So far, so good… but what next?

11 September 2020

In part two of our series on how the party leaders are faring as Parliament returns from recess, DRD Partner and Labour activist, Pete Bowyer takes a look at Keir Starmer’s performance so far, and what he needs to do next.

The Autumn term is always the critical one. Fresh-faced kids returning to school after the long Summer break. New teachers, new lessons, new challenges. It’s the term that starts to shape and then define success across the whole year. So too for Parliament and MPs.

Keir Starmer has come back to Westminster bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of hope and optimism after a flying start to his leadership, yet equally aware of more significant challenges that lie ahead. But, let’s start with his record so far.

The one big plus, over and above anything else, is what he is not: Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer is a serious man for serious times, not a puffed-up, sixth form politician. He has brought the parliamentary Labour Party, and the wider party, together behind his leadership, and even his Conservative foes admit that the grown-ups are back in charge of the opposition.

The other thing, of course, that he is not is Boris Johnson. That is evident each week at PMQs when Starmer forensically dissects and skewers the Prime Minister as if he were a shifty public-school boy trying to explain away how the dog ate his homework.

And it’s paying dividends in the polls. When Starmer became leader, Labour trailed the Conservatives by 24%. Opinium for the Daily Mail now has them at level pegging for the first time in over a year, and whilst other pollsters don’t quite reflect such findings, all are agreed that the gap is tightening month by month. Moreover, Starmer now regularly outpolls Johnson as best Prime Minister, a feat never achieved by his predecessor. Full steam ahead to No.10?

Many party insiders are not so sanguine. They worry that Starmer alone is doing all the heavy-lifting and that no-one else in the Shadow Cabinet is cutting through. The finger is frequently pointed, perhaps unfairly, at Annelise Dodds. Whereas Rishi Sunnak is the government’s not so secret weapon, some in Labour complain that Dodds is so secret that no one knows what she’s been up to. They rue the missed opportunity of not appointing the talented and more high profile Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor.

More generally, those in the party who see the glass half empty reflect not on how badly the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the Conservative Government’s ratings, but on how resilient they have been in the face of it – so far, at least.

That really is the point. What Starmer fully understands is that this is a marathon not a sprint. There is not going to be an election next week, next month or even next year. His first priorities have been to rescue Labour from the continual car crash that it had endured for the past four years, purge the lunatics and start to put into place the foundational building blocks that will put the party on a secure footing for the future. “Labour is under new management,” as he puts it.

On the two great issues facing the country at the moment, COVID-19 and Brexit, he has, rightly, shied away from creating policy on the hoof. Rather, he has preferred to play a waiting game, and let the Conservatives make their own mistakes through their own incompetence. Unlike the previous party manager, he has not dived dumbly into the obvious bear traps that Boris has set as he knows they will alienate what used to be considered Labour’s base: the ‘Blue Wall’ seats the party must win back if it is ever to gain power again.

Starmer, more than any of his predecessors since Blair, recognises it is not a choice between capturing the votes of liberal, middle classes (sub)urbanites and more socially conservative, working class townies. The party’s historical mission is to win over both. His credentials with the former group are already assured. So instead, he has focused his visits on the ‘forgotten’ towns of England, wrapped himself in the flag unashamedly and created a ‘Labour for the Armed Services’ group. A patriot, and proud of it (unlike you-know-who).

That still leaves Scotland. Of course, Scotland may leave the UK first, but unless and until that happens, Labour cannot form a UK-wide government on its own without winning back substantial numbers of Scottish seats. Currently it’s nowhere, miserably trailing both the SNP and Conservatives by miles, under the lacklustre leadership of Corbynite Richard Leonard. But that may not be for long, as the murky world of internal Scottish Labour politics plays out the final scenes of its current chapter, leaving the Westminster party leadership to desperately hope for a more moderate and competent alternative to emerge.  A mini-McStarmer, if you will.

For ‘moderate’ and ‘competent’ will continue to be Starmer’s own watchwords. He knows only too well that when that General Election finally comes, the great British public will take a competent moderate over an ideological fool, whether from the left or the right, any day of the week.