Progressive politics needs Starmer to ‘definitely’ be a better Labour leader

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Let’s hope that Ed Miliband’s candid admission is right: that Keir Starmer is ‘definitely’ a better Labour leader than he was.  Miliband’s failed strategic approach, after all, helped put the cause of progressive politics back a decade. And as the Liberal Democrats pick a new leader, it’s essential that those lessons are learned – for both parties.

When ‘Red Ed’ snatched the Labour leadership from his heir apparent brother David in 2010, it was in the aftermath of a crushing election defeat: the lowest share of the vote since 1918 and seat numbers back to 1980s levels.  There was resentment, of course, that the Liberal Democrats did not cobble together a coalition to keep Gordon Brown in Number 10 but any rational assessment would conclude this was never going to happen: the numbers simply did not add up and frankly voters had resoundingly rejected Labour after 13 years in office.

There was talk, in those early days of the coalition, with David Cameron’s Conservatives, of ‘New Politics’. That is a new era of cooperation and consensual discourse.  The sort of politics that would come about in a system where all votes count and which represents the views of all voters. This was, after all, the first government since before the Second World War able to claim it represented more than half of all those who voted.  It was an idea promoted by David Miliband who soon left the Westminster stage.  But for Ed Miliband, it was never on the agenda.

As Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband firmly reasserted traditional Westminster politics: confrontational and tribal.  The approach focussed relentlessly on what they saw as the weakest link in the coalition chain: The Liberal Democrats.  As we know too well, the party had mixed feelings about entering government and made uncomfortable compromises as the junior partner.  Meanwhile, Labour’s policy platform was no more advanced or attractive than the cynical rational choice politics of which voters had become tired.

Together this approach handed the 2015 general election to the Conservatives and opened the door for the ‘lost’ years of Jeremy Corbyn and the EU referendum.  It wasn’t the only or even the main reason for the devastating collapse in support, but Miliband’s relentless attack on the Liberal Democrats only undermined progressive politics.  That is by attacking what he saw as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the coalition government, the opposition made sure Lib Dem seats were lost.  But who took those seats? Not Labour.

Cameron’s Conservatives were returned to office with a majority of 12.  And how many actual voters would have had to switch support to deny him that majority?  Believe it or not it was just 870!

As Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair knew before 1997, the Lib Dems reach parts of the UK that Labour cannot.  Today not a single Lib Dem parliamentary seat is defended to Labour and in the top 30 target seats (and beyond) where Lib Dems are placed second, Sheffield Hallam and Cambridge are the only ones with sitting Labour MPs.  The Liberal Democrats are part of Labour’s route back to power.

The populism and incompetence of Boris Johnson’s government today means there is a real need for capable, honest and progressive parties to vote for.  The project of the next decade for the Lib Dems is demonstrating the relevance of its values to the problems we face. It is developing a clear liberal voice.  It is cooperating with other centrist forces.  It is about building electoral momentum.

So let’s hope that Starmer is a better leader than Miliband and sees this opportunity for what it is.

* Stephen Barber is Professor of Global Affairs and a former Parliamentary Candidate

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 8:23pm

    If Lib Dems like Keir Starmer so much why don’t you form an opposition coalition with him and the Labour Party? Just stand one coalition candidate at the next Bye election. If you add your 7% to Labour’s 37% you will, theoretically, have just enough to give Keir a 1 or 2% lead over Boris.

    In practice, many Lib Dem voters will vote Tory as a second choice, and many Labour voters will abstain in protest or even vote Tory if the Labour Party is seen to become any more pro-EU than it already is.

    So it doesn’t much matter whether Starmer is a better leader than either Corbyn or Miliband. While the EU/Bexit is still to the forefront in voters minds there’s not much anyone can do to keep both Labour remainers and leavers enthusiastic party supporters.

    On a party level Starmer has very quickly alienated the majority of the members. The feeling was that Rebecca Long-Bailey wasn’t yet ready for the top job and most were prepared to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt when he promised not to take Labour back to the right. What Lib Dems would call the centre ground. I know many will leave and many more just won’t show up to do the leg work when called upon to do so at the next election.

    It’s not looking too good.

  • @ Peter Martin “On a party level Starmer has very quickly alienated the majority of the members”.

    Evidence please?

