Eight months after his accession, the crown barely settled on his brow, and Labour’s new leader already knows: “There’s three of us in this marriage.” The interfering ex just won’t leave him and his party alone.
Sir Keir Starmer has talked a terrific game since liberating Labour back in April. His party is now “under new management”, has “entered a new era” and will “reconnect with voters”. Which all sounds just the ticket to a swing voter like me who’s waited a decade for a vaguely sensible alternative to Cameron, May and Johnson.
The numbers certainly stack in Starmer’s favour. Between April and November, Politico’s polls of voting intensions have seen the Conservative-Labour divide narrow from 51%-29% to an even-steven 39%-39%. “Oh, Keir-er-er Staaarmer!” If he keeps going at this rate Labour will win the next election and pip Liverpool to the Premier League.
But don’t pop out to Poundland for bunting just yet. Corbyn may not lead but he still lingers; still rules enough hearts and minds to force Starmer into a three-way relationship with two Labour parties – one centre left, one certifiable. One sworn to eradicate Labour antisemitism, one that denies its existence. One that can never allow Corbyn back as an MP and one that still sees him as its figurehead. What a sordid little threesome it is. And the thing about threesomes is only one person can be on top.
Marriage is about compromise but there can be none in this unholy matrimony. Starmer’s new year resolution must be an ugly divorce from the hard left. He must display the same clear-minded ruthlessness the electorate showed one year ago when it handed Labour its worst beating since the war.
Fail to follow brave words with brave deeds and Starmer will look like a leader with all the authority of a WWE wrestling referee, looking the other way while hell breaks loose behind him. And boy is it breaking loose. Recent days have seen suspensions dished out like mince pies to senior party members wild about Jezza.
The chairs of constituency Labour parties (CLPs) in Hampstead and Kilburn, East London, Chipping Barnet, Bristol West and Nottingham East have all been suspended for demanding Corbyn’s reinstatement as a party MP. Last week a leading member of Liverpool Riverside CLP was suspended for alleged antisemitism. Senior Unite union official Howard Beckett even accused the meeting called solely to approve the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) action plan on tackling antisemitism of being too focused on a “single agenda”. There are little fires everywhere. If Starmer fiddles, the grassroots will burn.
To borrow a phrase made infamous by the Jewish community’s 2018 protest against Corbynite antisemitism, ‘Enough is enough’. There’s not a moment to lose. Or rather, there is a Momentum to lose. Starmer must kick the tyres long before the 2024 election to be confident his bandwagon is up to the arduous four-year journey back to its base and beyond. Voters need to know what Starmer will stand for and, equally, what he will not.
He can take heart from history. It has been done before. Neil (now Lord) Kinnock inherited the party from a radical who’d just condemned it to its worst election humiliation in generations. Kinnock’s triumphant speech at the 1985 party conference declared all-out war on the militants and malcontents (which even back then included Corbyn), with their “impossible promises… far-fetched resolutions pickled into a rigid dogma… outdated misplaced, irrelevant to real needs”.
Kinnock purged the party and made it fit for purpose. Of course he was ultimately unable to shift the Iron Lady from Number 10, but today’s incumbent has none of Thatcher’s stature. He’s just in need of an iron. The prize is there for the taking.
Starmer has already placed rolling out the EHRC’s recommendations on eradicating antisemitism top of his 2021 to-do list, but it will count for little if his predecessor has the whip restored. The stain and shame will only fade when former members and MPs hounded out under Corbyn see the coast is finally clear to return.
Four years may not be enough to repair the damage. A report published last week by progressive think-tank Compass showed Labour requires a swing of 10.52% – larger than Tony Blair’s in 1997 – to win the additional 124 seats it needs for a majority of one. Starmer needs a landslide, earthquake and volcanic eruption rolled into one.
It could take a decade for Labour to develop its vaccine for Corbynism and even then it won’t be wiped out. Like the antisemitism it cultivated, Corbynism constantly mutates. It will return. And when it does it must never be allowed to consume the Labour Party again.
First published by The Times.