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17 June 2024

Who’s afraid of Keir Starmer?

The Tories’ fear tactics are failing against the Labour leader in a way they didn’t against his predecessors.

By George Eaton

Voting has begun in the 2024 general election. This isn’t a piece from the future: postal ballots started landing on doormats last week. Research suggests that most voters return them within 48 hours (and around 20 per cent use this method). The Conservatives’ problem isn’t just that polls suggest they will lose the election; it’s that they show they are losing it. 

For the Tories, 4 July will mark the end of a long electoral advance. They have increased their share of the vote at every general election since 2010 (yes, including under Theresa May in 2017). But this achievement – going from 36.1 per cent to 43.6 per cent – has depended as much on fear as on hope. 

At the 2015 general election, the Tories cast Ed Miliband as a “weak” leader in the pocket of the SNP, a tactic that proved ruthlessly effective. In 2019, Jeremy Corbyn had done much of the work for them – his ratings never recovered from his response to the 2018 Salisbury poisonings – allowing Boris Johnson to present himself as the safe option. 

One reason for the Tories’ woes is that this fear-based strategy is not working against Keir Starmer. The Labour leader is fighting an election in favourable circumstances: after Johnson and Liz Truss, it is far harder to cast the opposition as the real danger. But Starmer has also helped himself, denying the Tories the space to credibly brand him a friend of Corbyn and a supporter of Rejoin. 

More than this, as I wrote last week, he has presented radical policies in moderate terms. Starmer’s manifesto is to the left of both New Labour and Miliband on public ownership, workers’ rights, industrial strategy and equalities law. But you would never guess it from the Labour leader’s reassuring rhetoric – call it the benefits of being boring. Tory warnings of a “socialist state” – which had purchase against Miliband and Corbyn – simply fall flat against Starmer. 

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The gains from this strategy do not accrue only to Labour. In 2015, the Tories used voter anxiety over Miliband and the SNP to defeat the Lib Dems in the West Country. In 2019, Corbyn helped ensure such areas stayed blue. This time round, the reassuringly moderate Starmer has benefited the Lib Dems. The Tory voters that the party is targeting in the Blue Wall feel they have been given permission to defect. 

Lib Dem strategists fear that Conservative warnings of a Labour “supermajority” could yet dent their advance. “There are voters who loathe what the Tories have done to the country but who don’t want the party to disappear,” one aide observed. Labour strategists, meanwhile, regard discussion of a supermajority as an “academic conversation” that ignores the issues that the public actually care about. 

Conservative cabinet ministers are now urging Sunak to “go for the jugular” by targeting Starmer over “his support for Jeremy Corbyn, his decision to campaign for a second referendum on Brexit and his work as a human rights lawyer”.  The problem with this is twofold: first, that it invites greater scrutiny of Sunak’s record as a financier. Second, that these attacks have consistently failed to work against Starmer. Will this time be different? The risk for the Tories is that voters remain intensely relaxed about a Labour government.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Can Starmer and Southgate both triumph this summer?]

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