Starmer victorious: Finally, there's a grown-up in charge

Big sigh of relief. Keir Starmer is the new leader of the Labour party.

The rearguard defence by the Corbynites, in the form of the Rebecca Long-Bailey campaign, faltered and came to nothing. Starmer won in the first round with 56.2% of the vote.

Starmer isn't perfect. He hasn't exactly conducted a thrilling campaign. But this should be a moment of profound satisfaction. Whatever else he is, he's a grown-up. He can scrutinise legislation. He knows how to hold the government to account. He isn't a tribalist, or lost in some deranged internal war against imaginary enemies. After five dreadful years, we finally have an opposition again.

Nevertheless, the new Labour leader faces a seemingly impossible situation. The party has been hammered. Many believe it'll take two general elections to get to a position where they could win again. And he takes the leadership at the height of a crisis in which the public will be completely uninterested in what the opposition thinks about anything. In times of emergency, people look to the government. That's been borne out by recent opinion polls in countries as varied as France, Britain and the US.

But things aren't as bad for Starmer as they're made out to be. We are in volatile political times, in which sudden shocks are possible. The support Boris Johnson secured in Labour seats was shallow and unreliable. The result was a judgement against Jeremy Corbyn rather than the party itself.

The current emergency provides opportunities for Starmer as well as challenges. A narrative has developed in which the government has been too idle, distracted or irresponsibly experimental to develop a proper approach to the coronavirus. That's why it wasted February. That's why its messaging was so confused in March. And that's why it is facing such brutal interrogation over medical equipment and testing in April.

For the moment, that narrative has not affected public support. But it is there in the background, waiting to be harnessed as this crisis drags on. People will be scared for their own health, anxious about that of their loved ones, and bored and frustrated by the continued restrictions on their lives. Those impulses could be easily turned on the government if the thought takes hold that any of it was preventable.

Starmer is in a good position to accomplish precisely that. He proved adept during Brexit at taking complex policy detail and using it to damage the government.

Many of the old protections No.10 had against that attack have now fallen away. The opposition is no longer functionally insane. The government no longer has the tribal defences provided by Brexit. And even the right wing press it could usually rely on, like the Telegraph and the Mail, may not be so compliant when it is their ageing readers who are most threatened by the disease.

Even the perception of Starmer as stolid and a bit boring - which is unfair, as it happens, but exists nonetheless - could prove advantageous. We are in a period of chaos and disease, in which normal life is turned upside down under a prime minister powered by his own self-regard. After that, dull and competent might be just what the doctor ordered.

Those who want Starmer to do well should be mindful of the demands they place on him. That goes especially for Remainers. The Labour leader's opponents will be keen to force him into that Remain-shaped hole and recreate the culture war of last year. They want all their old favourite songs back. The out-of-touch metropolitan elitist vs the will of the people. The tired old lies. It is a precondition of his success that he does not allow that to happen.

That means that there should be no pressure for him to talk about rejoining the EU or anything like that - not now, nor, in all likelihood, during the next election. A campaign to get back in should be held back until the election after that, if it is to be successful.

The same goes for the more immediate issue of whether transition should be extended. Starmer should avoid that issue like the plague. The Tories would love to define him as the Remainer who can't get over the result.

It's perfectly obvious the negotiations need more time - and he can say so - but that should not be a concerted effort of his leadership. Nor should Remainers in or outside Labour pressure him to make it so.

Starmer has done enough to earn the trust of those who opposed Brexit. Over long years, facing an indifferent Labour leadership and a lunatic nativist version of the Tory party, he diligently worked to develop a respectable policy programme. If he sees, in the medium-term future, a chance to go back into the EU, he'll take it. But that'll only happen if he's prime minister. And the quickest way to prevent that outcome is for him to be defined as a continuity Remainer.

There's no way of knowing where we'll be in five years. Even last month seems like some distant past which is barely comprehensible from our current vantage point. But that uncertainty also provides opportunities for the new Labour leader, which he can make good use of.

And either way, even if it all goes catastrophically wrong, at least we have a grown-up leader of the opposition, who can read the public mood and is capable of exercising independent judgement. And that puts us in a much better position than we've had for the last five years. Time for a small celebratory drink in our little lockdown bunkers.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: The last day of Jeremy Corbyn

Finally, it's done. This is Jeremy Corbyn's last day as Labour leader.

