Ian Austin

Starmer has made progress, but's it's been too little and too slow

No one who nominated Corbyn should be anywhere near the front bench


HARLOW, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn (L) and Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU look on prior to delivering a Brexit speech at the Harlow Hotel on November 5, 2019 in Harlow, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

April 07, 2022 10:49

Keir Starmer has clearly made some progress during his first two years as Labour leader, but it has been agonisingly slow – and with a mountain to climb before the election you’d have thought he would have no time to waste.

He won the leadership with a left-wing platform, promising to combine Jeremy Corbyn’s policies with his professionalism.

Unfortunately, his first stab at assembling a shadow cabinet included the hopeless and the anonymous. Even the competent were in the wrong jobs. Eventually he put together a more credible team with decent people like Wes Streeting, Pat McFadden and Bridget Phillipson who had all consistently spoken out against Corbyn, but others still struggle to make an impact.

He promised to “tear antisemitism out by its roots” but progress was slow to start with and some offenders still receive temporary suspensions instead of being kicked out for good. The Campaign Against Antisemitism’s recent survey showed almost nine out of ten of British Jews think Labour still has more to do to tackle anti-Jewish racism so it is clearly too early to claim, as Starmer does, that the party has "closed the door" on this scandal.

And despite his claims about the conference, half of the members’ delegates voted against changes the party was legally required to make by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

He explains why he served in Corbyn’s team, but even after being elected leader, Starmer paid tribute to Corbyn who, he said, had “energised our movement” and was a “friend as well as a colleague”.

Eventually he realised the hard left could not be accommodated and Corbyn was suspended after his response to the EHRC inquiry into antisemitism, but many suspect his team tried to cobble together a compromise to resolve the row and get the former leader back in.

11 MPs who signed a statement criticising NATO and the UK were threatened with losing the Labour whip. They promptly withdrew their names but if there is, as Starmer promised, “no place” in the party for those who draw an equivalence between Russia and NATO, why did he not kick them out?

And now the nation looks on in bewilderment as senior Labour figures struggle to explain what a woman is. A story in The Times last week opened with the words: “Labour’s deputy leader has said it is not acceptable to ask a woman whether she has a penis, but insisted there were circumstances under which a man could be asked whether he was pregnant." It is possible, as Wes Streeting showed in subsequent interviews, to set out a reasonable position that respects biological facts, women’s rights and the trans community, but his colleagues’ failure to balance these positions shows a party trapped between its members’ trendy obsessions and the common-sense instincts of the British people.

The Labour Friends of Israel lunch applauded when he promised the party would not support BDS, but Labour then abstained on a vote in Parliament to ban local government pension schemes from implementing boycotts, presumably because he wanted to avoid a row with MPs and members who became obsessed with Israel during the hard left’s leadership.

And whatever he says to a supportive audience, what happened at the Labour conference shows how much work he still has to do. They have a ballot of the delegates representing grassroots members to decide topics for the debate. Two international issues were chosen. Of course, one had to be Israel. Not China and the Uighurs, Syria, Yemen, Russia or Iran fuelling terrorists across Middle East and kidnapping British citizens. I’m not saying Israel and Palestine isn’t important, but there are 200 land-based conflict in the world, so if you single this out, holding Israel to higher standards than other countries or if Israel is the only country you want to boycott or abolish, don't tell me the Labour Party has solved its problem with racism.

More members voted to discuss Israel than the motion on public services - three times more than the motion on fire and rehire and workers’ rights! At the conference of a political party set up to represent working people. More members wanted to discuss Israel than coronavirus, social care or transport.

And the motion itself was disgusting. It shows how the hard left have poisoned and radicalised the party. The motion backed BDS, accused Israel of apartheid and described the establishment of Israel as a catastrophe. The delegate who moved it talked about fascism in Franco’s Spain and “settler colonialists”. Imagine describing people who survived the Holocaust and then went to establish Israel in that way.

You won’t be surprised to learn it was passed overwhelmingly.

Progress at the ballot box has been too slow as well. Dismal results in last year’s local elections provoked a huge row with his deputy Angela Rayner. They lost the Hartlepool by-election - only the second time in 40 years that a party in government had taken a seat from the opposition at a by-election.

At each stage Starmer has been too cautious, too concerned about internal conflict, too keen to compromise with his party.

What is he afraid of? If the Labour Party didn’t get rid of people who were obviously not up to the job like Corbyn or Ed Miliband, his job is completely safe.

Tony Blair once told me that his job was “to make it as easy as possible for people to vote Labour” and that is what Starmer needs to do now.

He needs to set out an optimistic vision of Britain’s future in the face of major challenges like climate change, the technological revolution, the ageing society and its implications for health and social care. He needs to show Labour can be trusted on defence and law and order, are pro-business, will support people’s aspirations to get on in life and have plans to bring good new jobs to areas in the Midlands and the North that have lost their traditional industries.

He needs to boot out the hard left once and for all. Anyone who nominated Corbyn should not be serving on the party’s front bench. And the British people deserve a proper apology for being asked to make Corbyn Prime Minister.

The choice ahead is pretty clear. 20 people have been elected leader of the Labour Party over the last 120 years, but only four have been elected Prime Minister. 16 Conservatives have won elections during the same period but where the Tories can win with mediocre leadership, Labour needs exceptional uncompromising figures like Blair, Wilson or Attlee.

The next 12 months will decide whether he will follow them in to Number Ten or join the long list of Labour losers.

April 07, 2022 10:49

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