New Progressives

Tuesday 1st June 2021

by Patrick Sullivan, Chairman and Chief Executive of Parliament Street

“The language of party is eloquent and famous for being grand at illustration; but it is equally well known that much of it gives humble ideas of the speaker, probably because of the naughty temper party is prone to; which, whilst endowing it with vehemence, lessens the stout circumferential view that should be taken, at least historically. Indeed, though we admit party to be the soundest method for

conducting us, party talk soon expends its attractiveness as would a summer’s afternoon given up to the contemplation of an encounter of rams’ heads”

–      George Meredith, Beauchamp’s Career (1875)

“‘It goes back to my old paradox’ – the Master again. ‘When you first arrive in power, you have maximum authority. You are the people’s choice. You have momentum. The wind at your back. But you don’t know how to do anything. By the time you’ve learned the lessons, worked out where the levers are and how to use them, sucked up all the tricks of survival, then ten to one your authority has gone.

You’ve become discredited, disgraced, or merely boring. It’s all over. You can have either wisdom or power, but never both at the same time. So my question is this: under such an arrangement, how can a serious democracy ever be properly run?’”

–     Andrew Marr, Children of the Master (2015)

“I remember exactly where I was on the evening of the day Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader John Smith died. I was having an after-work pint outside the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster with Patrick Rock. The news had been shocking and tragic, but the political implications were clear. We looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, ‘That’s it. Tony Blair will become leader and we’re stuffed.’”

–     David Cameron, On the Record (2019)

From the outset, as Leader of the Opposition, Sir. Keir Starmer embraced his role as one of being an attack dog. Unfortunately, for the new opposition leader no one on his staff thought to remind him of Churchill’s old adage about liking a man who grins when he fights. Humour is an important tool in a politician’s utility belt and its use can keep them from appearing negative and nasty when on the offensive. Unfortunately, for the Labour Party, Starmer seems to lack both humour and charm. The Westminster Village consensus is that Starmer just is not likeable enough to win the premiership from opposition. Britain has had “gray” prime ministers before, but they almost always inherited the crown whilst their party was in government.

         An example of Starmer’s lack of political finesse is that he kept on over the issue of the Downing Street flat refurbishment after Boris Johnson had announced that he was going to pay the costs. If he had been more savvy, he would have taken credit for making Johnson pay the bill and made a joke about literally making Boris Johnson pay (for his flat refurbishment) since becoming leader. It would have been a cheap but cheerful applause line for his party faithful and would have actually gotten under the Prime Minister’s skin. Instead, he sought to prosecute a case against the Prime Minister after the public had lost interest. Sir Keir should’ve learnt when to declare victory but, evidently, he has not. Starmer would have been better advised not to focus on the legalisms which cause busy people’s eyes to glaze over. ‘Electoral Commission investigation’ sounds like more Westminster Village jibber-jabber to be frank.  Most Brits don’t give a monkey’s over whether some muppet with too much money was willing to pay for the flat refurb. Voters would care if they had been asked to pay for it but they weren’t – so essentially the general response to that part of that story has been, whatever, so long as it is not being done with their money.

          If I were in Sir Keir’s shoes, I would keep the focus on the reason for the refurb being “Theresa May’s John Lewis nightmare” and ham it up a bit, because it has cut through in middle England; the idea that John Lewis furniture is not posh enough for Boris Johnson. For most people, John Lewis is posh. Talk about insulting your supporters! 

        Although it might have made him feel better about himself, Sir Keir’s attempts to make political capital out of the Prime Minister’s baggage have failed to yield him any positive results. Furthermore, he should be extremely concerned that he is yet to face any serious pushback from Mr Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions because whilst “Boris” might have more baggage than the airlines, Sir Keir has a record as Director of the Crown Prosecution Service which at some point will surely prove a gold mine for any opposition researcher worth their salt.

