail, just more ambitions. It is unclear how this fits with what central government would do under Long-Bailey PM – if there is this much devolution, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for major practical decisions to be made by her. How do you deliver a Green Industrial Revolution if local people decide that they don’t want to implement it in their area?

(4) This questioner was annoyed at the narrative that supporters of Corbyn and Long-Bailey were called “hard left” and “extremist” when “the ones who voted with the Tories” are called moderates and wondered how she would get to change this so that she was the moderate and her internal opponents were the extremists.

She said that she found this annoying too but that they needed to stop calling people cult members or Red Tories because in the end they were all Socialists. They need to have a healthy debate privately, reach a conclusion then unite behind the leader. They shouldn’t undermine the leader but can replace them next time if they want to.

The question highlighted the difficulty of achieving unity. The questioner really didn’t sound like he wanted to stop telling critics to eff off and join the Tories.

(5) The Far Right have long threatened ethnic and LGBT people and previous Labour leaders have given in. Labour is prominent in the fight for minorities and should oppose the Islamophobia of Prevent and should support freedom of movement. Yes?

Yes, Labour won’t be putting “controls on immigration” on mugs if Long-Bailey is leader. Must celebrate diversity, Salford is built on immigration, from the Irish who built the canals to the vibrant Yemeni community now. Need to empower members with data to enable them to rebut the bad things that people say are caused locally by immigration so they can argue back. A local man had “Blacks Out” grafittied on his house in Salford recently and it harked back to the 70s and 80s “No Dogs, Blacks or Irish” signs, but hearteningly the local community gathered round to support.

(6) How will you deal with a hostile press?

Have to expect criticism from good journalists doing their job properly. But journalists shouldn’t smear family or just for the sake of it. Need to set up a rebuttals unit like Blair had with Alastair Campbell to have quick an robust responses to make sure that false information and unfair attacks get shot down before they have gone viral. Communities are the best means to get the message out. Labour members do lots in communities but are reticent to announce that they are Labour members when they’re doing it. Need to talk about politics at work, in the pub with friends, like handing out copies of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in the old days. Need to be ruthless.

Surprisingly no boo for Blair or Campbell here! The call for members to openly state their affiliation when doing community work might not be very effective as many community organisations prefer to be apolitical and indeed, many people going to volunteer at them would prefer to focus on the work they are doing than to use it as an opportunity to sell their party. It might not be the case in Salford & Eccles, where there are relatively few Conservative members, but in large parts of the country, a lot of community work will be done by Conservative members and voters. Turning up and using that as an opportunity to fight political battles won’t necessarily go down very well. From a personal perspective, I found the proselytising protagonist of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists utterly insufferable (as indeed did many of the other characters) and I can imagine the couple who Long-Bailey failed to persuade on the doorstep would feel the same.

Conclusions

This was a very contrasting event from a very different potential leader of the opposition to Starmer. It wasn’t very structured and I felt lacked any clear plan to get from the A of a heavy defeat to the B of victory. The language and tone were well pitched to an audience of members, but didn’t seem to be particularly persuasive to those, like the couple in Salford who said “Labour is not for people who do well”. I joked about Long-Bailey being a little like a Caroline Aherne character and there is an extent to which she is in these meetings coming across as a personable down to earth northern mum, but without the wit or humour to benefit from such folksiness. And while there is passion there, it is not clear how this translates into action rather than just getting very angry about stuff and about people who just won’t listen when you believe you are completely in the right. That was a big problem for Corbyn and it would be an even bigger problem for Long-Bailey if that was the principal way in which she ended up being his heir. On top of this, despite making a passing reference to the impact of anti-semitism issues, there was nothing at all said to give much confidence that she would or could do anything and that ought to be an easy way to break from the current leadership without trashing the policy elements or the broader promotion of Socialism.

Keir Starmer

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.

Keir Starmer at Leeds Minster 17/1/20

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Q&A

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.

Conclusions

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.