This Sunday it will have been a year since Keir Starmer became leader of the Labour Party, and what a year it’s been. It’s hard to remember now but in those initial days members of the press were enraptured by his “forensic brilliance”.
One paper commented on the “the quietly terrifying force of a skilled former Chief Prosecutor assembling all the evidence and nailing it piece by damning piece to the accused” at PMQs.
Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC Starmer described Starmer and Boris Johnson’s war of words as a battle between the “lawyer and the showman”. Forget Captain Hindsight, Captain Prosecutor had arrived.
But in the year since, the mood has changed quite substantially, as have the polls, which are going in the wrong direction for the Labour Party.
While in December 2020, a YouGov poll found that over 50 per cent of Labour voters felt Starmer was doing “well”, that has since dropped by 14 percentage points, and the perception that he is doing “badly” has risen by 16. Strangely, one of the few things that now unites voters across the Left and Right is a feeling Starmer won’t win an election. So what exactly has gone wrong?
First of all, it should be said that Starmer is a huge improvement on Jeremy Corbyn. Most people breathed a sigh of relief when Starmer took over from Mr “Present But Not Involved”, and he has done well to make the Labour slightly more electable. But it’s taking that next step that’s proving a challenge for him. What makes the party more than “better than Corbynism”?
There are all sorts of reasons you could suggest for why Labour’s ratings have gone downhill – the ideological fractures among members; the way MPs casually insult things/people (see below); Starmer’s inability to “pick a side” to please out of “Red Wall”/ socially conservative voters and London activists, and that’s before we get to his somewhat robotic demeanour.
NEW: Labour frontbencher slammed after describing business as "the enemy". https://t.co/pao83rykyZ
— Harry Cole (@MrHarryCole) March 29, 2021
For the sake of one article, I think there are two areas that Starmer could make headway in (albeit it might be a bit late now). The first is the obvious fact that we are in a pandemic, which Labour has never been particularly “imaginative” about how to manage. It’s not clear what the party would do differently to the Conservatives, other than being more cautious (see: school reopenings) and spending more money.
Being “imaginative” doesn’t mean coming out as a lockdown sceptic, incidentally – although it was exciting to see Starmer criticise the idea of vaccine passports yesterday – but trying to think ahead. It strikes me that the party that defeats the Conservatives will project “futuristic” thinking first and foremost, making plans unlike any before to protect against future health, defence and technological threats.
Indeed, one of the Conservatives’ biggest failures during its time in government is lack of preparedness for the pandemic, all the while countries like South Korea had a complex Test and Trace system in place (add to that it’s planning to have 6G trials in 2026).
It seems to me that there is space for the opposition to be innovative and interesting here, but Starmer spends more time criticising the firms the Conservatives have used in a national emergency (incidentally, the Tweet below would rule out Kate Bingham, who is responsible for the UK’s vaccination programme and married to Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury).
In the last year, £2bn of taxpayers’ money has been spent on products and services provided by firms with a financial or personal connection to the Conservatives.
Labour will launch the biggest wave of insourcing in a generation – bringing services back under public control.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) February 8, 2021
Another big opportunity for Labour is to fight the culture wars, particularly if it wants to get socially conservative voters back on side. The 2019 General Election wasn’t just a rejection of Corbynism, and Labour’s plan to hold a second referendum, but a groupthink that has dominated left-wing politics. “Wokeness”, as we call it.
The Conservatives tend to ignore the culture wars, which is bad in itself, but Starmer gets involved, normally on the side he thinks Twitter might like most. For instance, he recently got involved in the row between the Royal Family and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, appearing to side with the latter. Where was the call for due process? Did he need to comment at all?
The fundamental issue with Starmer, however, is that it doesn’t really matter what he does because many voters still see him in relation to Labour’s second referendum policy. Being the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, in Remain-voting London, Starmer has never really “felt the heat” for his involvement in those Corbyn years.
When I have suggested to people that voters will punish Starmer at a General Election for his Brexit stance, I have been told that voters have short memories and so forth. I disagree. The Brexit years were long, and it cemented people’s views of Starmer. Surprise, surprise, they aren’t all that excited about “forensic brilliance” if it means their vote might be ignored.
I suspect the major issue is people don’t get a sense of who the Real Starmer is. He says, for instance, that he doesn’t like the idea of vaccine passports, but it sounds like someone who read a poll and decided that’s his opinion. Similarly, months ago newspapers discovered Labour’s plans to win back “foundation seats”, as the Red Wall is now called, with attempts to appear more patriotic. Again, it’s calculated and obvious.
So what does Starmer do? Well, it’ll be challenging but most of all he needs to show some authenticity. People can forgive a lot, but not inconsistency and a lack of clarity about what you really want.
Contrary to what this article suggests, it gives me no pleasure to have such a catalogue of criticisms. But part of that is because of the urgency of the moment. From vaccine passports, to raising questions about the effects of lockdown, the country needs a solid opposition.