Keir Starmer picked a fight in an empty room – and lost. Which is a measure of how unsuited he is to the rougher side of politics. The Corbynites had marginalised themselves, giving the Labour leader complete control of the party machine, and yet Starmer managed to offend the trade union leaders who were ready to support him.
Thus he has been forced to abandon his proposal to return to the leadership election rules as they were before Ed Miliband changed them. To grasp the full extent of Starmer's folly, we have to remember that Miliband changed the rules because he was embarrassed by the way he was elected leader; he won thanks to the support of trade union leaders when the party members and MPs preferred his brother.
As the general election approached, Miliband feared the Conservative line that he was in the pocket of the unions, and the fuss about Unite's involvement in the selection of a candidate for the Falkirk by-election prompted him to abolish the three-part electoral college, thus reducing the influence of the unions (and that of MPs as well).
This week Starmer suddenly announced that he wanted to go back to the electoral college, but the union leaders – who would thereby have been given more influence over leadership elections – rejected it because they hadn't been consulted and hadn't been presented with good reasons for making the change.
No one likes the slick presentational arts in politics, but this is taking things too far in the opposite direction. Starmer has managed to start his annual conference with a self-inflicted defeat on an issue no one can understand, while he will probably secure the change to the rules that really matters, namely to make it harder for Labour MPs to be deselected by their local parties.
I was told that Starmer was "absolutely clear and determined" to get his proposals through, "or something like" them, which suggested that he wasn't clear and that he was determined only to make a mess of them.
None of which matters much to the median voter, but it will have a trickle-down effect. Journalists are writing it up as a misstep, and most of the Labour Party is unimpressed. The Corbynites were going to shout betrayal from the sidelines anyway, but the majority of delegates to the conference, who want Starmer to succeed, will have their morale undermined.
This is the second time that Starmer has revealed his inexperience in the business of raw politics. He mishandled his attempt to demote Angela Rayner , the deputy Labour leader, after poor results in the local elections and defeat in the Hartlepool by-election in May. "I hold my ground about everything," she said in an interview published this morning , in which she also said she would "step up" to be leader "if I felt that it was the right thing to do".
Not that the party has reached the point where it believes that she or anyone else would do a better job than the incumbent. But Starmer has already used up the two great qualities that gave him a good start as leader. Not being Jeremy Corbyn is a big advantage, but it only gets him so far. Equally, being a credible prime minister , capable of making decisions in office – and better decisions than Boris Johnson would make – is an important qualification, but if Starmer cannot win an election first, that's no use. If he cannot manage his own party, if he loses power struggles of his own choosing, and if he cannot inspire a campaign against this government, then he is in trouble.
Even last year, when the opinion polls put Labour and Tories neck and neck, and Starmer was preferred to Johnson as prime minister, that happened only because the government was thought to be handling the pandemic badly. If shortages become more acute this winter, inflation starts to take off, the NHS becomes more inaccessible and taxes go up, Starmer might recover some ground by default.
It may be that the Labour Party will stand uneasily by a leader who can win only if the Conservatives self-destruct. It may be that it will recognise that Starmer has not been given an easy task. Even if he had Tony Blair's charisma and political skill, Starmer doesn't have Blair's historic opportunity: an exhausted and divided Conservative government, and a country that wanted to balance Thatcherism with compassion.
Starmer, by contrast, faces a Conservative government that has used Brexit to renew itself in power, and to which Labour does not seem to offer a significantly different alternative. What would a Starmer government do about shortages, the NHS and tax? It would have slightly more egalitarian priorities, but Starmer has made a clear choice to reject the implication of shadow business secretary Ed Miliband's book, Go Big .
Starmer's top team of Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, and Anneliese Dodds, in charge of policy, intend to compete with the government for being trusted with the public finances. That is not what the delegates want to hear in Brighton over the next few days. And the leader's mishandling of party rule changes will make it harder for him to tell them.
When Starmer declared in his Fabian Society pamphlet this week that "our country is now at a crossroads", he may not have realised that he would come to a personal crossroads first.
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