The experiment has been a disaster of biblical proportions. That is a point of electoral fact which cannot be negated by insisting that he 'won the argument' or with limp suggestions that the coronavirus response is somehow a validation of his political ideology.

He failed at the ballot box. He failed to provide opposition during one of the most crucial periods of British political history. He failed to even have a policy on the only debate taking place in the country since the referendum. He failed to tackle anti-semitism. He failed in his ideas, he failed in presenting them and he failed in implementing them.

His failures are legion and could go on for pages. It was the worst possible moment for it. Labour went absent just as the country was facing a powerful resurgence of reactionary nationalist sentiment. It meant that internationalists were denied an effective parliamentary vehicle to fight back and were instead reduced to rebellious MPs and a protest movement.

Those two groups fought a brave, principled campaign, under constant attack from left and right. But without the opposition party behind it, it was always an uphill battle. When the history books are written, it will be Corbyn - not Theresa May or Boris Johnson- who is treated as the main explanatory factor in Britain's deluded festival of hara kiri.

But we know all that. It's done. So today is a useful opportunity to ask a different question. What did we learn from the Corbyn movement which might stop us making similar mistakes in the future? And at the heart of that is not policy, but attitude. 

The Corbyn machine was based on denial of reality born out of faith. And it is the faith that must be killed. There is no place for it in politics. It does not nurture hope. It encourages hatred.

Corbyn pursued politics without any suspicion that he might ever be wrong. His views were fundamentally unchangeable. They were set in the 70s and they lasted until today. No evidence against them could ever permeate the certainty with which they were held.

Organisations take on the character of those at the top and this was equally true for his movement. Corbyn was the saint, the prophet, the man whose inability to scrutinise himself was rebranded as unshakeable conviction. So many of those who followed him - not all, by any measure, but enough to define the movement - adopted the same approach.

Saint Jeremy could not be challenged. If events went against him, it was not because he failed in some way. That was unthinkable. It had to be because of a conspiracy against him, from the media, or opponents in the Labour party, or the Remain movement. The motivations of those who criticised him could never be genuine or their opinions truly held. They had to be cynical, scheming, in-it-for-themselves, liars, cheats, hypocrites, in league with big media or big money.

The Corbyn movement was an example of epistemological breakdown. It's psychologically identical to what happens to conspiracy theorists. You accept your truth. It becomes unchallengeable. Then everything which might disprove it must be put down to a shadowy effort by powerful forces to undermine it. And soon reality falls away. The world is degraded in order to shore up one's faith.

It is no coincidence that Labour fell victim to anti-semitism, the oldest of all the conspiracy theories. The structure of that form of thinking is identical. It is just a short step from questioning the motivations of those who challenge the leader to deciding that anyone who interrogates their record on anti-semitism is in the pay of Israel. The culture which fostered anti-semitism is the same which constructed mental defences against objective reality. And the party structure which failed to deal with it was the same which treated any criticism of itself as suspect.

The Corbyn movement was motivated by decent sentiments about helping the poor, nationally and internationally. But this messianic approach to politics never ends in kindness or gentleness. It always ends with tribal hatred. And you can see it today. The remains of the Corbyn movement online are behaving now precisely the way they behaved in the early days: with threats and abuse against those who disagree with them.

Anyone who has ever criticised Corbyn on social media knows how this works. They know the constant stream of hatred which follows. For many people - especially Jewish people, especially women - that became a nightmare that followed them into the real world, requiring security protection or forcing them from the party.

But when that happened, there was no moment of self-doubt, no flicker of moral recognition about the severity of what had occurred. There couldn't be, because the mental walls were too strongly set. So this too had to be translated into an attack against the leadership. The Corbyn movement became a self-perpetuating system for moral justification. Even when the things it witnessed were the direct results of its own actions, they had to be reformulated as evidence of conspiracy against it.

That's the lesson we can take from this. It is not about policy. Any number of Corbyn policies - although perhaps not all of them at the same time - could win in a British general election if presented in a convincing and competent way. It's not even about presentation, even though that left much to be desired. It is about how you conduct yourself in politics.

