The problem is bigger than Keir Starmer – Labour's centrists have run out of ideas

These ought to be good times for the British centre left. A divisive Tory government is running into trouble. The Labour left has been marginalised. The Liberal Democrats are still recovering from their disastrous decisions in office. Across the western world, from France and Spain to Canada and the United States, politicians of the centre and centre left are in power.

Meanwhile rightwing populist regimes have performed particularly badly during the pandemic. After an exhausting, polarised few years, it is possible to believe that politics is entering a quieter, more centrist phase.

But not in Britain. Even in mid-term, and with mounting problems, the Conservatives lead Labour in the polls. Even worse, Labour has few memorable policies, an indistinct political identity and little sense of momentum. With its annual conference starting this weekend, outside interest in the party is mostly confined to the question of whether it can mount a fightback. Such a scenario – welcome though it would be – is a long way from preparing for power.

Labour’s critics inside and outside the party like to blame Keir Starmer, and it’s easy to see why. The leader’s limited political experience and stiff public persona, his narrow circle of advisers and messy party management, his disproportionate emphasis on voters in the so-called red wall, and his failure to say clearly what he stands for: all these are convincing explanations for Labour’s underperformance. Starmer’s publication of a long essay this week, to try to set out his vision for the party and the country is an acknowledgement that his leadership needs yet another relaunch.

Related: Keir Starmer’s words – and what they mean for Labour

But the focus on his mistakes and flaws misses a much bigger problem. Over the past 20 years, ever since Tony Blair’s government peaked – around the time of his final landslide victory, in 2001 – the British centre left has failed to renew itself.

The failure is especially stark because New Labour regarded the ability to change as one of the most important political skills, and prioritised “reconnecting the party to the modern world”, as Blair put it in his memoirs. However dated and discredited his project may look now, New Labour and its intellectual allies did engage seriously with how Britain and the world were changing during the 1990s. Yet since then, despite dominating Labour’s parliamentary party and bureaucracy, and receiving much more media support than the party’s other factions, New Labour’s descendants have failed to update their politics – to “modernise”, in Blairite language.

Instead of coming up with new and compelling ideas to address big contemporary issues, such as the accelerating problems of capitalism, the rise of identity politics and the sharply diverging economic interests of the young and old, Labour centrists have turned inward. Rather than also seeking to understand and shape society, they have become increasingly fixated on shaping their party.

This week Starmer announced surprise plans to change how Labour elects its leaders, makes policy and reselects its MPs – all of which would reduce the influence of party members. The plans seem an unsubtle attempt to weaken the left – which is still strong in the membership – but equally striking is their introspectiveness. While the worst Tory government for decades runs amok, Labour is fiddling with its rulebook, creating a controversy that threatens to become the main story of the party conference.

There is something perfectionist and self-defeating about this centrist desire for control. Since Blair stood down in 2007, three of Labour’s four leaders have come from the centre left – Starmer, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown. Yet all three have been criticised by New Labour purists, including Blair himself, for not being centrist enough. As it was with Thatcher and her remaining disciples after her ejection from office in 1990, no one who heads the party after the great leader is ever seen as quite good enough.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was also treated by the centrists as a time for in-fighting – rather than for reflecting on the fact that his rise was a symptom of centrism’s problems, such as its inability to speak for the young. On the rare occasions the centre-left did present an alternative vision – the leadership challenge to Corbyn by Owen Smith in 2016, the breakaway from Labour by the Independent Group in 2019 – the absence of fresh policies was telling.

This contrasted with the profusion of plans for government produced by Corbyn’s advisers and shadow cabinet. This policy glut proved too much for many voters at the 2019 election. But even then, Corbyn’s vote was still bigger than Blair, Brown and Miliband had won between 2005 and 2015. The collapse of Corbynism hid the continuing decline of Labour centrism.

Starmer’s essay does show some awareness that the centre left needs to change. Compared with the clever but euphemistic manifestos produced by New Labour, his language is blunter and his critique of the status quo harsher. He writes about “completely rethinking where power lies in our country”. There is also a new emphasis on rebalancing the relationship between workers and employers. Starmer seems to appreciate that Britain is much more unequal and troubled than during the Blair era, and that the kind of modest economic reforms New Labour promised and enacted will no longer be enough – even if he doesn’t often specify what a Starmer government would do instead.

There are a few similar, equally belated concessions to radicalism in another ambitious centre-left document published this week: Rebuilding Labour and the Nation, from the thinktank Progressive Britain (a new incarnation of the old Blairite organisation Progress). Behind its standard centrist claim that Labour can win only by appealing to “soft Tory” voters, the report also recommends that the party make “a bold offer on the environment”, to appeal to “voters on Labour’s left, who have been flirting with the Green party”. Until now, Labour centrists have complacently assumed such voters had nowhere else to go.

But anyone hoping that the centre left is finally modernising shouldn’t get too excited. Much of Starmer’s essay and Rebuilding Labour is devoted to wearily familiar centrist themes: the need for the party to be patriotic and pro-family,; to value community and “people who work hard”, and to be tougher on crime. Labour leaders have been saying these things, to diminishing electoral effect, for a quarter of a century. The Conservatives say them better.

The essay’s one big idea is “the contribution society”: a clunky phrase for the Britain that Starmer wants to create, where every adult is both a contributor to, and a beneficiary of, a partnership between socially responsible business, a protective state and vibrant local democracy. It’s quite an appealing vision – until you think for a moment about how far removed it is from reality. Britain is full of competing interests. To say it can be otherwise is either naive or a deliberate evasion in order to appeal to as broad a range of voters as possible.

Under Blair, this sort of centrist talk was a sign of confidence. Under Starmer, it feels increasingly like desperation.

  • Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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