Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Keir Starmer: What the Labor Leader Can Learn from Neil Kinnock to Make Money from Boris Johnson’s Misery

Although Prime Minister Boris Johnson is suffering from a potentially career-ending crisis after barely surviving a vote of confidence in his leadership, it does not appear that his struggle is necessarily a resurgence for the Labor opposition.

A recent poll suggested that people, even after months of scandal, continue to elect Johnson as prime minister as Keir Starmer of Labor.

By planning a path out of his stalemate, Starmer could do worse than look back on a specific period in Labor history – the tenure of Neil Kinnock between 1983 and 1992.

Like Starmer, he faced the rebuilding of the Labor Party in the wake of a particularly crushing general election defeat. Indeed, before 2019, the worst defeat in the general election for Labor was since the 1930s 1983, when the party was on the receiving end of a Margaret Thatcher landslide under Michael Foot’s stewardship.

Like Kinnock, therefore, Starmer was given responsibility for cultivating a more elective and popular image for Labor.

But Kinnock was defeated in two general elections and lost his last chance to become prime minister in 1992. Starmer obviously wants to do better. These four lessons from Kinnock’s highs and lows must therefore be noted.

1. Get a strong economic package together

Being able to trust a party to run the economy is often identified as a crucial factor when voters decide who to support in an election.

On this critical issue, however, Kinnock has been repeatedly found to be flawed. The public was not prepared to trust its economic proposals above those put forward by the Conservatives. Indeed, many have argued that Labor’s moderately redistributive shadow budget of 1992 cost Labor heavily at the ballot box. It was considered unaffordable and careless by significant numbers of swing voters.

This history may explain Starmer’s apparent strategy to pursue a more cautious approach to economic governance than was seen during the tenure of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. The aim seems to be to reassure voters that Labor is a safe hand rather than to try anything too ambitious that could scare shaky voters who were concerned about the affordability and feasibility of the party’s 2019 economic proposals.

After Kinnock’s defeat in 1992, Labor embraced a safety-first approach to economic competence and taxation. This was evident during the first two years of the Tony Blair government when Labor adhered to conservative public spending proposals.

However, the current situation is very different from that of the mid-1990s when the economy was expanding, and for Starmer there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Winning voters in so-called “backward regions,” Johnson’s conservatives embraced a “leveling” rhetoric, and with it a more centrist economic direction. Labor will have to offer a clear and radical alternative. And the desire for a new economic approach is likely to only intensify with the growing cost of living crisis.

2. Get a grip on party divisions

Kinnock came from Labor’s radical left and was a constant thorn in the side of the Jim Callaghan government, to which he refused to join. However, after Labor lost in 1979, a rift arose on the left. Kinnock was a leading figure on the soft left, close to his predecessor, Michael Foot. His first term as leader of the opposition was dominated by clashes with the hard left.

The radical left emerged again as dominant after Corbyn’s election as party leader in 2015. However, it was striking how quickly the left side of the party was marginalized by Starmer, who even expelled Corbyn from the parliamentary party. Indeed, what cannot be disputed is that the moderates took back control of the party and set the left aside in a much faster way than Kinnock did in the 1980s.

Despite the progress that has apparently been made, the lesson from the Kinnock era is that divided parties generally do not win elections. It is still unclear whether the alienation of the left of his party rather than working to truly unite the various factions will cost Starmer votes.

3. Show your personality

Kinnock was undoubtedly a dynamic and colorful politician, the outstanding orator of his age. However, his image was carefully managed to the extent that the real Kinnock was suffocated in the run-up to the 1992 election.

Starmer was apparently chosen after the crushing defeat in 2019 precisely because he was considered “safe”. But with safe comes the risk of being called boring.

Keir Starmer Looks Depressed
Starmer: safe or boring?

In hindsight, Kinnock’s reputation for a colorful personality was seen as an underutilized asset. If he had opposed such rigid media management of his character, he might have had greater election success. Perhaps Starmer should also adopt a more relaxed and engaging approach, although there is doubt as to whether he has that kind of personality.

4. Be brave in the face of the challenge

Starmer is likely to face a bigger election challenge than Kinnock. In Kinnock’s day, Labor still dominated Scottish politics along with its traditional heartland seats in the North and Midlands. This has all changed since then. Now, parliamentary accounting suggests that Starmer could not win a straight election.

One strategy could be to show similar (or even greater) ruthlessness as Kinnock when he undertook a seismic review process after 1987. He abandoned all sorts of unpopular policies in the hope of securing a majority. He did not succeed, but it can be said that he laid the foundation for Blair’s eventual election success in 1997.

Some modernizers felt Kinnock was going too slow and were too cautious in this review. If Starmer is to have an outside chance of becoming prime minister, he may have to be brave, but will also have to gamble so he can take the party with him. While unlikely to win an absolute majority, voting evidence does suggest the possibility he could lead the largest party in a hung parliament, and it is perhaps his most realistic option to reach Downing Street at the moment.

Starmer ultimately strives to achieve success where Kinnock has failed. But there are worrying undercurrents. His personal poll is lukewarm. In these more erratic and impatient times, Starmer will almost certainly not have the ease of the nearly nine years as opposition leader Kinnock had. His party would expel him long before that. It gives a sense of urgency. Time may run out for him to turn things around before the next general election.

Nation World News Desk
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