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9 September 2020

Leader: Starmer’s wager

Keir Starmer has rebuilt Labour into a credible opposition party. But his electoral and strategic task remains formidable.

By New Statesman

Five months ago, Keir Starmer became Labour leader in unenviable circumstances. His party had just suffered its worst general election defeat since 1935 and had been stained by anti-Semitism. The Conservatives, meanwhile, were polling as high as 54 per cent – a record rating for a Tory government – as voters rallied behind Boris Johnson during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much has changed since then. The UK has recorded the highest excess death toll of any major European country and has endured the worst recession of any G7 member state, while Labour has drawn level with the Conservatives in a poll for the first time since July 2019. Though Mr Johnson’s government retains a Commons majority of 80 seats, it is increasingly divided. In parliament and outside of it, Labour once more resembles a credible opposition party.

For this, Mr Starmer can claim significant credit. As Stephen Bush writes in this week’s issue, “he is more popular than the party as a whole, and his internal dominance at Westminster reflects that, as far as most Labour MPs are concerned, he is their best chance of returning to power”. The Labour leader’s emphasis on “competence” has made for a flattering contrast with Mr Johnson, a huckster and blusterer.

After Jeremy Corbyn radically shifted Labour to the left, many doubted that a moderate such as Mr Starmer could succeed him. But the former shadow Brexit secretary ran a shrewd leadership campaign in which he appealed to the Labour membership by vowing to retain bold economic policies that remained popular with the left.

Since then, the Labour leader has been similarly pragmatic. Mindful that the Tories hoped to cast him as an indefatigable Remainer, he has said little on the subject of Brexit: he accepts there is no turning back. Faced with the need to win over socially conservative former Labour voters in its lost “Red Wall” constituencies, he has also avoided being embroiled in the culture and identity wars. His support for the Black Lives Matter movement has not extended to support for police abolition. He backed the sung performance of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” at the Last Night of the Proms (while emphasising that this “should not be a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it”).

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Mr Starmer’s wager is that if Labour occupies the patriotic common ground it can win permission for economic transformation. But his electoral and strategic task remains formidable. He must win back culturally conservative former Labour voters without alienating progressives and liberals in strongholds such as London and Bristol. To win a majority at the next general election, Labour requires a swing of 10.3 per cent (almost identical to that achieved at the 1997 election). In the absence of gains in Scotland, the party would need to win seats including Jacob Rees-Mogg’s North East Somerset constituency (majority: 14,729). And Labour shows no sign of recovery in Scotland. Under the inept leadership of Richard Leonard, the party there has polled as low as 14 per cent, while support for the SNP surges. Without a dramatic Labour revival in England and Scotland, Mr Starmer may be left dependent on the support of the Liberal Democrats if he is to win power.

Beyond electoral considerations, Mr Starmer must answer the question of his party’s greater purpose. At present his approach resembles an ambiguous mix of Corbynism, aspects of the Blue Labour agenda, and the technocratic social democracy of the Miliband era. In the absence of clearer definition, the risk is that voters conclude that Labour is merely a competent opposition rather than an alternative government.

Keir Starmer has, because of his competence and decency, earned the right to lead on his own terms. Can Labour win again? Does it even deserve to? After the 2005 general election, commentators spoke of “the strange death of Tory England”; the Conservatives have since increased their vote share at every subsequent general election and won their largest majority since 1987. That is the scale of the challenge facing Labour. 

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