Starmer has closed one of Labour’s sorriest chapters

Another day, another milestone passed on Labour’s long but speedy march from opposition wilderness to power following its worst election result since 1935 in 2019.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) decision today to give Labour a clean bill of health on antisemitism is an important building block in Keir Starmer’s election strategy.

Labour is also gaining credibility on other fronts – notably by winning the trust of voters and business leaders on the economy, as Paul Drechsler, the former CBI president, wrote in The Independent this week.

Labour is winning confidence on national security, which is timely given the Ukraine war. Starmer can wrap himself in the union flag as well as the Conservatives and stress Labour’s commitment to Nato. That would not have been possible if Jeremy Corbyn were leading it today, as we know from his equivocal response to Russia’s actions in Salisbury (Corbyn condemned the invasion of Ukraine but criticised the West for “pouring arms” into the country).

Closing one of the sorriest chapters in Labour’s history on antisemitism – remarkable for a party long committed to anti-racism and equality – allows Starmer to send a wider signal about how he has transformed Labour. The achievement is even greater given that the party struggled to get a hearing during the pandemic. However, the Tories have handed Labour so many free gifts that any opposition worth its salt should be 20 points ahead in the opinion polls.

Starmer was right to claim in a speech in east London today that Labour is “unrecognisable” from the party he inherited from Corbyn, who was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party after saying that allegations of antisemitism were “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.

Starmer finally confirmed Westminster’s worst-kept secret: Corbyn “will not stand” as a Labour candidate at the next election. That might not stop him running as an independent, and some senior Labour figures suspect he is so popular in the Islington North constituency he has represented since 1983 that he would win it without the Labour banner.

Starmer coupled his welcome of the EHRC decision with a warning to Corbyn’s left-wing allies that if they don’t like the changes he has made, “the door is open and you can leave”. Ominously for the left, he insisted “the job of restoring Labour is not complete, not even close”.

He said Labour had moved “from a party of dogma to a party of patriotism, from a party of protest to a party of public service”, vowing it would never again be “captured by narrow interests”, “lose sight of its purpose or morals” or “brought to its knees by racism or bigotry”.

Why is he doing this? There’s still a lingering doubt in some voters’ minds that Starmer is not as good as he looks. When Tony Blair used such language about changing the party, the public bought it. “There is a risk some people think Keir is not quite what he seems,” one Labour insider told me.

The Tories will continue to remind voters that Starmer served Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and wanted him to become prime minister three years ago. Rishi Sunak says it most weeks at Prime Minister’s Questions. So Starmer judges that he needs to drive home his message the left has been vanquished.

It’s also why the Labour high command has taken an iron grip on the selection of Labour’s parliamentary candidates. Labour insiders privately fear a bloc of 30-40 rebellious left-wing MPs could wield significant influence if a Starmer government enjoyed only a small Commons majority. They want to keep the number as small as possible.

For now, his hard-left critics are mostly biding their time, trying not to hand Starmer any ammunition so he could withdraw the whip to stop them standing at the election. Although many pro-Corbyn grassroots members have walked away, the MPs have no intention of making Starmer’s life easier by leaving.

The Labour leader said today his party had changed “permanently, fundamentally, irrevocably”. Yet nothing is forever in politics. New Labour figures thought Blair’s party revolution was permanent, but he lost interest in internal reforms after winning power and was eventually succeeded by Corbyn.

There’s another reason why Starmer still has a lot more reassuring to do. The public mood can be summarised as: “The Tories have made a mess of it, so we might as well give the other lot a chance.”

But that is not the same as the positive support for Labour that Starmer now needs to win by spelling out how, after transforming his party, he can change the country – while wearing a fiscal straitjacket he has already put on as part of the same reassurance strategy.


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