       Throughout his career, Sir Keir has been in the position of being the hunter and whilst Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, he came to expect the deference that came with being placed on that pedestal. Those who come from professional backgrounds where they have unconditionally commanded respect often find themselves ill-suited to frontline politics. For even the most successful politicians the catchphrase of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield encapsulates their career, “I tell ya, I don’t get no respect.”.

      Observing the lay of the land today, Sir. Keir’s advisors ought to tell him to brace himself for an onslaught of negative headlines courtesy of anyone who has reason to feel a sense of grievance towards him. The roles will suddenly reverse and the prosecutor will find himself in the unusual role of being the prosecuted. The court in which Starmer will find himself has not traditionally been kind to Labour Party leaders. That is the court of public opinion.

      Smart phones would have once been considered the stuff of science fiction. In the 1980s, when people imagined the modern era, they thought we would have flying cars and hoverboards despite neither being particularly practical. The advent of smart phones fundamentally changed how politicians communicate with the electorate. As we crossed that bridge to the 21st century, our Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition stopped being living room candidates with whom voters would catch up with at the end of the day during a half hour television news broadcast. Suddenly, the public had politicians in their pockets, living rent-free in each voter’s smart phone of choice. Big name politicians became omnipresent in their lives – sometimes popping up in news blasts on their electronic devices, multiple times a day. Likability had been an important dimension of politics in the analogue era but in the broadband digital democracy we find ourselves in today, its importance has increased a thousand-fold. Sir Keir Starmer just isn’t likable enough.

Sir Keir Starmer is not going anywhere. At least, not yet. If Labour loses the seat of Batley and Spen in the upcoming parliamentary by-election there will be loud voices in the media calling for him to go. However, it is incredibly difficult to push a Labour leader out of office. Normally it is required that they jump. Casting our minds back just a little while to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, we saw then how nigh on impossible it is for a successful coup d’etat to be launched against a sitting leader of the Labour Party. If someone wanted to challenge Starmer they would need the written support of at least 20% of sitting Labour MPs in order to force such a contest. Even then, if they were able to overcome that steep hurdle, they would have to face off against Starmer in that contest as he would automatically be on the ballot, which would be sent to all Labour Party members. Whilst all this would be going on Boris Johnson would effectively have little to no opposition and that is something Labour MPs do not want to see happen. Labour backbenchers were willing to move (unsuccessfully) against Corbyn in 2016 because they viewed him as an interloper which is not a charge that could be levelled against Sir Keir.

       When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, he was primarily treated as a come-from-nowhere candidate who had spent his career lingering on the backbenches. However, he was in actual fact a key player in stirring up internal Labour Party dissent regarding Tony Blair’s advocacy for taking military action against Saddam Hussain.

       Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the steering committee of the Stop The War coalition in October 2001, less than a month after the unspeakable tragedy that was the September attack of 2001. Contrary to popular opinion, the Stop The War coalition was formed not to oppose the Iraq war, but the war in Afghanistan, the country harbouring the terrorist Osama Bin Laden who had masterminded the evil attacks.

       Corbyn was elected chair of the Stop The War coalition in September 2011, a position he only relinquished when ascending to the Labour Party leadership only four years later. As a result of Ed Miliband’s change in the Labour leadership election rules, a large proportion of those involved in the Stop The War coalition joined to support their chairman. As such, the Labour Party was taken over by an organisation whose membership had swelled in 2003 in direct opposition to former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s foreign policy. It is from this that came the anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism that has so poisoned the party of Her Majesty’s opposition under Corbyn’s leadership.

       To view Corbyn as existing in some line of succession from previous Labour socialists such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, would be doing them a great disservice. The tradition which Mr Corbyn represents is something altogether far more sinister. He managed a hostile takeover of the Labour Party that was so complete that had he not stepped down following the shellacking his party received at the ballot box, he would likely have survived another leadership challenge and still be leading the Labour Party today.

      The seeds for Jeremy Corbyn’s successful 2015 campaign for the Labour Party leadership were sown when Tony Blair decided stand shoulder-to-shoulder with George W. Bush by taking the country to war with Iraq. It seems poetic that the Corbyn leadership might well have created the conditions for Tony Blair to re-enter frontline British politics. Jeremy Corbyn, as leader, managed to cause fractures in Labour’s façade which would be nigh on impossible for Keir Starmer to repair.

