Sunday 31 October 2021

Who Will Lead after Keir Starmer?

Keir Starmer was inconvenienced by Coronavirus at the worst possible time. 20 minutes before Prime Minister's Questions, and 50 before Rishi Sunak re-announced his menu of spending commitments, his lieutenants had to scramble to fill the void. As someone who shamefacedly feels the pangs of nostalgia for simpler times, Ed Miliband stood in for the leader and gave a good account. Calling it a masterclass would be a stretch, but he had a more galvanising effect on the benches behind him than his Covid-afflicted boss. And then Rachel Reeves stepped in and also acquitted herself well. Not the most engaging of speakers, she managed a competent critique of Sunak's bungs to frequent fliers and banks. With other stepping up to the plate, it didn't take long for the speculation machine to start cranking up. Who's going to follow Starmer?

As far as I'm concerned, Starmer's leadership has proven itself to be a decadent disaster. Even so, despite pandering to the scorched earth sensibilities of the Labour right, they know a dud when they deal with one, and the end could come sooner rather than later. Given Claudia Webbe's conviction earlier this month, pending the outcome of her appeal Labour might be looking at a by-election in what was, prior to 2019, a very safe seat. If it's a good win, Starmer is safe. If it's a narrow margin, as per Batley and Spen, the knives might get put away for the local elections. But if it's a loss, whether to another George Galloway intervention or the Tories (somehow) manage it Starmer is toast.

Who is in the frame to replace him? The excitable chatter revolves around these three. Rachel Reeves because she had a good week, and probably knows how to chair a meeting and take the minutes. Lisa Nandy thanks to her ubiquity, certain adroitness in the media, and because Dominic Cummings singled her out for backhanded praise in his own 12,000 word attack on Starmer. Though Dom seems unaware that Wigan is in the North, not the Midlands. And lastly, Bridget Phillipson has been thrown in because she managed to not make a fool of herself in the week's round of interviews, including last Thursday's Question Time.

Appropriate we should be discussing these scary prospects on Halloween. Phillipson I know little about except she's "nice" and was fully on board with right wing wrecking tactics during the Corbyn interlude. Which included being one of the first Labour MPs to campaign for a second referendum, a genius stance that turned her safe seat into a marginal. Reeves, of course, is well known to readers. Having taken a more Labourist turn of late and keeping Rebecca Long-Bailey's ambitious green agenda (without due credit, of course), she has never apologised for her "the Tories are too soft on benefits" line, nor her complete lack of sense for nominating Jess Phillips's leadership bid/vanity vehicle in early 2020. To be honest, Reeves has never struck me as someone who fancies the top job. We hear time and again her ambition is to be the first female chancellor, and for once this isn't polite spin to unconvincingly mask loftier aspirations. Of the three women she is by far the most wonkish, and would be happy "doing policy" behind the closed doors of Number 11 and the Treasury. She's no frontwoman, and she knows she isn't. And then we have Lisa Nandy. A congenital inability to tell the truth should have sunk her career long ago. Instead, she's in the party's upper echelons and might have another crack at the top job. But, in my view, not any snap leader's poll to replace Dear Keir.

This round of speculation forgets there are other horses in the race for Starmer's job, and none of their insider prattle rises above the who's-going-to-marry-who musings of Coronation Street Facebook groups. In the first place, a few thoughts are worth expending on the timing of any contest. Assuming Leicester East or the next set of local elections do for Starmer, a contest is going to be early summer. If Johnson does go for an early election in 2023, a contest could happen inside a year from that point. This means no time for the customary leisurely leadership election, nor, presumably, a race that would show the party in a disunited light. The pressure would be on for a coronation, something made easier by the new threshold rules and the soft left's tendency to tail the right.

Who's in the frame? A good indicator are the MPs who've built up their own slush funds. David Lammy, Wes Streeting, and Dan Jarvis. They're there, but they might (might) give way for a well-connected saviour from the north. No, not Andy Burnham. But rather his 2015 opponent: Yvette Cooper.

For the Labour right, she's the ideal unity candidate. She ticks the awful Blue Labour boxes on immigration and, thanks to her select committee activities, established herself a hardliner on these matters. For those in thrall to the House of Commons illusio, she has the briefcase Labour creds as an experienced former minister, being better at the media than the Labour leader, and is more cutting in her lines of questioning against Johnson's lieutenants than Starmer's useless appeals to the referee. She also took a backseat during Labour's factional warfare, and as far as connecting with the public are concerned some in SW1 would find advantages in Ed Balls's stints on Strictly. What's more, she doesn't have to establish herself as a safe pair of hands with the Tory press. They know she is, and they know her politics would not fundamentally challenge the status quo. A coronation for Cooper would also have the happy consequence of making Labour even safer for capital ensuring the radicalism of recent years is just a trace left in historical accounts. Her prospectus would be a few more bones thrown to the trade unions - something they might tolerate under the present conditions of Covid and Brexit-induced labour shortages.

Could it happen? It's clear Starmer's leadership is heading straight for another Labour defeat, and those sections of the party who care about winning elections because it's their neck on the ballot box chopping block know it as well. A right wing safe pair of hands, someone they can spin as an experienced and serious figure, and whose spell out of the public eye allows for her re-presentation as someone "fresh", Cooper seems like the obvious choice for the Labour right and the PLP. A frightening prospect to be sure.

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Shai Masot said...

