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3 May 2022

Keir Starmer has Tony Blair’s backing, now he needs some ideas

The party hasn’t yet given the public, as a shadow cabinet minister says, “a reason to vote for us”.

By Harry Lambert

The papers today offer a smorgasbord of stories, but all of them have been eclipsed by news out of the US overnight: the Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe vs Wade, the constitutional ruling that guarantees the right to abortions for American women (at least in theory; many states have in practice made abortion clinics increasingly difficult to access). An impending Supreme Court judgement has never been leaked before. The ruling, which is expected to be issued early next month, will set American politics on a new axis.

Domestically, the politics of the day is set to be anchored by Boris Johnson’s address to the Ukrainian parliament, 72 hours before he wakes up on Friday to what may be a disastrous set of local election results and renewed pressure on his position. The Prime Minister will announce £300m in British military aid for Ukraine, following a commitment last week by Joe Biden, the US president, to send $20bn in supplies. Ukraine’s months-long plea for weapons is no longer going unheeded. Even Olaf Scholz, the slow-moving German chancellor, defended weapons deliveries against hecklers this weekend. An EU embargo on Russian oil may be next.

Yet the most notable development in British politics this weekend may have been a video posted by the Labour Party on Sunday to mark 25 years since its victory in 1997. Tony Blair led the video, extolling the merits of Labour governments (his, specifically). This is a boon for Keir Starmer, the present leader, even if parts of the party’s left would disagree. A year ago Blair was calling for the “total deconstruction and reconstruction” of the Labour Party in our pages. Blair is the only Labour leader born in the past 100 years to win an election and Starmer needed him to move from implicit condemnation to public support.

The British public has moved too: Labour now leads in the polls. But how strong is that lead? Starmer’s approval ratings remain poor — only around 30 per cent of voters approve of him, while 36 per cent disapprove – and he only looks strong because Johnson is so unpopular. Since the peak of partygate in January, Labour’s lead has fallen from nine percentage points to five, and current forecasts put Labour on fewer than 300 seats at the next election, which would leave them reliant on other parties to govern.

Perhaps the biggest concern for Starmer is that so few 2019 Conservative voters have switched to Labour. The collapse in the Tory vote since September is almost entirely due to apathy. Around one in five 2019 Tories currently support no one (for more on that follow my colleague Ben Walker). Labour has not, as a shadow cabinet minister told me recently, yet given voters “a reason to vote for us”. Or, as a former MP put it last week, the party “still hasn’t got a set of policies that allows you to close your eyes and say, ‘That’s what Labour is.’”

Power rarely falls into Labour’s hands — its leaders tend to lose. It is the Conservatives who win by default; Labour has to work harder than that. William Hague suggested to me last summer that Labour wins power when it “has the ideas of the future”, as Hague thinks the party did in 1945, 1966 and 1997. Is that the case today? If so, I am not sure what those ideas are, or indeed what any of Keir Starmer’s lodestars are. Are you?

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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[See also: David Miliband: “Only brilliant people win from the centre left”]

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