Nick Cohen

Seeing Starmer as dull misses the point - he is defusing bombs

Many feel bitter about Sir Keir's record, but history shows that politicians who compromise, not brave dissidents, are the ones who bring societies back from the brink of extremism

February 16, 2023 11:54

In March 2021, I wrote an article for the JC arguing that Keir Starmer had made it safe for Jews to vote Labour again. It brought me more complaints than anything I had written before. When I mentioned the protests to the then editor Stephen Pollard, he gave a pitch perfect imitation of an exasperated Jewish mother: “You had complaints? You? What about all the complaints to me?”

To this day, I hear friends use an admirably principled argument. Sir Keir, and many others served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. They went along with antisemitism when better and braver people walked out of a party that, in the words of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, “did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it”.

How, they ask, can we trust him?

The politicians who resigned add with real bitterness that they are pleased Sir Keir and his colleagues reformed Labour, but that the leadership’s moralising infuriates them. Sir Keir didn’t speak out when speaking out would have harmed his career. He lacked the courage.

When the far-left controlled the party, I had anguished conversations with members. They had a choice. They could walk out and issue their j’accuses as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, and other MPs did, when they showed true bravery by leaving Labour to form Change UK. They gambled their careers — and lost. Not one held on to their seat in the 2019 general election.

Others calculated that under the first-past-the-post system Labour was the only plausible vehicle for progressive change, and bided their time. Many stayed on the backbenches when they could have received promotion. Of the candidates who stood to replace Corbyn after the election defeat, Jess Phillips, did not serve in his shadow cabinet, and Lisa Nandy, resigned on principle. During the leadership hustings, she condemned “the collective failure of leadership at the top of this party” which “gave a green light to antisemites.” Starmer could only mumble his excuse that he could not speak out in public because he was a part of the “collective leadership”.

His loyalty helped him win. Labour members who had supported Jeremy Corbyn backed him and moved with him. They gave him the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to transform the party.

I can see why the Labour politicians, who held to their principles, are bitter. The world has moved on and left them behind. If they had played a cautious game, they could be thinking about a job in government in 2025. Now they must look on as calculating rivals take the prizes.

The best answer to the criticism of Starmer came from the German poet Hans Magnus Emzenberger, who died in November. Enzenberger, one of the last survivors of the generation of German writers who remembered the fall of Nazism, wrote on how extremist regimes fail. Sometimes they are overthrown by war or bloody revolution. But starting with the right-wing tyrannies in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, and going on to the end of the Soviet empire and Apartheid South Africa between 1989 and 1991, the world saw something without parallel: dictatorships that gave up and managed largely peaceful transitions to democracy.

In his Heroes of the Retreat, Enzenberger did not celebrate brave dissidents, the Václav Havels and Nelson Mandelas, but instead praised the compromised politicians, who manoeuvred and schemed to make regime change possible. Do not underestimate them, Enzenberger said. Often, only insiders, who are complicit in a regime’s crimes, can bring it to an end. Only they had the credibility to tell the old guard the game was up.

“If the stature of the hero is proportional to the difficulty of the task before him” he wrote, “then it follows that our concept of the heroic needs not only to be revised, but to be stood on its head. Any cretin can throw a bomb. It is 1,000 times more difficult to defuse one.”

Sir Keir is a hero of the retreat. No one will sing songs about him any more than they do about Adolfo Suarez who moved Spain from Francoism to democracy in 1975 or Egon Krenz, the East German communist leader who oversaw the opening of the Berlin Wall. Yet Sir Keir has driven the antisemites out of the Labour party, and dropped Corbyn as a candidate for the next election. I doubt any reader of the JC can provide convincing evidence that today’s Labour party is a racist organisation.

I also accept that, by the standards of the stories we like to tell, Sir Keir’s career has nothing stirring about. It is an altogether quieter tale of the political skill and, yes, courage needed to direct the Labour party away from the extremes.

The media and focus groups always say Keir Starmer is dull. I think you need only look at how he dealt with antisemitism to suspect that, his dullness notwithstanding, he will be a highly effective prime minister. He knows how to defuse bombs.

February 16, 2023 11:54

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