In the annals of British political history, the ghosts of leaders past often linger, casting shadows that echo across the decades. As Labour approaches its centenary since Ramsay MacDonald assumed the role of the party’s first prime minister in 1924, Keir Starmer finds himself in a delicate dance to avoid the spectre of his predecessor.
The echoes of the past resonate in peculiar ways. Cartoonists once needed only a luxuriant moustache to ridicule or condemn a Labour leader, attaching the ominous label of the “new Ramsay MacDonald.” However, in the current political landscape, the name “Keir MacStarmer” holds no historical weight, and Starmer fervently wishes to keep it that way.
Keir Hardie, the saintly founder of the Labour Party, stands in stark contrast to MacDonald, the man accused of betraying the very party he helped establish. Starmer, named after the principled Hardie and not the controversial MacDonald, seeks to lead a Labour Party that distances itself from past betrayals.
A historical parallel emerges in the form of inexperience. In 1924, MacDonald’s Labour government faced challenges due to the lack of ministerial experience among its ranks. Similarly, if Labour secures victory in 2024, Starmer would assume the role of prime minister without prior governmental experience. The comparison highlights the unusual trajectory of modern political leaders like Tony Blair and David Cameron, who also took on the role without previous ministerial office.
Yet, the Conservatives aim to draw a different parallel – that of age and past experiences. Starmer, like MacDonald, faces accusations of personal weakness and potential detachment from the working class. The epithet “Sir Keir,” coupled with his background as a metropolitan barrister, invites comparisons to MacDonald’s alleged abandonment of the working classes in favour of an aristocratic embrace.
The Conservatives, masters of political messaging, plan to capitalize on Starmer’s legal background, branding him a “human rights lawyer” in an attempt to provoke discomfort in traditional Labour strongholds. The tabloid press has already initiated an examination of Starmer’s legal career, drawing parallels with the tactics employed against MacDonald in 1924.
Drawing further parallels with the past, the Conservatives seek to plant seeds of doubt through unfounded claims regarding Starmer’s role in the CPS decision to drop the case against sex offender Jimmy Savile. This strategy mirrors the tabloid press’s attempts in 1924 to associate MacDonald falsely with Bolshevik politician Grigory Zinoviev.
While historical parallels offer intriguing insights, the circumstances surrounding the elections of 1924 and a potential 2024 victory for Labour differ significantly. Stanley Baldwin’s decision to call an election in 1923 and Theresa May’s similar move in 2017 both led to a loss of majority. Baldwin’s rationale, fearing the dynamic David Lloyd George, aimed to replace the Liberals with Labour as the second party of government.
Starmer, however, holds a powerful campaigning message in “time for a change.” The Labour prospectus for 2024, characterized by moderation, seeks to overcome imagined histories and dispel the notion that Labour governments inevitably lead to crises. The party faces the challenge of reshaping public perception and countering the Conservatives’ narrative that aims to pigeonhole Labour governments into a predetermined mold.
As the echoes of history reverberate, Keir Starmer navigates the delicate balance of embracing change while avoiding the pitfalls of the past. The centennial challenge for Labour lies in crafting a narrative that resonates with voters, assuring them that the party has evolved and can govern effectively in the 21st century.