Just as Iain Duncan Smith’s election as Conservative leader in 2001 was overshadowed by 9/11 two days earlier, so the Coronavirus pandemic will overshadow Keir Starmer’s almost certain election on Saturday as Labour’s leader. Yet it will be an important moment for the party and for British politics; how important may depend on what he does in the hours, days at most, following his victory.
If Starmer is in any doubt about this, he should ask Neil Kinnock. Two years after he became leader in 1983, Kinnock had reason to be satisfied. He had the far Left, especially Militant, on the run. He had clawed his way to a majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee. He had a shadow cabinet pulling together. All in all, Labour seemed to have started down the long, slow road to electability.
However, Kinnock had one big regret. “I should have moved faster to sort out Walworth Road,” he told a friend two years into his leadership. (Walworth Road housed the party’s headquarters.) On becoming leader, he had prioritised the most obvious political tasks, but left the bureaucracy in place. Jim Mortimer, Labour’s left-wing general secretary, did not leave until 1985. He had two years to pursue his agenda, including defying Kinnock by openly supporting Arthur Scargill’s undemocratic decision to call the 1984 miners’ strike that was doomed from the start. As far as the party machine was concerned—and as Max Weber famously warned a century ago, controlling the bureaucracy is one of the highest political imperatives—Labour’s modernisation started not in 1983 but two years later.
The lesson for Starmer is clear. Taking command of the party machine is at least as urgent as holding the government to account on coronavirus or the trade (non-) talks with the European Union. And his most urgent task of all is to suspend Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, under the Labour Party rulebook. This would achieve two things in one go: it would provide a dramatic demonstration of Starmer’s authority; and it would allow him to make an immediate start on rebuilding Labour as a relevant, broad-church party able to mount an effective challenge to the government.
To Formby’s allies, this would plainly be unfair. She has loyally served the party’s duly elected leader, and should not now…