Image Description: A picture of Starmer sat alone on the front benches of the House of Commons.
Whilst the right vilifies Keir Starmer as ‘captain hindsight,’ perpetually vacillating as the government vaccinates and the left lambasts him for the absence of a vision, it is easy to forget that Starmer has made a promising start. He has made Labour competitive again.
He has not been leader for a year, but the Starmer story must begin with his inheritance. The 2019 general election defeat was devastating on any metric. Labour lost by 11.5%, 3.7 million votes and gained one seat out of 650. The leader of the Labour Party went into the campaign with a personal rating of -60, the worst of any opposition leader ever. The Labour Party’s shaky foundations were further evinced by the 2017 general election. Labour were 64 seats short of a majority, yet some in the party reacted with euphoria. Second place had become acceptable to a party whose mission is to gain power to transform our nation.
Second place had become acceptable
It will take time to restore trust and confidence in the efficacy of the party. Yet, there are unmistakable signs that this has begun. Keir Starmer’s personal ratings are the best of any opposition leader since Tony Blair. Although the Conservatives have established a clear lead in recent polls, Labour’s numbers have recovered from the 26-point polling deficit recorded in March last year. Polls show that Labour is much closer to its pre-2017 position than its 2019 one.
Starmer is often criticised for his reluctance to espouse a vision. But with over three years until the next general election what purpose would this serve? The public are focused overwhelmingly on the pandemic and the government’s measures to tackle it, so it would be utterly fantastical to imagine that people (apart from political anoraks) would pay serious attention to Labour’s policies. You only have to look at the budget to realise that the Conservatives will steal Labour’s best policies anyway. Rishi Sunak promised a national infrastructure bank, a ”green industrial revolution” and a new Treasury Campus in Darlington. For any Labour supporter this sounded alarmingly familiar. Is Sunak becoming a social democrat? Therefore, Starmer is right to focus on establishing Labour as a credible, serious, and constructive opposition. Vision and policies can wait.
Starmer is right to focus on establishing Labour as a credible, serious, and constructive opposition
The budget presents Labour with an opportunity. The Conservatives have committed to council and corporation tax rises, so they are no longer the low tax party and it has been heartening to see Labour attack the Conservatives on what is supposed to be one of their strengths, reducing taxes. Just as Labour ran in 1997 against “22 Tory Tax rises”, the party must be bold in taking the fight to the Conservatives on their territory. In the budget the Conservatives have also promised Red Wall voters that they will level up the country, but as Starmer pointedly argued in his budget response, they do not have the slightest idea what that phrase means. Today it means tarting up a few town centers, tomorrow it will mean swinging spending cuts, which will hurt Red Wall voters the most. To challenge this effectively, Labour needs a vision for how the economic base of these areas can be transformed using private sector investment. To rebalance the economy so that it is ready for the challenges of the century will require something more than the top-down, centralising policies Labour has relied on.
To challenge this effectively, Labour needs a vision
The OBR forecasts a sugar rush recovery and then a painful crawl for the economy, as growth is forecast to be a meagre 1.6% in 2024. This presents the government with difficult tax and spending decisions. As long as Labour is patient, rides out and remains united through Johnson’s vaccine bounce and does not fall into the trap of articulating its vision too early, Starmer can become Prime Minister. Sooner rather than later pre-pandemic politics will return and the public will finally get to see Starmer not dealing with the unpredictability of a pandemic, but as a Prime Minister in waiting.
I believe the public, as his already high personal ratings show, will like what they see. The public want a grown-up striding down the corridors of power.
Image Credit: UK Parliament via Creative Commons