Jeremy did better in the 2017 election than expected mostly as a result of Theresa May’s abysmal mismanagement of the expectations game. At the outset of that election, most voters were expecting the Tories to romp home with a majority, similar to New Labour’s 1997 majority. Because these voters did not think Corbyn had a hope in hell of becoming prime minister and because of Mrs May’s lack of charisma, the general election became not about the party leaders, but instead about who should represent each constituency in Parliament, effectively becoming a series of concurrent by-elections in every seat across the nation. Voters with a good constituency Labour MP felt inclined to support that MP because they thought it would have no impact on was to go on to govern the country. In addition to that, Corbyn did manage to mobilise a base of previously disaffected hard left-wingers in the country, adding to the existing Labour coalition.

 In 2019, because Mr Corbyn had become perilously close to becoming prime minister in the previous general election, voters were focussed on who they wanted as prime minister and constituency representation was much further down their list of priorities. This resulted in Labour getting the worst result since 1935. Corbyn also blundered in not taking control of the People’s Vote campaign in late 2018, with the Conservative Party in disarray over Brexit, he could have moved to solidify the pro-Brexit forces on the left and although not making up a majority of the country; no party gets over 50 per cent of the vote. If he had been able to unite the Remain forces behind his leadership, he would have had close to 48 percent and possibly been able to replicate the success of the SNP in Scotland, who lost a referendum, but won a country. Furthermore, he could have delivered a decisive blow to the Conservatives because there were enough Remainers in the Conservatives, that if the Labour party had swung behind a People’s Vote, there could have been a second referendum, which would likely have split the Tory Party in much the same way as the Corn Laws did in 1846.

Jeremy Corbyn did not exploit Theresa May’s leadership because he himself was a weak leader. This created a vacuum into which entered Nigel Farage, who by the law of unintended consequences has shown to politicians such as Tony Blair that the barriers to entry for a new political party are much lower than they were in the early 1980s when the SDP was born. A leader with nationwide name recognition which Mr Farage had was able to sweep the board in the 2019 European elections. The reason Change UK failed was in part because outside of Westminster, nobody knew who the hell they were. It was the success of the Brexit Party which forced the Tories to ditch May and bring in Johnson. Corbyn misplaying his hand was to the benefit of Boris Johnson who was smart enough to know that he wasn’t smart enough to deal with all these problems, so he brought in Dominic Cummings who played a blinder. Because Farage had managed to get Brexit supporting Labour voters to vote for them in the European elections, he had decoupled them from their lifetime support of the Labour Party and began the first step in the two-step process to voting Conservative.

        Just because something was right once does not mean it will always be thus. The once solid Labour heartland voted to leave the European Union, it then voted for the Brexit Party to reaffirm that vote, and then in December 2019 much of it voted Conservative to “get Brexit done”. It was the “Red Wall” seats that delivered Johnson his substantial majority and which provided a strong electoral rebuke of Corbyn’s Labour Party. The overwhelming majority of the formerly lifelong Labour voters who bolted the party in 2018-2019 did not do so because they wanted to reject the Labour Party but because they felt the Labour Party rejected them and their voices. Labour had taken its base in Scotland for granted and, at the 2015 General Election, the SNP proved that Labour’s support in Scotland had been a mile wide and an inch deep.

At the 2019 General Election, Boris Johnson, following the strategy of Dominic Cummings, showed that Labour had taken their “Red Wall” for granted as the Conservatives swept a majority of those seats, many of which had stuck by the Labour Party even when it was led by Michael Foot whose 1983 General Election Manifesto fellow Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history.” Although, one could argue it was the one-time Labour stood for Brexit as it pledged that if elected, a Labour government would take Britain out of what was then called the European Economic Community. Following the result of the Hartlepool by-election, Tony Blair wrote an opinion editorial in the New Statesman:

“Progressive politicians open to the scale of the challenge and the change are to be found in the ranks of the politically homeless. Without the diverting drama of speculation around new political parties we need a new progressive movement; a new progressive agenda; and the construction of a new governing coalition.”

