Just as Iain Duncan Smith’s election as Conservative leader in 2001 was overshadowed by 9/11 two days earlier, so the Coronavirus pandemic will overshadow Keir Starmer’s almost certain election on Saturday as Labour’s leader. Yet it will be an important moment for the party and for British politics; how important may depend on what he does in the hours, days at most, following his victory.
If Starmer is in any doubt about this, he should ask Neil Kinnock. Two years after he became leader in 1983, Kinnock had reason to be satisfied. He had the far Left, especially Militant, on the run. He had clawed his way to a majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee. He had a shadow cabinet pulling together. All in all, Labour seemed to have started down the long, slow road to electability.
However, Kinnock had one big regret. “I should have moved faster to sort out Walworth Road,” he told a friend two years into his leadership. (Walworth Road housed the party’s headquarters.) On becoming leader, he had prioritised the most obvious political tasks, but left the bureaucracy in place. Jim Mortimer, Labour’s left-wing general secretary, did not leave until 1985. He had two years to pursue his agenda, including defying Kinnock by openly supporting Arthur Scargill’s undemocratic decision to call the 1984 miners’ strike that was doomed from the start. As far as the party machine was concerned—and as Max Weber famously warned a century ago, controlling the bureaucracy is one of the highest political imperatives—Labour’s modernisation started not in 1983 but two years later.
The lesson for Starmer is clear. Taking command of the party machine is at least as urgent as holding the government to account on coronavirus or the trade (non-) talks with the European Union. And his most urgent task of all is to suspend Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, under the Labour Party rulebook. This would achieve two things in one go: it would provide a dramatic demonstration of Starmer’s authority; and it would allow him to make an immediate start on rebuilding Labour as a relevant, broad-church party able to mount an effective challenge to the government.
To Formby’s allies, this would plainly be unfair. She has loyally served the party’s duly elected leader, and should not now be punished for doing so. Her critics, of course, observe exactly the same stance, but draw the opposite conclusion: with Corbyn gone, she should go, too. Starmer needs a general secretary who will be loyal to him, not an enthusiastic ally of his predecessor.
That is not all. Importantly for Starmer, the case against Formby goes further. As General Secretary, she has presided over two catastrophes: Labour’s handling of the anti-semitism scandal, which forced loyal Jewish MPs out of the party while allowing some of the least savoury party members to stay; and the management of last year’s general election campaign, when resources were largely directed to the wrong constituencies. There is also another controversy on which the jury is still out: have all party members been able to take part in the current leadership contest? Anecdotally, there are too many examples for comfort of anti-Corbyn members having huge trouble obtaining their ballot papers either online or by post. That is not sufficient to draw conclusions but nor should it be ignored.
Where Formby has been completely successful is encouraging a number of the party’s most experienced and knowledgeable staff to resign, and surrounding herself with people whose passion for Corbyn’s politics is manifest, but whose management skills are not. They should go, too.
There are, then, practical and not just political reasons for Starmer to act. This matters. The party’s rule book shows why. It states that the general secretary “shall remain in office so long as her/his work gives satisfaction to the NEC and Party conference.” On the face of it, Formby could resist any immediate attempt to dismiss her, and insist on taking the issue to the National Executive Committee. Meanwhile, she and her fellow Corbynistas could remain in place, doing whatever they can to pursue their own agenda and frustrate Corbyn’s successor.
However, the rule book also contains these words: “The [party] Leader shall… ensure the maintenance and development of an effective political Labour Party in parliament and in the country.” Thus the rule book imposes a large, vital and general obligation on its leader. Nowhere does it spell out the powers that the leader has to “ensure” effectiveness—but neither does it spell out their limits.
This is why Formby’s practical failings, over anti-semitism, the election campaign and so on, matter so much. Starmer could argue—and as a lawyer he would know how to make the argument—that Formby is a massive obstacle to his ability to “ensure” the party’s recovery from its worst election defeat for more than eight decades. He couldn’t fire her outright—that would still need the national executive’s approval—but he could use his “ensure” obligation to suspend her and send her on gardening leave, pending a full NEC meeting.
Underpinning these legal issues is the larger point of Starmer’s authority. Were British politics to provide a big, totemic policy issue, he could use that to show he is in charge. (In 1983, Kinnock did this with his first policy decision as the party’s new leader: he scrapped Labour’s commitment to leave Europe’s common market.)
That option is not available this time. The horrors of coronavirus have displaced almost all conventional political controversies. In any event, dealing with the legacy of the Corbyn era will take time. Starmer needs a year or two to reset Labour’s policies and carry the party with him. The conclusion is clear. Seizing control of the party machine is not just vital in itself: with normal party battles across the floor of the House of Commons in abeyance, it is the best thing he could do just now to start Labour’s journey back to government.