Labour troubles – key challenges for Starmer in the year ahead

In the second of our looks ahead for the party leaders, DRD Partner and former Labour adviser, Pete Bowyer takes a look at the key challenges and opportunities for Sir Keir Starmer through 2021.

It is well known that Keir Starmer was named by his parents after their own political hero, Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party and the party’s first MP. But speak to those in Sir Keir’s orbit and the leader they like to draw parallels with more is Clement Attlee. Attlee, a famously modest, determined man, in contrast to Boris’ showy cod-Churchill, nevertheless had the vision to lead the reconstruction of a new Britain post-war and deliver a landslide election victory in 1945. If that is the aim, Sir Keir still has a long way to go yet.

Following Labour’s worst Election result since the 1930s, the scale of the electoral challenge ahead is immense. Even before any boundary changes are factored in which will only favour the Conservatives, Labour needs net gains of 123 Parliamentary seats to secure an overall majority of just one in the next House of Commons, a swing of over 10% (equivalent to what Blair achieved in 1997).

A promising start?

It is undoubtedly true, however, that he has made a solid start over the first nine months of his leadership, although admittedly from a very low base. He has started to wipe away the stain of anti-Semitic racism that had infected the party under the previous leadership. He has clearly taken the party back to the political mainstream from which it had deviated so disastrously. He has wrapped himself in the Union Flag, begun to position Labour as the “party of the family” and supported a strong defence force.

Above all, he has demonstrated leadership over the party’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Starmer has broadly backed the Prime Minister in this time of national crisis whilst deftly detecting which way the wind was blowing, and opportunistically calling for further measures ahead of the government’s more cumbersome moves to do the exact same thing, reinforcing his leadership credentials.

The court of public opinion

This has paid dividends with the public. The final opinion poll taken before Starmer took over as leader on the 4th of April last year had Labour 23 points behind the Conservatives. Now they are level pegging. Many insiders, however, do not see this as a particularly impressive feat. If anything, they are astonished that in the middle of a global pandemic with everything this Government has already gone through and the constant U-turns, the Conservatives’ position in the polls is so robust.

So why Labour is not doing better? Why is the party not 20 points ahead in the polls? And what does Starmer need to do now to achieve that goal in the year ahead?

There is one poll in which the party, or rather Keir Starmer, is 20 points ahead. His own leadership ratings give a +15pts net score with the public compared to Boris’ -6pts. Unlike Corbyn, or even Ed Miliband, he at least feels Prime Ministerial which gets him to first base. It does not take an inconceivable leap of the imagination to place him in No.10 Downing Street. The problem is the party.

What next? The economy, stupid.

There are a number of areas where it needs drastic surgery. First, since the General Election, there have been widespread calls for the party to come together to defeat the Conservatives and to end the internecine warfare that has dogged the last few years. Those close to Sir Keir regard these calls as well-meaning, but misguided. Party unity, at this point, is a diversion. The public remain wary that Labour has not really changed from its Corbynista inheritance, and still do not trust it as a party of government. A decisive break is needed; a new ‘Clause 4’ moment, a new New Labour Party. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate that break from the past than making Corbyn’s suspension permanent and driving out his remaining followers from the party back to the political fringes whence they came.

Second, Brexit. Starmer had a tough call to make on the EU (Future Relationship) Bill last month, but he made the right one in supporting it – electorally, at least. As the staunchly pro-EU and Labour affiliated Fabian Society think tank noted some time ago, “there is no electoral future in fighting a rear-guard action on Brexit.” Starmer has promised not to fight the next Election on a “re-join the EU” platform and even solidly pro-European Shadow Cabinet members are in widespread agreement. They believe that the Conservatives have just gone and shot their own electoral Golden Goose that has won them the last three Elections. The EU can no longer be blamed for the Government’s own failings, it will have to take the rap itself. The inevitable focus on domestic policies ahead, and the so-called “levelling up” agenda is likely to tear the Conservative Party apart between the more interventionist new MPs that represent “Blue Wall” seats, and the more laissez-faire traditional Southern Shire MPs.

Third, despite the above, it is not enough to simply sit back, buy the popcorn and enjoy. Policy has not, rightly, been Starmer’s first priority as leader. But Labour will soon need to develop its own agenda starting with the economy. The siren voices in the party saying “we need to talk about Anneliese” (who?), are getting louder. The economic fallout from the pandemic is bound to take centre-stage as this year progresses. A big-hitter is needed to knock a few spots off ‘Brand Rishi’, and outline Labour’s own distinctive economic platform that will not scare the horses. Dodds was a surprise choice as Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor, and to many, perhaps most in the Party, she has failed to cut through. Rachel Reeves, now virtually unemployed since the Brexit legislation passed, looks an increasingly safer choice.

Finally, it’s not just economic policy that needs to be developed but the whole slew of domestic policy. Bill Clinton’s famous mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” was actually just one line from a three-line verse that his campaign director, James Carville created: “change versus more of the same/it’s the economy, stupid/but don’t forget healthcare”. Labour now has an enormous opportunity to re-imagine its vision of the post-pandemic society, in a way that chimes with the ambitions of the British people – just like Attlee did post-war.

But here’s the rub. Boris’ hero, Churchill, badly mis-managed the 1945 Election – he was a great war-time Prime Minister but a poor campaigner. By contrast, Johnson, in the words of former Times columnist, Philip Collins, “prefers the accolade of being Prime Minister to actually being Prime Minister”, but he is a terrific campaigner. Starmer’s campaigning skills are as yet, untested. The question remains if he has the dogged determination of Attlee to take on Boris in a General Election campaign and prevail.

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