One reason for the lack of excitement about the results of Labour’s internal elections – to be announced on Saturday – is that it feels a bit like this is a Schrodinger’s poll. Keir Starmer is – and has been for months – Labour leader. Simultaneously, Keir Starmer is not – and never has been – Labour’s leader, yet.
He has certainly won and the question is not who but by what margin and, then, what does it mean. And seeing as the announcement is therefore confirmatory rather than revelatory (and given that it is, thanks to Coronavirus, a virtual announcement at that) it is hard to get a fix on why anyone should be particularly preoccupied with it. Given everything else that is going on it feels to some as though paying anything other than cursory attention to Labour’s metaphysical leadership ballot is, well, just a bit frivolous.
But the truth is that the result matters more than at first it might seem. Not in spite of the crisis that consumes us, but because of it. In normal times the opposition party changing leader whilst the Government is honeymooning on an eighty seat majority would neither ruffle feathers nor make waves. The new Leader of the Opposition would struggle for attention and put in the hard yards of reforming his or her party. They would aspire to eye-catching policy announcements and make the most of set pieces such as PMQs and Party Conference. And they would hope for – and watch for – a slip. A moment when the Government threw away some political capital and made space for a recovery in Labour’s fortunes. Perhaps that moment would come and the new leader would prove adept at capitalising on it. Perhaps that moment would not come. Or the new leader would fail to exploit it if it did. This is the life of a Leader of the Opposition in normal times.
But these are not – as we are sure you are tired of hearing – normal times. And in moments of national emergency the Leader of the Opposition matters in ways that speak to our collective wellbeing with unusual profundity. The measures that the Government is taking are – for good or for ill – extraordinary and expansive. Command and control has been established in every area of our economic and social lives. Parliament is – effectively – suspended. We are the subjects, for now, of a post-democratic settlement with no clear timetable, yet, for a return to the conventions of our political norms. This has happened before, of course. In wartime. And on both of those occasions the opposition (or parts of the opposition, at least) went into coalition to form a national government. Why? Because when politics as usual is in suspended animation and decisions are made – even more so than usual – by the Executive we need as broad as possible representation within that Executive – to lend legitimacy, to surface the interests of the wider community, and to ensure that no one party is blamed forever for difficult decisions in straitened times. Will Keir Starmer end up as Deputy Prime Minister in a COVID-19 Government? It is, of course, too soon to say. But the important thing to understand is that once the leader of the Labour Party is not Jeremy Corbyn, such possibilities become imaginable once again.
Jeremy Corbyn was every bit as much a ‘black swan’ for our politics as the Coronavirus is for our economy and society. He was an anomaly and an outlier not just in terms of national political discourse but in terms of the Labour Party’s own history and traditions. He was not Michael Foot reborn – he was a mutant strain that found itself atop a party whose outlook and culture he was profoundly at odds with. On economics he may have simply been an ultra-left variant of some Labour thought. But on patriotism, foreign policy and general posture towards the British state he was an alien. That was the cause of much of Labour’s internal warfare. But it also meant that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could not have been brought inside any attempt to construct a big top, broad church Government. Remember that in October of 2019 there was – conceivably – a majority for some sort of Government of National Unity to deliver a ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit. The sticking point? No de-whipped Tory MP or self-respecting Lib Dem (or a fair few Labour backbenchers) could stomach a Corbyn premiership. And the Corbynistas would not countenance him stepping aside. The result? Stalemate followed by a Boris majority. The simple fact of Corbyn’s removal and his replacement by someone who is a normal character in British and Labour political terms will reset the possibilities of politics.
The new Leader has already signalled that his first focus will be to root out the anti-Semitic Hard Left who came into the Party with Corbyn from Stop the War. This is a clever move because as Starmer proceeds many Hard Left members will resign in protest. That is not a bug in Starmer’s planning, it is a feature. His task is to restore and reset Labour – to root out the racism and kick-out the cranks – so that it is possible for Labour to play its normal political role once more. Be that as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition or as part of a Government of National Unity, or as a party in Government at some point in the future time will tell. But Saturday is day one of a new political reality that better resembles the old political reality pre-Corbyn. And that will make dealing with the crisis we all face easier for the political class as a whole. It may not seem that big a deal right now but it is a strategic shift in the political landscape.