  • marcstevens 2nd Jul '20 - 8:53pm

    I actually liked Ed Miliband, I thought he did a much better job than Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader but he did make some huge mistakes which enabled the momentum wing to dominate the party (just like the pro individualism anti social liberal Orange Bookers did with the Lib Dems and continue to do so on here). I think it’s a bit rich blaming Labour and Ed Miliband for the disastrous 2015 Lib Dem general election result. That was down to reneging on policies, Clegg and his acolytes Laws, Alexander, Browne and co zealously backing policies like the bedroom tax, abolition of AWB, axing Sure Start and their austerity agenda. Cameron knew the Tories would reap the rewards of a party hell bent on destroying itself and did so at the next election.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 9:07pm

    @ David Raw,

    Jeremy Corbyn picked up 59.5% of the vote for Labour leader in 2015 and 62.5% in 2016. That support didn’t go to Rebecca Long-Bailey this because everyone had moved to the right. The consensus was that she just wasn’t ready and needed more experience. Her removal on what is seen as a trumped up charge is considered to be a sign that he’s going to move the party to the right, and so break his pledge not to do so.

  • @ Peter Martin That’s assertion not evidence, Peter.

    I’ve been involved in politics for sixty years (including a short spell working at Westminster) and have observed every Labour Leader since Attlee retired. I could have told you in 1964 that Thatcher would become the Tory Leader….. and if you think the tedious Rebecca Long-Bailey has the makings of a future Labour Leader or a Prime Minister then you need to have a lie down in a darkened room. In fact she’d send everybody to sleep in that darkened room.

    Jess Phillips, Angela Rayner, Stella Creasy, and some of the others…. yes, they all have some life in them. They do have the potential… but oh dear, oh dear, never in a million years RL-B. It’s like expecting Stockport County to win the European Cup.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '20 - 2:51am

    @ David Raw,

    You’re missing the point. The choice was between RLB, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry. It didn’t include Jess Phillips, Angela Rayner, Stella Creasy, or anyone else. If Andy Burnham hadn’t thrown in the towel after losing badly to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 then he’d have won easily. IMO. Not that he’s exactly what the membership would want either but there isn’t anyone else.

    As I’ve already said, RLB wasn’t considered ready. You could be right. Maybe she never will be. We’ll have to see.

    So the Labour Party has ended up with Keir Starmer by default. And he doesn’t have the level of support in the party that Jeremy Corbyn did. This is not an assertion or a matter of opinion. Just look up the voting figures if you don’t believe me.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '20 - 3:01am

    PS Forgot Lisa Nandy !

  • Lisa Nandy. Top class….. and she’s not the only one……though I once had a run in with her granddad in 1964. He wasn’t always sweetness and light.

    Unfortunately for you it’s the electors who decide in the end, not the members (many of whom had Dads & Mums kicked out by Kinnock). In the meantime Keir Starmer is running rings round Johnson and far outstripping him in the polls. He is a credible Prime Minister….. which unfortunately in the case of Ms Moran is more than questionable.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '20 - 9:33am

    @ David Raw,

    “Unfortunately for you it’s the electors who decide in the end, not the members……”

    This is only partly true. Ed Miliband managed to anaesthetise the grassroots in 2015. The Labour election campaign was minimalist to the point of being ultra boring. Consequently there was no enthusiasm which soon turned to pessimism as the polls confirmed what we could see for ourselves. Voters went uncanvassed. Leaflets went undelivered. We’d have done much better if Ed had found the courage to make it interesting.

    Jeremy Corbyn did much better in this respect in 2017. However, his campaign was in the end stymied by Labour members. If he’d had the full support of the party he’d have won. But, we all know he didn’t…

    It would perhaps be better if the Labour Party split. The right could go off to join the Lib Dems. Then the electors would have a clear choice of left, centre or right.

  • John Marriott 3rd Jul '20 - 10:23am

    @Peter Martin
    Instead of spending so much of your time telling Lib Dems how to run their affairs, isn’t it time that Labourites like you got together and formed a red version of LDV? As tge old song goes; “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself”.

    In case you might consider replying that I’m a fine one to talk, I would remind you that I spent nearly forty years in the Liberal/SDP/Lib Dems, thirty of them as a councillor, before jumping ship. I’ve got the T shirt and the scars, which, I believe, like my friend David Raw, give me the right to offer a few ‘suggestions’ as to how the party that I would still support, given a fair choice, might find a rôle in the post COVID and post Brexit world.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '20 - 10:49am

    @ David Raw,

    “Instead of spending so much of your time telling Lib Dems how to run their affairs….”

    I try not to do that. You might have noticed I’m keener on getting everyone, of all political persuasions, to understand how the economy works rather than advocating particular policies.

    “….isn’t it time that Labourites like you got together and formed a red version of LDV?”

    Yes. I’m working on it!

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '20 - 10:51am

    Sorry. Last comment was meant for John Marriott.

