Jeremy Corbyn's slaying shows Labour has changed but Keir Starmer knows there is still much to do

15 February 2023, 17:35

Ben Kentish analyses the fallout from Starmer's slaying of Jeremy Corbyn
Ben Kentish analyses the fallout from Starmer's slaying of Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Global

By Ben Kentish

When Keir Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn in April 2020, he had to show that Labour had changed, not just slightly, not just in the short-term, but radically, fundamentally and irrevocably.

It did not take a political genius to see that. The party had just been trounced at the general election, handing the Conservatives their biggest parliamentary majority since 1987. Labour’s vote collapsed, delivering its lowest number of seats in any election since 1935. Internal divisions were threatening to destroy it from within.

At the time, the uncertainty was not over whether change was needed, but whether Starmer had the skill, the determination and the political capital to deliver it.

Almost three years on, that question has been decisively answered. Labour today is a drastically different party to the one that Starmer inherited. He and his supporters have control of virtually all parts of the Labour apparatus. The party’s policies on everything from NATO and the EU to public services and student fees have changed beyond recognition. The Labour left, so powerful during the Corbyn years, has been driven back to the fringes.

There has been another major change – one that Starmer understandably wanted to highlight during a speech in East London. The antisemitism crisis that engulfed Labour during the Corbyn years has been largely (though not entirely) put to bed. The scourge of anti-Jewish sentiment that had dogged the party was an evil that desperately needed tackling. It was also a vital first step to winning back the thousands of Jewish voters and their allies who had abandoned Labour in its droves.

But it was more than that. From the off, Starmer and his team knew that tackling Labour’s antisemitism problem was key to demonstrating a wider and deeper change in his party. It was a totemic issue. In the minds of millions of voters, the way that anti-Jewish sentiment had erupted in the party under Corbyn symbolised that there was something fundamentally wrong with the it – something that they should not trust.

That’s why Starmer, from his very first speech as leader, made stamping out antisemitism in Labour his top priority. It was the start of a process of rebuilding trust with the Jewish community, but also with the wider electorate. If Labour could prove it had changed on this issue, people would see it had changed on others too.

Starmer’s plan to reform and rebuild has worked. Most polls give Labour a lead of around 20 points over the Tories, and Starmer’s personal ratings are much better than his predecessor’s. As things stand, he is on course to be our next prime minister.

And yet, as Starmer himself put it this morning: “The job of restoring Labour is not complete. Not even close.”

Senior Labour figures still believe that the party is suffering from what they call long Corbyn – the fact that people still associate Labour with its firebrand former leader. There are still doubts in many voters’ minds about whether the party has truly changed, and whether it can be trusted not to revert to type once in government. Starmer’s team know they have work to do between now and the general election to dispel these concerns.

In doing so, they will need to accept that, while much of the remaining concern about Labour is a hangover from its former leader, there are also doubts around the current one.

When it comes to trust, Starmer’s own readiness to radically change his position, to break pledges and to say one thing and then later say something quite different, is also surely part of why Labour still has work to do to convince people that the party he has built in opposition is the same party that would continue if it were in power.

To be sure that Labour will not revert to a former incarnation once in office, people need to believe that they can trust Keir Starmer to stick to his promises and stick to his word. And his previous record on this is questionable. He spent months lobbying for a second Brexit referendum but has now adopted a more Eurosceptic position than most in his party would like. He campaigned for the leadership promising to nationalise public services and bring back EU freedom of movement, and pretty quickly ditched those pledges once (among others) once elected.

And then there is the fact that he served under Jeremy Corbyn and campaigned for him to become prime minister, but now thinks the former leader shouldn’t even be a Labour MP.The Tories have often attacked Starmer over his previous backing for Corbyn, you can be sure that will only increase as the election edges closer.

Today, Starmer said people were “rightly appalled” by Labour under Corbyn’s leadership. But he himself was a prominent figure in the party at the time and at no point felt the need to step down from its top team. When pressed on this by journalists this morning, he struggled to find a compelling response.

This is a problem for Labour, because it fuels doubts in some voters’ minds about who Keir Starmer really is, what he believes in and whether he is someone they can trust. This could be partially resolved if his team can find a way to better define him as a man and as a leader. Currently, some Labour MPs fear that, in his determination to change the party, their leader has spent so long defining himself in terms of what he is against that there is still a lack of clarity about what he is for. The finding from one pollster that the most comment phrase when voters are asked what they make of Starmer is “Don’t Know” will - and should - worry Labour strategists.

Starmer has had astonishing success in transforming his party and its fortunes in less than three years – defying most predictions about what was possible, even from within his inner circle. His task now is to convince the British public that these changes are deep-rooted and irreversible – that, if voters place their trust in him, it is the Starmer of 2023, not the Starmer of 2019, that they will get in Downing Street. That part of the plan is not yet complete. When it comes to that crucial political currency of trust, Starmer knows he will need more in the bank by the time Britain finally goes to the polls.