Keir Starmer is the locked down leader of the Labour Party. His tenure of the office so far has been imprisoned inside. Though he has given a few notable speeches, with the Mackintosh lecture on the Union to be delivered soon, Starmer has yet to address an actual audience of real people. Already, the criticism can be heard that Starmer is too inhibited, too buttoned up, too locked down.
Labour figures were understandably excited by polling conducted for Channel 4 News that showed the party on course to win back 36 of the 45 seats it lost to the Conservatives at the 2019 election. On the current indications, Starmer, who began his leadership with a polling deficit of 20 percentage points, may already be in minority administration territory. He is Labour’s most popular leader since Tony Blair and leads Boris Johnson when voters are asked who they would prefer as prime minister. In the Red Wall towns, Starmer has a positive rating of 18 and Johnson a deficit of 3 points. This instant apprehension, of whether someone can cut it at the top, is a test that matters, and it is a test that Starmer passes.
This is a significant recovery for the party, one based on strict message discipline. Starmer has three refrains to which he returns with pleasing regularity. The first is that he chooses to criticise the Johnson government for its incompetence rather than its low motives. Starmer has remembered something Labour leaders are apt to forget – that 14 million people voted Conservative a year ago, and casting aspersions on their integrity in doing so is a poor way to persuade them back to the fold. Sorrow is almost always more effective than anger, even when anger is justified.
There is a vindication of this strategic choice hidden in the Channel 4 polling. First-time Conservatives were the people most likely to switch to Labour next time and the reason they gave, overwhelmingly, was the government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Slowly it will sink in that this government is not very good. Johnson doesn’t know what he’s doing. He says one thing but cannot redeem his promises even when he is trying to, which isn’t always. It doesn’t sound dramatic or exciting, but that realisation will be the bedrock of a Labour victory in 2024. That is the way you unmask Boris Johnson. Slowly, case by sorry case.
The second refrain of the Starmer leadership has been that Labour is under new management. Again, this might sound rather bloodless. In truth, “under new management” are the most important three words in British politics since “take back control”. They say the new leader is so little like the old leader that the old leader is no longer even a Labour MP. Purging anti-Semites from the party is the primary task of the new management. In time, it will have to attend to economic policy to show the electorate just how new it is.
The slogan of new management anticipates the third leadership refrain, which is the quest for victory. How strange that a party leader should have to specify, as Starmer often does, that he is serious about winning. Yet the Labour Party is a body that likes, to adapt a phrase used by Christopher Hitchens about Churchill, to parade the medals of its defeats. From Keir Hardie to Keir Starmer, there have been 19 leaders of the Labour Party, of whom only three have won a significant electoral victory. Starmer has said he intends to be the fourth.
This is a lot less banal than it sounds once it has been put through the internal Labour Party decoder. What Starmer means when he says he intends to be prime minister is that he is prepared to do what it takes to win. Even at this level of abstraction such a naked display of desire is liable to arouse suspicion. It may be that Starmer’s bromides contain his understanding that Labour cannot win if it offers a manifesto as incredible as the vintage of 2019. He may be saying something muffled but profound.
The lack of clarity means Starmer is already coming under pressure to define his vision for the nation. This is a demand only made of Labour leaders. We seem to accept that Conservatives can run for office with no greater ambition than to run the country while fixing a few attendant problems. Labour leaders, by contrast, must articulate a comprehensive vision.
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My advice to Starmer would be, for the moment, to do nothing of the sort. He does need to become a more dominant public figure once he is released from lockdown but that does not mean he has to turn into a philosopher of social democracy. Concrete responses to policy and realistic suggestions for change on issues that arise will do nicely. The best reading on this is Max Weber’s lecture “Politics as a Vocation”. Weber says the task is to balance an ethic of conviction – the deep-seated precepts that guide action – with an ethic of responsibility, which is the realm of everyday action. The vapid demand for a “vision” exists in the space between the two, and it is a demand Starmer ought to ignore. What he urgently needs to do is to repair his party’s reputation on the economy, on which just 21 per cent of respondents told YouGov that they trusted Labour.
This has been an astonishing period of political failure, even by the specialist standards of the Labour Party. Since 2010, the Conservatives have imposed a severe programme of spending cuts, divided the country with an unnecessary referendum, sponsored Britain’s chaotic departure from the European Union and bungled its response to a public health disaster. They have achieved nothing and burned through three prime ministers in the process, while Labour has – remarkably in the circumstances – come nowhere close to taking office. It requires real dedication to failure to achieve so little in such promising circumstances. The early signs are that Starmer might be tired of failure.