  • John Marriott 3rd Jul '20 - 11:22am

    @Peter Martin
    There’s the world of difference between trying to educate us lesser mortals on “ how the economy works“ (at least according to a certain Mr P Martin) and simply rubbing our noses in it! At least ‘educated‘ people like Jo Bourke do it with more aplomb. I bow to your superior economic knowledge and to Mr Bourke’s wide reading. However, if you want people to see your point of view, stop trying to blind them with statistics and be less dismissive, in your case, of their point of view, which a true liberal would entitle them to have. I can assure you, if I really thought that I had all the answers I wouldn’t be boring the pants of some people on LDV!

  • Stephen Barber…..When ‘Red Ed’ snatched the Labour leadership from his heir apparent brother David in 2010, it was in the aftermath of a crushing election defeat: the lowest share of the vote since 1918 and seat numbers back to 1980s levels. There was resentment, of course, that the Liberal Democrats did not cobble together a coalition to keep Gordon Brown in Number 10 but any rational assessment would conclude this was never going to happen: the numbers simply did not add up and frankly voters had resoundingly rejected Labour after 13 years in office………………

    Dear, oh dear.. Where to start? Nonsense about ‘Red Ed’, the ‘Crushing Defeat’ ‘Resoundingly Rejected’ (that left a Tory minority government)..

    I won’t bother to comment on the rest of an article high on hyperbole and low on facts… As for Starmer needing this party??? This party is sadly at the lowest I’ve seen it in my political lifetime including the early 1960s. It then had policies, and a leader, I supported and respected now it doesn’t seem to have either policies or a leadership candidate of national standing ..The last election was bad with 12% support but it’s now at 6% and falling..

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Jul '20 - 2:35pm

    Given that we are in contest with The Conservatives in our main battle grounds and our present electoral system, how do we tackle Labour from a centre left position? I don’t know the answer. The Conservatives will become increasingly unpopular so perhaps we will become Labour’s best friend. We could push more resources into seats where we are running third in Labour held seats though that is a very long term strategy and risks keeping the Tories in power.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jul '20 - 2:46pm

    Stephen here is correct in his, most of ours here, perhaps have it surely, desire to have a better leader of the opposition.

    But where does this fit with this party?

    I agree with the caustic but accurate description by David Raw, of Rebecca Long Bailey, a pleasant but very mediocre politician.

    I disagree with him on layla Moran. I am equally unsure as many, who to back now, but know that whoever it is, needs to, not be a potential Prime Minister, Jo must have ruined that one, but, rather, a leader whose views are listened to, not because of the controversy of message content, but for the immediacy of the messenger. On that Layla beats Ed, bjut I like them both.

    I disagree with some on Starmer, I rate and like him and want an alliance with him, but he needs to be more Gaitskell Kinnock, less Wilson, Callahan, get off the fence and make a stand on schools, on lockdown ending too soon. He seems to be stronger on internal decisions I welcome, on his comments on Long Bailey, also on Defunding of police, though he is too supportive of the useless shower in power, on easing of safety, opening of economy, for me, and many, very concerned the government are wrong.

    None of the Labour figures in…the UK, match one, in……New zealand!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • @ expats Correct, and I share your view on the potential leadership.

    Sadly, the spiral is compounded by those who want to pull the coalition pillow over their heads, deny the broken promises, the reality of all the welfare cuts and mean regulations, the health changes, the local government defenestration with social care etc., ….. not forgetting the rush to sell off the Royal Mail and schools to billionaires and evangelical ‘Academy’ owners.

    To be fair, there was something to show for it. They did get a few more C.B.E.’s, knighthoods and peerages (a second pension), and we were assured there would be no hesitation about pressing the nuclear button. But the rest, as they say, was Bo**ocks.

    Finally, just noticed Lorenzo Cherin’s latest comment on one of the Leadership candidates. Do you honestly think she would last five minutes with Andrew Neill ? No chance, Lorenzo.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jul '20 - 3:01pm

    David, as in Raw!

    As I agree with you on Neil, so, on coalition sometimes. Layla was not in it. Ed was. A risk, either way. Neil cannot grill her on that she isn’t to blame for. He can, ed.

    What to do?

  • Paul Barker 3rd Jul '20 - 5:30pm

    The best we can hope for from Labour is an Unofficial agreement to not Target each others Target Seats, Labour cant go beyond that without descending into civil war. I hope that Starmer sees the sense in repeating the Ashdown/Blair agreement but I have no idea if he does or not.
    Its going to be a delicate balancing act making overtures to The Labour Leadership without outraging The Labour Left. Starmer cant stop Momentum from campaigning in our Target Seats as they did last Year.

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