Keir Starmer is likely to win the Labour leadership race, because politics is returning to boring normal
In government and in opposition, it will be the dull who prevail. Labour members probably think the time has come to return to the old-fashioned virtues of experience, competence and being good at the job
We had our fun. It is back to boring normal politics now. Tedious things such as a government with a standard majority in the House of Commons trying to do difficult things like get better results out of the NHS, schools and police.
Boring things such as an opposition with no power except the force of words and the hope of persuading the people that it would be a more competent and compassionate administrator of the nation’s affairs.
Normal politics is such a tiresome business that there will always be people, in government and in opposition, trying to liven it up. In government, we have Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, trying to dress up public service reform with trendy theories and the zany recruitment of “weirdos and misfits”.
In opposition, we have Jess Phillips, who thinks she’s the first politician who ever thought telling the truth was an exciting selling point. She has an excellent slogan for her campaign to lead the Labour Party, “Speak truth, win power,” but her rivals won’t take kindly to the implication that they are liars, and it is the kind of claim that has a tendency to come back to bite a politician.
But in government and in opposition, I suspect it will be the dull who prevail in the next few years. That is why Keir Starmer will probably win the Labour leadership election. Party members may think that utopianism and authenticity have got them about as far as they can, and that the time has come to return to the old-fashioned virtues of experience, competence and being good at the job.
They do not, as Starmer put it in a telling phrase, want to “oversteer”. They do not want to abandon the idealism of the Corbyn years altogether. A souped-up Ed Milibandism will have to do. They do not want to go as far as to elect someone with actual ministerial experience, such as Yvette Cooper, but they have seen Starmer at the despatch box in parliament and he looked as if he knew what he was doing.
Above all, Starmer fought tenaciously to try to stop Britain leaving the EU, while remaining conspicuously loyal to Jeremy Corbyn, and most Labour Party members approved of both halves of that strategy.
The Brexit fight is over, but the approval remains, as confirmed by the first YouGov survey of Labour members, carried out 20-30 December. Starmer came top of the poll, winning 36 per cent of first preference votes among those with an opinion, and beating Rebecca Long Bailey by 61 per cent to 39 per cent in the final run-off.
This came as a surprise to those who assumed most Labour members were hardcore Momentumites who would vote for the most authentic representative of Corbyn-McDonnellist politics. But it should not have done. Starmer has long been popular among the members – indeed, last July he was even favoured over John McDonnell as a possible future leader.
The poll is only part of the story. These party members are not the only voters in this election. New members can join before a “freeze date” that will be set by the National Executive Committee on Monday. The NEC will also decide fees and timings for registered supporters to take part in the election – if Jon Lansman, chair of Momentum, the Corbyn supporters’ faction, thinks it can organise large numbers to sign up, expect the NEC to set a low fee, like the controversial £3 in 2015; otherwise, expect the NEC to drive new sign-ups to full-price membership.
Then there are about 100,000 affiliated supporters – trade unionists and members of socialist societies who aren’t full party members but who have opted in to a vote in leadership elections. They were more pro-Corbyn last time, and are not included in YouGov’s panel of Labour members.
The other big unknowns are the nominating process and the nature of the leadership campaign. The big threshold for entering the contest is no longer the number of MPs that a candidate can line up behind them. They need the support of just 10 per cent of their colleagues to get on the ballot paper, which is 21 MPs (unless the NEC decides to close nominations before 31 January, in which case candidates will need 22 MPs or MEPs, who will still be sitting in the European parliament).
The choke point for nominations is that candidates also need one of the big unions – Unite, Unison, GMB, Usdaw or CWU – or 33 constituency parties, which requires a strong grassroots organisation.
So I would expect only Starmer, Long Bailey, Phillips and Lisa Nandy to make it on to the ballot paper. Cooper has already “told friends” she won’t run. Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, has suffered by being seen as disloyal to Corbyn. Neither Clive Lewis nor Ian Lavery fills an obvious gap, while Dan Jarvis, mayor of Sheffield city region and still a low-profile MP, fills a rather too obvious one, standing for “a clean break with the past and a fresh start”.
Phillips and Nandy need their campaigns to catch fire, which seems a little more likely with Phillips, but otherwise it already looks like a straight fight between Starmer and Long Bailey. So far, Long Bailey has been invisible, apart from a shockingly poor article in The Guardian, feeding speculation that she doesn’t really want to run and is being pushed into it by the Corbynite core group.
Things might become interesting if she pulled out and paved the way for her friend Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, to run for leader instead of (or as well as) for deputy.
But otherwise, boring normal politics is going to reassert itself and Keir Starmer is going to be a boring, normal and probably quite effective leader of the opposition.