Before the resumption of its civil war yesterday, the Labour party, largely thanks to the heroics of Andy Burnham, was actually having a pretty good month where leadership is concerned.
The Greater Manchester mayor’s barnstorming press conferences in October were, on the surface, about opposing tier 3 restrictions for his city and securing a decent financial support package from a grudging Tory government. But the response to Burnham’s soapbox moment quickly developed into something bigger.
“Suddenly, inexplicably, we all fancy Andy Burnham”, ran a breathless Vogue headline last week. More obliquely, Burnham’s claim that “the north is fed up of being pushed around” has revitalised the cause of northern regionalism, after a short period when it seemed to many, myself included, that the north-south divide was being replaced by a more nuanced political geography.
But the key takeaway from Burnham’s star turn relates to the question of political style. Put simply, from his supple Warrington accent to his caretaker-manager aesthetic – and most of all his willingness to voice collective grievances with visceral passion – Burnham demonstrated a populist touch sadly lacking from the Labour frontline in recent months.
Given that Burnham was schooled in the slick managerial tradition of New Labour, his latest incarnation is something of a surprise. Indeed, his newfound knack for rabble-rousing and departing from the PR script (as when he slapped down Tory MP Johnny Mercer for claiming that everything “seems OK” in a week of surging death totals and the school meals controversy) contrasts starkly with the so-called sensible Labour approach, one of the main, unfortunate hangovers from the Blair years.
This political tendency – much mocked by leftists on social media – is based on the idea that radical upheavals of the last decade can be countered through a revival of the moderate values of third way liberalism. In this view, Labour simply has to rediscover a bit of Blairite balance and it will quickly manage to defeat the rise of populism (a notoriously slippery term) and claw back its pre-2010 electoral hegemony.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it belongs to another, less turbulent era. From the 1990s through to the 2008 financial crisis, the world was certainly not, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously argued, approaching the “end of history”. Nevertheless, centrist governments throughout much of the west were able to maintain broad stability in this period against a backdrop of economic expansion, relative domestic calm and unchecked US control of the international order.
But fast forward to our own era of recurrent economic crises, geopolitical uncertainty and chaos wrought by an unforgiving pandemic, and the possibility of an easy return to the old centrist consensus seems utterly implausible.
Inattentive to such historical contexts, the Labour party is currently being held back by a misguided belief that appearing businesslike and middle-of-the-road will recapture some of the electoral magic of the Y2K years and reverse the losses it suffered on Jeremy Corbyn’s watch. Perhaps mindful of the example being set by the Democrats in the US, where Joe Biden looks likely to defeat a frenzied incumbent simply by appearing as a responsible adult, the party’s ideas under Keir Starmer seem to begin and end with announcing “A New Leadership” founded on rather basic notions of trust and security.
In suspending Corbyn in the wake of the EHRC report, Starmer demonstrated a latent killer instinct and ruthlessness that contrasts with his mostly Biden-like approach in media appearances and tussles with Boris Johnson, where he often poses as a patient, lawyerly alternative to a disorderly, incompetent Tory government.
But Johnson is not Donald Trump, and relying on a “safe pair of hands” strategy – of the kind that appears to be working for Biden – is unlikely to bag Labour the 130-odd seats it needs to gain a working majority at the next general election. Despite the fact that Labour under Starmer has closed the gap in opinion polls after the dire figures of early 2020, the party is still only neck-and-neck with Johnson’s Tories, or more often a point or two behind (about equal to what it averaged in 2018 under Corbyn).
To put this into historical perspective, six months after he became Labour leader, Ed Miliband enjoyed a poll lead of around 5-10 points, and he still went on to lose the 2015 election with a lower vote share and around a million fewer votes than Corbyn in 2019. More pertinently, six months into his leadership, in the mid-1990s golden age that fuels the “sensible” Labour worldview, Blair was pulling ahead of John Major’s ailing Tory government by around 30 and sometimes over 40 points.
Polls are polls, but all of this suggests that a more impassioned and charismatic leadership style will be necessary if Labour is to have any hope of slashing the Tory majority any time this decade. If Labour is not coming close to the sort of sizeable poll lead that has historically been necessary for it to win power, in a context of considerable chaos and lurking resentment against the Tories, the party will need to think very seriously about an urgent change of direction.
Perhaps Starmer will surprise us all and become a dynamic popular leader rather than just a clinical justice. But it is difficult to escape the suspicion that both the current Labour leader and his support base are simply too stuck in the small-c conservative mindset of sensible Labour – buttressed by the recent failure of the more radical Corbyn experiment – to discover the vitality and verve they will need for electoral breakthrough, in a country where the odds are always stacked against Labour success.
For a host of reasons, not least because he doesn’t have a parliamentary seat, Burnham will not be mounting a leadership challenge any time soon. But his public and social media appearances this month have at least pointed to an alternative to the dated, senescent mode Labour seems to have fallen back into during the course of 2020.
Instinctive, energetic, genuinely populist, and with a natural understanding of the northern communities that Labour desperately needs to recapture en masse: what might be called “Burnhamism” should play a central role in the party’s campaign to reinvent and revive itself in the coming years.
• Alex Niven is a lecturer in English literature at Newcastle University and the author of New Model Island