By Arun Srivastava
A recent poll suggesting Labour could lose Hartlepool byelection has sent tremors through the party. A major section of the labour leaders, who played key role in installing Keir Starmer as the leader of the party feel that he has not been able to lead it from the front and deliver the result. This has also led to murmuring inside the party that he does not possess the political acumen and foresight which Jeremy Corbyn has.
Starmer is facing potential disaster in the first major ballot box test of his leadership. He has sent “dozens of Labour MPs and shadow ministers” to “defend its traditional northern stronghold from the Tories”. Ahead of the parliamentary by-election on 6 May pollster Survation found the Tories winning 49 per cent of the vote in the seat, compared to 42 per cent for Labour. In the 2019 general election, Labour picked up 37.7 per cent of the vote in Hartlepool, while the Tories came in second with 28.9 per cent.
A Tory win next month would be “just the third time in 50 years a governing party has gained a seat at a by-election”. The defeat would be a huge blow for Keir Starmer. There is no denying the fact that losing Hartlepool would diminish the clout of Starmer. Hartlepool was a strong seat in which in 2017 Labour won its highest vote share and majority since 2001.Tgis would embolden the hard left elements to intensify their oust move against Starmer.
Fears are being expressed that defeat would strengthen Tories’ authoritarian populist grip on the country. A general notion has gripped the Labour that Starmer has not been able to provide a definite direction to the rank and file. The MPs who rarely talk of Starmer nevertheless mention the lack of decisiveness and frequent Labour abstentions. Even Shadow ministers complain of not knowing the party’s position on fundamental questions. If Boris government has no clear strategy to fight corona, the stand of the Labour has been also unclear. It has been in the state of indecisiveness over vaccine. Many simply fear Starmer has no coherent political vision. His policy chief, Claire Ainsley has also been in a state of confusion and relies exclusively on focus groups of 2019 first-time Conservative voters rather than developing a policy offer of her own.
Starmer even after a year of being leader of Labour could not motivate the members to discuss the “10 pledges” made during Starmer’s leadership campaign – a commitment to uphold the core domestic policies of the Corbyn era – and Labour’s recent critique of the Tory plan to hike corporation tax violated those promises. Champions of the Labour Together report fear that the party is wasting its opportunity to implement its findings.
A lack of killer instinct to get the Tories haunts the party. An impression is gaining ground inside the party; “we’re too committed to being supportive of the government,” as one shadow minister puts it. “It leaves people thinking: ‘if you’ve not got anything to say, why should we listen to you? ”What is worse the rightist lobby has been making all out efforts to put a check on the left block led by Corbyn. This group has been conducting an aggressive and highly coordinated briefing war. This group is led by leaders like Peter Mandelson, who believes the policies of the Corbyn must be eliminated and the left permanently buried.
The Labour right continues to pursue its policy of purging the hard left. They have also not been in favour of developing a radical economic agenda that would suit the existing political and economy of the country.
Although Starmer’s aides and supporters claim that the party under him has managed to regain its place, which was eroded during the tenure of Corbyn, the fact remains that in public Starmer’s rating has declined. He now lags behind the prime minister on every measure, is no longer more popular than the party he leads, and his support among those who voted Labour in 2019 has sharply deteriorated. In some polls, Labour has returned to its 2019 vote share, and far below what it chalked up in 2017.
Labour MPs nurse the feeling that the leadership is bereft of vision and direction and strongly hold that Starmer will never be prime minister. This owes also to the fact that the internal ideological clash has intensified. In his campaign for the leadership he had promised to unite the party. But it does not appear to be happening. His shadow cabinet is also divided. The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey and abstentions on pernicious Tory legislations – leading to resignations – have emptied the top team of most left wingers.
The sense of uncertainty that has gripped the party has made the MPs to prepare for life after Starmer. His supporters blame the epidemic for his underperformance. He is unable to move around. Nevertheless they feel that Labour under him has won back the right to be heard and has a leader who is an electoral asset rather than a liability.
Lack of experienced hands has also been a major issue haunting Starmer. Demands are being made to induct more experienced persons into Starmer’s team. A shadow minister said: “The problem is that Keir’s team is very inexperienced. They have spent too much time over the last year trying to appease the hard left on one hand and being too cautious trying to look like a government in waiting. There is lots of concern in the PLP about Keir’s office in general.” But again they put the blame for non-induction of experienced hands on Starmer. It is alleged that he is unwilling to take the initiative. An MP said; “Keir is the leader of the Labour party, he doesn’t need a crutch to lean on, he just needs to get out there and lead. He is the big figure.”
An attempt is also being made to refrain the leaders from discussing the quality of the leadership on the plea that it is a bad time to make judgments about Labour’s performance. Let the situation normalise. However some argue with Starmer completing a year in the office he must strive. They hold; “Politics is all about momentum,” said a Labour frontbencher. “If you’re too cautious then the wind leaves your sails, and it can sometimes be very difficult to get it to blow again.” Starmer’s once defeated foes are rising up again as his party’s civil war lurches into a grisly new phase.
The supporters of Starmer were feeling ebullient at the prospect of complete vanquishing of the hard-Left elements in the party. But the situation at ground level is different. These people have started resurrecting to haunt him. Corbyn though side lined is proving to be impermeable opponent. Meanwhile the hard-left elements have begun High Court proceedings against Corbyn’s suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party. They are challenging Starmer’s decision to withdraw the party whip from Corbyn.
This legal procedure will harm Starmer most. While it would undermine his authority it would also jeopardise his hopes of claiming the office of prime minister in the next general election. In a significant development the Momentum that backed Corbyn’s leadership has also become quite pro active in its criticism of Starmer. True speaking Starmer is finding it a tough proposition to take the Labour out of the hard left influence. His Tony Blair medication does not appear to be working.