Nah. Cooper's seat is way too marginal. The PLP wouldn't be daft enough to tempt Fate like that would they?

Okay, maybe they would.

Blissex said...

«David Lammy, Wes Streeting, and Dan Jarvis. They're there, but they might (might) give way for a well-connected saviour from the north. No, not Andy Burnham. But rather his 2015 opponent: Yvette Cooper.»

I keep repeating that the ideal candidates would be Rishi Sunak or Chuka Umunna, even if they are not quite as right wing as Lammy, Streeting, Jarvis or Cooper, but that could be an advantage with some of the base.
The legendary Owen Smith might also be tempted back, or the mythical David Miliband. :-)

But as usual the leadership does not matter much to electoral fortunes.
If New Labour keeps pushing "trot" (non-thatcherite) members and voters away, what matters to the "soft tory" (thatcherite) voters it is chasing is not the charisma of the leader, or the appeal of "centrism", or the support of the press, it is whether the government screws up on interest rates (remortgages) and property (rents and prices), because those are such a big boost to their booming living standards.

As Peter Mandelson said, millions of voters are indeed very pleased about Keir Starmer's purges of "trots", but they are millions of Conservatives voters who will keep voting Conservative as long as they keep getting the big profits from their assets, the purges are not enough to make them switch their vote away from their benefactors.

Anonymous said...

Cooper replacing Starmer makes more sense in the manner of Howard replacing Duncan Smith: the dud leader is replaced with someone who can 'do a job' and not lose too badly. Moreover, choosing someone from the right is the only way Labour looks like getting its first elected female leader, because a left-wing woman winning would give us the Corbyn years with added misogyny/misogynoir.

Anonymous said...

Would Galloway be competitive in Leicester?

Anonymous said...

No. It has a high Indian family origin vote - bigger than the heritage Pakistan vote and given his stance on Islamic virtue and thus Kashmir, he's be a no-no

Anonymous said...

Well this is some seriously black-pilled stuff.

And tbh it falls at almost the first hurdle - there isn't going to be a coronation when Starmer steps aside. Its a total non-runner.

Cooper would have to win a proper contest, and given how pisspoor her effort at that was last time round....

Phil said...

Why is a coronation a non-starter? Given how well connected she is, the chance the left couldn't muster the numbers, and the proximity of a general election the wish to avoid a lengthy contest will be foremost in the minds of those wishing to keep their seats. This is where the probabilities are pointing unless you can mount a convincing counterargument ...

Western values are killing Earth said...

Hmmm, after Starmer, Julian Assange?

If you don't know who he is, see here

Give generously.

ps Wasn't Yvette Cooper your first choice anyway Tory boy, instead of Corbyn? You have come full circle, you centrist you.

Anonymous said...

If you are just defining "the left" as overtly pro-Corbyn, then maybe.

But in actuality its not really that simple.

And of course there was an elephant in the room unmentioned in your piece - Labour's deputy leader, who would remain in place if Starmer resigned and surely have a significant say in what happened next.

Rayner may not want to be leader herself, especially after recent events. But would she acquiesce in a coronation for Cooper driven by the PLP's hard right? Like hell she would. She also retains a *lot* of support, and thus influence, amongst MPs.

And presuming all the unions would fall behind this with a bit of hand-waving about "minor concessions" really was one of the least convincing bits of the piece.

(oh and one more thing, its not a binary choice between a coronation and a contest stretching on for months - a shorter sharper process was something all sides agreed on after last year)

Anyway, keep your stuff coming - I actually agree with some of it :)

Blissex said...

«If you are just defining "the left" as overtly pro-Corbyn, then maybe.»

The Labour "trots" are defined as "non-thatcherites", or alternatively those who agree with Roy Hattersley that “The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape” rather than New Labour policy should be based on the “urgent need to remove rigidities and incorporate flexibility in capital, product and labour markets” or New Labour “would only win if the party championed aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose” or that New Labour “wants to be "on the side of those who are doing well"”.

Blissex said...

«the chance the left couldn't muster the numbers»

There was a bit of "bad cop"/"good cop" theatre about the nomination threshold, with "bad cop" Starmer proposing 25% of MPs, and "good cop" Angela Eagle driving it down to "just" 20%:

I guess that the proposal to make it "just" 20% would not have passed if there were the slightest chance that the "left" could “muster the numbers”.

Kamo said...

A lot boils down to whether the point is to make a decent stab at winning elections or simply provide some level of effective opposition.
Cooper would be a solid choice, better than Starmer, a decent national profile without the hard leftist Corbynite taint, but she’s not a fresh start. Nandy, a braver choice, possibly a bit more of a fresh start with a bit of appeal to the historic Labour areas outside of London as well as the potential novelty of becoming the first female leader. Jarvis would be my dark horse, he’s got a good ‘backstory’ that could be a real curve ball for the Tory Party. Streeting would be a pointless diversion further into the Wokeish wilderness. Lammy has profile amongst the Metropolitans but his very effective identity politics business model has limited wider appeal; he’s a slicker and smarter version of Diane Abbott.

Anonymous said...

They can't "muster the numbers" for somebody like Burgon, no.

But that comes back to what has been said before.

Thinking about the original piece again, though - as I said I think the actual likelihood of a coronation after Starmer is tiny. If there was somehow to be one, however, I suspect Nandy would be a lot likelier to be the beneficiary than Cooper. She actually has some cross-party appeal, rightly or wrongly.