Starmer is a decent, dependable, usually diligent Labour leader, but must acknowledge himself that he’s never going to set the world on fire. He’s a Brown to a Blair, a John Smith figure who has done a good job stabilising the party after the sexist and anti-Semitic turmoil caused by predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, evidenced in a successful recent local election result in Barnet, north London, home to a large Jewish population.
However, at 59 years old, he’s not going to suddenly rip off his suit and turn into Superman. That said, for all the attempts to paint Starmer as an evil ‘Islington New Labour type’, his political credentials are impeccable. A modest family background does not automatically predilect a left-ish propensity, but in Starmer’s case his upbringing in a pebble-dashed semi in Oxted, Surrey, the son of a toolmaker and a nurse, fostered in him a desire for opportunity and equality.
A highly-intelligent man, he also knows that given the absolute shambles of the Boris Johnson government, Labour really should have achieved a better showing at the local elections last week.
Council gains in Westminster, Wandsworth, Worthing and Cumbria were impressive, and in the capital will give locally-based Conservative MPs a jolt. However, in the North there was no great wave overcoming the red wall which turned blue at the 2019 General Election.
I can tell you that especially in our beleaguered Yorkshire towns and cities, there’s a lot of blame being laid at the door of Labour councillors for all kinds of ills, from bin collections (inevitably) to pushing through planning permissions for unpopular new developments of housing, industrial estates and major roads.
Where I live, Barnsley, three Labour councillors lost their seats, including the deputy council leader, Jim Andrews, supplanted by Conservative David White, who campaigned on a pro-environment ticket. Sheffield City Council, meanwhile, remains under no overall control. When you consider how hard the cost of living crisis is biting, especially for people struggling in some of our region’s most deprived communities, Labour really should have cleaned up.
Starmer realises this, but as always, is playing the quiet game. As his deputy, Angela Rayner, also implicated in ‘beergate’, has already observed, he’s not given to showing his hand publicly: “As a lawyer, you’re not a touchy-feely person, you’re methodical. He under-shares and I over-share.”
That does not mean, however, that he’s ignoring the situation or burying his head in the sand and hoping it will all go away, as his opponent Boris Johnson does when he finds himself knee-deep in yet another embarrassing gaffe. I’d say that rather, he’s taking a series of calculated risks. By offering to resign if he’s found in breach of lockdown rules, he’s presenting an honourable face, unlike Johnson, who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of his lavishly-decorated Downing Street flat if he has to go.
If Starmer is then exonerated of wrongdoing, he is doubly vindicated; he has not only offered to do the right thing, but has been cleared, so his stock will rise with the public (so the theoretical calculation goes). This, of course, is a gamble. The public might actually be so sick and tired of the whole ‘did he really order a lamb bhuna in clear breach of regulations?’ thing so tedious that they lose interest by this point. In which case, it’s every man for himself come the next general election, presuming of course nothing major happens before then.
If, however, he’s found guilty or– imagine this for a second – encourages a situation in which he has no choice but to resign on principle, then it clearly opens the way for a leadership election and the opportunity for a freshly-minted successor to seize the day and hammer Johnson into the ground. Is Starmer really that sacrificial to the cause? We may be about to find out.
Wes Streeting, MP for Ilford North in Essex, is the current 7/1 bookies’ leadership favourite, with Manchester mayor Andy Burnham also being talked up. But Burnham’s not currently a serving MP. This poses a problem. Which leads us to – time for a woman?
This really would send a message to Boris Johnson, and to the electorate, that women count.
Deputy party leader Angela Rayner would be ineligible if she’s found to have broken lockdown rules, so this means a trio of yet more highly-capable Northern female candidates in the running; Wigan’s Lisa Nandy, Rachel Reeves in Leeds West and Yvette Cooper in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.
The Prime Minister’s party, meanwhile, looks disreputable, dis-organised, dishevelled and discredited. I could be totally wrong about what’s going on.
But I think you will agree that in today’s political climate, if you imagine the unimaginable, it’s more than likely to turn out to hold the truth.