In recent British political history, there have rarely been more favourable conditions for the opposition to advance. Boris Johnson’s government has presided over a farcical array of scandals, including serial law- breaking in Downing Street. Inflation has reached its highest rate for 30 years (7 per cent) and households are facing the biggest squeeze in living standards since records began. Finally, as the Queen’s Speech amply demonstrated, Mr Johnson’s administration is devoid of anything resembling new ideas.
Yet it is Keir Starmer’s Labour that is now struggling. On 9 May, having devoted much time to demanding Mr Johnson’s resignation, Mr Starmer was forced to contemplate his own. If fined by Durham police for his alleged breach of lockdown rules, he said, he would “do the right thing and step down”.
The Labour leader blames what he regards as a smear campaign by the Conservative Party and the right-wing press as well as leaks from inside his own networks. But it was Mr Starmer’s lack of political agility that left him so vulnerable. As Andrew Marr writes, “under constant media attack, team Starmer allowed half-truths, incomplete stories and small inconsistencies to dribble out… Not so far from the grudging tactics they once accused Downing Street of employing.”
It was nine months ago that the fateful video of Mr Starmer drinking a beer with Labour activists at Durham Miners Hall was first reported in the press. He cannot plead that he was not given advance warning.
Having cast himself as a righteous crusader for truth and justice, Mr Starmer has a duty to ensure that he is “whiter than white” (as Tony Blair once put it). When the Metropolitan Police began investigating the Downing Street lockdown parties, the Labour leader did not pause before demanding Mr Johnson’s resignation (a fact he evaded at his press conference on 9 May). Did it never occur to Mr Starmer that he could also be investigated?
The limits of the Labour leader’s technocratic approach now lie exposed. Oliver Eagleton, the author of a new biography, The Starmer Project, writes: “By acting as a defender of the state, whose rules he would police with righteous pedantry, he was setting himself up to be seen as a hypocrite.”
The same deficiency was revealed by Labour’s performance in the local elections on 5 May, notably in England, aside from London. Despite a remarkably advantageous political climate, Labour gained just 22 seats in England (putting it behind the Green Party, which gained 63, and the Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire Party, which gained 24).
True, the opposition was contesting areas last fought in 2018, when it performed relatively well – but this was not the performance of a Labour Party accelerating towards government. Rather, it demonstrates how Labour has failed to win over even an increasingly anti-Conservative electorate. The Liberal Democrats – who many in Labour have dismissed as politically defunct – the Greens, the SNP and independent candidates are attracting voters left cold by Mr Starmer. (The strength of Labour in Wales owes much to local events.)
The Labour leader, a lawyer by trade, has at times prosecuted an effective case against the Johnson government. Now, he is preoccupied with his own defence.
This is an age of crisis that demands bold and imaginative thinking. We face a climate emergency; war in Ukraine is remaking the international order; populists are eroding democracy at home and abroad; health and care systems are under pressure; and the UK is facing two lost decades for living standards.
Where are Mr Starmer’s policy solutions? How would he change Britain for the better and bring together the disunited kingdom? Why such timidity? Two years into his leadership, these questions remain unanswered.
Mr Starmer may yet win power by default. Should the Conservatives lose their majority, they will have few, if any, allies in a hung parliament, not even the DUP, who feel betrayed by Mr Johnson. Provided Durham police spare him, Mr Starmer could yet become the accidental prime minister, backed by the Liberal Democrats. But Britain needs – and deserves – more than a cautious, technocratic Labour prime minister. It needs a transformative leader who would use power with purpose.
[See also: Keir Starmer’s missed opportunity]
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer