When talking about Keir Starmer, think of John Smith
The parallels between former Labour Party leader John Smith and current leader Keir Starmer are striking.
Both took up post after four Labour general election defeats in a row (1979-1992 and then 2010-19).
Both succeeded a Labour leader whose personal ratings had a positive burst but had fallen into persistent negative territory by the end (Kinnock, then Corbyn).
Both themselves had not only been a leading member of the Shadow Cabinet prior to the last Labour defeat, they had even held the post central to the key issue seen at the heart of that defeat. Brexit for Starmer, the economy for Smith.
On becoming leader, both addressed a major internal issue that had been seen as costing Labour votes (anti-Semitism with Starmer, the union block vote and move to OMOV for Smith).
But beyond that, both also were modest in the extent to which they set out to change their party or its policies. Both looked to have an approach to winning the next general election of, ‘Let the government mess up while I’ll show that I’m not my predecessor’. One more heave rather than one big revolution.
Whether this would have worked for John Smith, tragically we will never know. The plaudits given to him after his early death from a heart attack in 1994 were of the sort any of us should be honoured to receive. If you or I receive even an echo of such fulsome words, we will have led a good life. For all Smith’s many positives, the one thing left hanging unresolved is whether or not he was a good leader of the Labour Party. Had he set the course for victory or was he going to turn out to be too timid to win? We’ll never know. With Starmer, we will.
For there are two competing stories waiting for historians to pick between them. One is of Starmer the triumphant, who wisely realised that oppositions don’t win elections but governments lose them. So he made clear he was not his highly unpopular predecessor and other than that mostly kept out of the way, doing little radical and letting the government destroy itself. The other is of Starmer the timidly defeated, who turned out to have nothing much to do or say beyond, ‘I’m not Corbyn and I’m opposed to anti-Semitism’, and who then went down to defeat as the Conservative Party pulled itself together when the general election neared.
Either could yet be true.
But which outcome we end up with depends more on the Liberal Democrats than some people realise. For the number of Conservative-held seats in which the Liberal Democrats are the strong challengers means that the route to the Conservatives losing their Westminster majority runs through the Liberal Democrats.
It’s why the current media fashion of discussing whether Starmer is succeeding or failing misses a key point. Whether modest change and entrench is a winning plan depends as much on how the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats perform as it does on Labour.
Which is good news for the Liberal Democrats as, despite the disaster of 2019, we can still be an important influence on what happens in Westminster as soon as the next election, provided we get our act together. More on how we’re doing that next time.