Sir Keir Starmer is held back by Labour's past - Bernard Ingham

YOU may well conclude that I am one of those mental health cases we read so much about when I confess I am worried about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

“Has Ingham no sense of proportion?” I can hear you say. “He ought to be worrying about Boris Johnson who is in charge of the mess and is in deep trouble. After all, he is the man who can cause us a lot of grief.”

Let me reassure you: I do not under-estimate the countless Labours of Hercules confronting Mr Johnson.

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He has more serious problems on his plate than any PM since the Second World War.

Sir Keir Starmer. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.Sir Keir Starmer. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
Sir Keir Starmer. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

If he can’t handle them, he could be out on his ear this year.

He is wallowing in the estimation of opinion polls and leads a divided party.

Even if he hangs on, the voters may feel next year or at the latest early in 2024 that Labour should be given a go after, as the Left would put it, “another 13 wasted Tory years”.

So, why am I preoccupied with Sir Keir?

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Clement Attlee during a visit to Leeds.Clement Attlee during a visit to Leeds.
Clement Attlee during a visit to Leeds.

My first concern is that, while he may be ahead in the polls, nobody warms to him.

He is not seen, at least not yet, as a credible alternative.

That means our democracy is deficient.

Its health depends on a vigorous and constructive Opposition to keep the Government on its toes and take over if it falls down on the job.

Sir Keir has now had long enough to establish his credentials and has made little impression.

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Nor is there any real prospect of his doing so when he leads not one but effectively two parties which, history shows, cannot be relied upon to be reconciled.

It is true that the Tories are also divided between the purists and the pragmatists with the purists, well over a third of the Parliamentary party, seeking economic policies entirely at odds with a massive Covid-induced budget deficit.

Indeed, you could argue that they are anything but Conservative in demanding tax cuts with the national debt soaring.

But history shows that the Tories are the more cohesive and only likely to lose their nerve when they see themselves losing the next election. Hence today’s Tory unrest.

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Mr Johnson’s plight is probably exacerbated by their fear of what could happen to the economy if it fell into Labour’s hands.

And that encapsulates Sir Keir’s real problem – a problem of history that would dog him even if he were charismatic instead of just an eminently decent lawyer. It is a sad fact that over the last 76 years Labour has always been in trouble economically.

Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan increasingly suffered from the abuse of power by its paymasters, the trade unions.

Tony Blair would deserve a knighthood if only for refusing to reverse Margaret Thatcher’s trade union reforms.

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It’s a pity he spoiled it all by going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to politicise the Civil Service.

But even then his Chancellor Gordon Brown proved classically spendthrift and left a budget deficit of £153bn when he got both hands on the state’s tiller.

Worse still for Sir Keir, he loyally served the hardest Left Labour leader of them all in Jeremy Corbyn. He was his anti-Brexit Minister.

And he has somehow to live down the anti-Semitism rife on the Left.

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Adorning his rostrum with Union Jacks is no antidote to the congenital hatred of the Left for Britain’s history and its determination to erase its historical links with slavery and


I find it depressing that Sir Keir, if only as a lawyer, has not attacked the acquittal of the “Colston Four” for chucking a statue of a Bristol benefactor associated with slavery into the


The fall of the so-called Red Wall in the North and Midlands to the Tories demonstrated the extent to which the decent, moderate heart of the Labour Party rejected Corbynism.

It also laid bare the enormity of Sir Keir’s task: to reconcile the irreconcilable.

All parties are to some extent coalitions.

But Labour’s two main factions have nothing in common.

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One is democratic; the other totalitarian. And the totalitarians probably have their hands on most of the unions’ money.

However adept Sir Keir becomes, through necessity, at applying cosmetics to the face of his party, he will never be able to make it look entirely desirable.

That is the tragedy of British politics. It may well be the saving of Mr Johnson.

Better the devil you know...