That goes no matter where you are on the political spectrum. We must never give in to the pull of hero worship. We must temper our support for a leader with a commitment to objective reality. We must resist the allure of conspiracy theory. We must leave ourselves open to doubt. We must reject faith.

We've lost so much over the last few years. But if we can take that from this debacle, at least we'll have gained something.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Covid shines a light on everything

The coronavirus emergency is providing a weird form of political awakening. In every area of life, the response to it reveals deep truths about us and how we do things.

Maybe it's because it is non-political. If it were a political emergency - a war, say, or a sudden no-deal Brexit - people would retreat into their tribes and justify this or that according to whatever their loyalty was. But no-one has loyalty to covid.

Every so often, people try to twist it to an agenda - pretending that closing pubs is a betrayal of the British bulldog spirit or attempting to racialise the disease. But it's rare. For the time being, those efforts still seem like sad subplots rather than the larger narrative.

Instead, the political conclusions which emerge from covid feel deeply true and widely accepted, untainted by tribalism.

The economic response from the government, for instance, which is essentially to flood the economy with money in a bid to keep it at least half-alive, is a final and absolute refutation of the argument that the market knows best.

This isn't necessarily the case for the good times. During a boom, classical economists and right-wingers can still claim that the market performs most efficiently when left alone. But it is a defining acceptance that this does not operate during the bad times. When shocks emerge, state support is needed.

The same is true about the jobs we value. Last night people emerged from their homes to applaud NHS workers. It was a beautiful scene, the kind of thing you'd need a heart of stone to not feel touched by. But it is also in line with our traditional notions of value. More startling has been the emergence of less celebrated roles - the people who collected the rubbish, the tube drivers, the delivery services, the supermarket staff. They are now something new. They are key workers.

These are not the jobs we usually celebrate. It is almost like the feminist critique of traditional economics - that the system would simply stop working without the free domestic labour overwhelmingly delegated to women and then treated as if it were not economic at all. Now we see the same for the function of society. We never discuss these workers. But when they are not there, everything collapses.

Businesses are businesses. Their primary function is to make money. But that does not mean that they must be only concerned with profit and cannot have a moral dimension too. So we have also seen the ethical heart of many companies. Some have cast off their employees, or thrown homeless people out of hotel rooms, or refused to pay sick workers. Others have tried to help. The true nature of these operations has been on show. And customers will remember.

The same goes for people. Some fight in supermarkets so they can secure their ludicrous tower of toilet paper. But actually this is comparatively rare. Most of the food shortages seem to be due to people taking a little bit extra of what they usually get, which is entirely rational if they are being asked to shop less often.

In fact we are seeing huge surges of decency and kindness, of neighbours helping each other out, of people volunteering to help the NHS. Even that new email sign-off - 'stay safe' - replaces our usual goodbyes with a more genuine and heartfelt commitment to each other.

We all remember the post-apocalyptic films and TV shows right now - the 28 Days Later and Walking Deads. There's been a lot of them in recent years. And when London is deserted and people are stockpiling goods, it's hard to prevent your brain from locking into that narrative. All those films have one central question in them: what is humanity really like? And most of them reach pretty grim conclusions. The Walking Dead in particular seems to be based on the most negative conception of people imaginable.

But it's not true, or if it is we've no evidence upon which to believe it. Take a look at what is happening. We are all making tremendous sacrifices. The price the economy suffers will be paid back for years to come. We are accepting very substantial limitations on our freedoms and our pleasures.

And why are we doing it? Yes, a bit of it is for selfish or family reasons. We don't want to get sick and we worry most of all about the older people we love. But for the majority of people the risks of covid are quite moderate. This entire upheaval in our lives has one intention: to protect the vulnerable, to ensure that those over 70 or with underlying health conditions are shielded from the virus.

And that is not a local or a national thing, or even a cultural thing. It is a human thing. It is happening around the world. We have closed down planet earth. We made this sacrifice to protect those most at risk. And there is, no matter how grim this thing gets, something profound about that.

Things will eventually go back to normal. But when they do, we should not forget the things we're learning - about economics, business behaviour, people's actions, and about ourselves.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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