The almost constant use of the phrase “progressive” is of particular interest.

In 1912 because former President Theodore Roosevelt was unhappy with his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft. Colonel Roosevelt (he preferred the prefix associated to his military rank be used after he left the presidency) decided to launch a third party bid against Taft. This split was an aberration and was only possible due to the one-of-a-kind political personality that was Theodore Roosevelt; because the public was willing to view him as president because he had already been president, an advantage that no third party had had before. Today, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair was unhappy with his successor as Labour Party leader and was generally unhappy with the direction of his party. Because of the mess created by Corbyn and because of Brexit decoupling liberal progressive conservatives from the Conservative Party, there is a gap in the political market.

Blair uses the word progressive so many times in his New Statesman piece that this author cannot help but wonder if he has been reading about Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 bid and whether he planned on doing a TR and setting up a progressive party of his own. By saying he isn’t setting up a party, he hasn’t committed himself to doing so, so if he doesn’t take the plunge he won’t be regarded as a bottler like Gordon Brown was when he didn’t call a general election in his first year as leader of the Labour Party. I can well imagine that Mr Blair has learnt from the Farage pop up party example with the Brexit party and plans to pounce if Johnson’s support collapses, but Starmer’s does not pick up.

Theodore Roosevelt came very close to the presidency in 1912 and doubtless would have won if social media had been around at the time. The incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, finished third with 23.2% of the popular vote and 8 Electoral College votes, the Progressive Party candidate, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, came second with 27.4% of the popular vote and 88 Electoral College votes, and the Democratic Party candidate, Governor Woodrow Wilson, was elected as 28th President of the United States with 41.8% of the popular vote and 435 Electoral College votes.

Whilst liberal progressives like Blair can find inspiration in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 third party run for the presidency, there is much that conservative populists can learn also. Although he was speaking about the two-party system in America in 1912 this section from T.R.’s speech “The Right of the People to Rule” given earlier this year is equally applicable to the British two-party system today:

“Then there is the direct primary-the real one, not the New York one-and that, too, the Progressives offer as a check on the special interests. Most clearly of all does it seem to me that this change is wholly good-for every State. The system of party government is not written in our Constitutions, but it is none the less a vital and essential part of our form of government. In that system the party leaders should serve and carry out the will of their own party. There is no need to show how far that theory is from the facts, or to rehearse the vulgar thieving partnerships of the corporations and the bosses, or to show how many times the real government lies in the hands of the boss, protected from the commands and the revenge of the voters by his puppets in office and the power of patronage. We need not be told how he is thus intrenched nor how hard he is to overthrow. The facts stand out in the history of nearly every State in the Union. They are blots on our political system. The direct primary will give the voters a method ever ready to use, by which the party leader shall be made to obey their command. The direct primary, if accompanied by a stringent corrupt-practices act, will help break up the corrupt partnership of corporations and politicians.”

The silent majority are not aware that the nations great political parties are not owned by them. They must be made aware. The gridlock over Brexit in the 2017-2019 Parliament showed them that rather whilst there were some outstanding MPs, most of them could not be fairly said to represent the best and the brightest in this country.

Dominic Cummings said last Wednesday that both the Conservative and Labour parties had failed the British public by offering them the choice of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson at the last election. If Keir Starmer continues to fail his launch as Labour party leader, expect him to remain as Labour Party leader, but do not be surprised if the British public are not offered a third way in 2024 with Blair leading the new progressives (as opposed to New Labour). The liberal progressives who hate Brexit are never going to vote for Boris Johnson, but if Boris Johnson tries to win over these voters that just don’t like him, as opposed to dancing with the voters that brought him to Number 10, then he can expect them to stay home in 2024 and find himself a casualty of the age of realignment.

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