It is hard to overstate the significance of Jennie Formby’s departure as the Labour Party’s general secretary. She was the last important survivor of the Corbyn era. Keir Starmer has taken just one month to dismantle the ancient regime and establish complete control over the party. He now has the power to set its course for the rest of this parliament. He must decide how to use it.
The speed with which he has acted so far has been as admirable as it has been brutal. On the day of his election as party leader, three pro-Corbynites were voted off the national executive and replaced by Starmer loyalists. This gave him a majority on the national executive committee. During the first week, he sacked prominent Corbynites such as Ian Lavery, John Trickett and Shami Chakrabarti from the shadow cabinet. With others choosing to stand down, such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, the ideological makeover was made complete. Of those close to Corbyn, only Rebecca Long-Bailey remains at Labour’s top table, and she has been demoted from the business and energy portfolio to education.
However, while Formby remained in office, Starmer did not fully have control of the party organisation. Now, in the wake of her resignation, he has. He can count on the loyalty of all three of Labour’s pillars—shadow cabinet, national executive and party machine. It is an important moment in Labour’s history; and if the Johnson administration stumbles, it could prove to be an important moment for British politics as a whole.
What now? Starmer won the leadership by avoiding direct criticism of the regime he has since despatched into the darkness. Asked which Labour leader of the past half century he most admired, he said neither Corbyn, the Left’s hero, nor Tony Blair, by far Labour’s most successful election-winner (nor, for that matter, Neil Kinnock, whose challenges on becoming leader in 1983 closely resembled those that Starmer faces today). Instead, he said Harold Wilson. It was a cautious choice, which allowed Starmer once again to keep his ideological cards close to his chest.
Starmer needs to be coy no longer. He now has the opportunity to set out his political stall. That is not to say he must do so immediately: he has time. In any event, as long as the current coronavirus crisis lasts, few people will pay any attention to any new policy pronouncements. It is an ideal time for him to lead a big internal rethink, so that when—next year? later this year?—he might get a hearing, his ideas will have been properly thought through.
But if the pronouncements can, and should, be left for some months, the thinking should start now. We know, or think we know, that Starmer rejects both Corbyn’s left-wing socialism and Blair’s “what works” centrism. But what would Britain’s economy and society look like after, say, ten years of a Starmer premiership? We need not be told now; but we need to know at some point.
Meanwhile, he faces two more urgent challenges. First, he must defuse the inquiry into the leak of the party’s anti-semitism report. This might be expensive: tricky legal issues are involved. More important, he needs to detoxify the poisonous atmosphere that both the content and the leaking of the report have exposed. Formby’s departure might make it easier to achieve harmony, as well as loyalty, at party headquarters.
Secondly, he needs to build on his first two appearances at prime minister’s questions. They have been faultless: a constructive tone, combined with precise and pertinent queries about the government’s performance. He has held the government to account, while beginning to display the qualities of a prime minister in waiting—properties that Corbyn never possessed.
The problem is that, with parliament not fully functioning, the opportunities to hold the government to account are not as great as they should be. Lindsay Hoyle, the new speaker, hasn’t helped: he has proved remarkably reluctant to admit urgent questions—those set down at short notice on topical matters. Ministers do still appear before MPs, according to a set timetable, but less often than in the past and for shorter question-time sessions.
This is verging on the scandalous. Ministers say that they are held to account on the pandemic at their daily 5pm press conferences. They are not. They are able to duck awkward questions with ease, not least because journalists flit from topic to topic without following each other up and so fail to expose ministerial evasions.
Starmer has twice shown at noon on Wednesday how to make parliament relevant once again to the public debate. With his frontbench colleagues in both the Commons and the Lords, he should be pressing for ministers to be held properly to account every day. If they succeed, Starmer’s early weeks as Labour’s leader could matter not just for the party but for parliament and the country.
This blog was first published by Prospect https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/peter-kellner-labour-party-starmer-formby-resign-jeremy-corbyn