After years of Jeremy Corbyn in charge, culminating in his abysmal performance at the 2019 election, Keir Starmer’s appointment as Labour leader was greeted with a national sigh of relief. Anything’s got to be better than a man who seems mentally stuck in a 70s student union, after all.
Starmer’s performance at his first PMQs against Dominic Raab wasn’t only an improvement, it dazzled the media. The Evening Standard fawned over “the quietly terrifying force of a skilled former Chief Prosecutor assembling all the evidence and nailing it piece by damning piece to the accused”.
Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed equally impressed with his legal qualifications, describing his second PMQs with Johnson as a battle between the “lawyer and the showman”. His forensic manner has been consistently portrayed as kryptonite to Johnson’s charisma.
Should the Conservatives be worried about Starmer? The Tories’ popularity has certainly been fragile recently, due to the row over Dominic Cummings. In the week leading to May 26, Conservatives saw their lead over Labour drop from 15 to six points, according to a YouGov poll.
At the same time, an Ipsos MORI poll today suggests that Starmer is ahead of Johnson for “net favourability”. Ben Page, Chief Executive of the organisation, has said this is important as it can be a “good longer term predictor” – a statement that could concern Conservatives, as to whether the Labour leader is a credible future risk.
While it’s too early to say what the world will look like, or indeed what Labour’s manifesto will contain, at the next election, a Conservative source tells me that Starmer’s key strength is patience, adding that he “puts in the work” and “is building a case” to win back voters lost in the last election.
One of the ways Starmer has tried to enamour disenfranchised parts of the electorate is through sticking up for patriotism, telling people from Bury: “I’m really proud of my country and I wouldn’t be leader of the Labour if I wasn’t patriotic”.
This was a far cry from anything Corbyn has said, as was Starmer’s move to launch an inquiry into antisemitism days into his appointment as Labour leader, for which he received praise from Jewish leaders. He apologised for the party’s mistakes, and admitted that “we have failed the Jewish community on antisemitism.”
There’s no doubt that Starmer has moved the Labour Party in a healthier direction (not exactly difficult after Corbyn). But the question remains as to whether he really is the right person to get Labour a majority; does he have the gravitas, imagination and empathy in order to win back the red wall? Or is he simply someone being overhyped by a media that repeatedly gets election results wrong?
One suspects the latter. The reality is that Starmer still has massive problems with widespread appeal, the first of which can be ascertained from looking at YouGov’s analysis of why people didn’t vote for Labour in the last election. Corbyn/ leadership is singled out as the main reason, but Brexit closely follows. Starmer’s advocacy of the party’s disastrous second referendum policy is a terrible legacy, which many MPs were punished for by losing their seats.
As the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, in Remain-voting London, Starmer clung on. But it will leave serious trust issues across the UK. When Starmer later said, for example, that he’s “really proud” of his country, it begs the question: why, if he is so patriotic, he did not stick up for Brexit? And why did his party attempt to overwrite the democratic mandate of 17.4 million Britons? The words come across as a cynical charm offensive.
Labour has, of course, been plagued by other problems over the last decade, such as identity politics, incredibly expensive manifesto pledges and MPs who’ve said they won’t be friends with Tories. In general, it’s its holier-than-thou attitude, while some of its MPs have called Tories “hard right” and tried to stop Brexit, that has repelled voters.
Although Starmer has not been inflammatory, he should do more to bring the nation together. At the very least, he needs to control members of his party who increase political divisions. Take Emily Thornberry, who recently Tweeted support of Dominic Cummings being hounded in her constituency, South Islington, by his neighbours.
This was totally unacceptable; the sort of behaviour that can encourage violence. Labour needs a leader who cautions MPs for posting such a thing, and who has the moral backbone to condemn the situation – while staying true to their convictions (you can criticise Cumming’s actions and the mob). Instead, he boasted that he would have sacked Cummings by now, playing to the Twitter crowd.
Ultimately, though, Starmer may simply have a personality issue in an age where people want clearer messaging from MPs. There is a reason why “Get Brexit done” became the winning mantra of 2019’s election. Voters are essentially jaded with the obfuscation and cryptic language seen through the Brexit wars, such as Rebecca Long-Bailey’s “progressive patriotism”, and want straightforwardness in a leader.
A lawyer may be able to outmanoeuvre Johnson from time to time, but not the legacy left by Labour over the last decade. Forensic brilliance will only take Starmer so far.