Like most organisations, the Labour Party is learning to live with distanced working, though it’s not without difficulties. The problem with running a political party from your living room, one frontbencher complains, is that it takes half the time to put together a policy proposal than it would in the office, but twice as long to reach consensus on whether the idea is any good or not afterwards.
Still, the worst thing that has happened so far is the brief appearance of a naked man during the leader’s office 8am meeting – although accounts differ as to whether the aide in question was completely or merely partially naked when his webcam flickered briefly into life before switching off again. Fortunately for those involved, it happened on a rare occasion when Keir Starmer was not on the call, as he was visiting local businesses in Stevenage. Told about the incident later, he pronounced himself “glad to have missed that”. For Labour, it’s an illustrative tale: the party’s future looks bright when the leader is in the picture, but when he is absent, the image is much less promising.
Starmer has been Labour’s leader for a little more than 100 days. He came into the post largely unknown outside of Westminster, with the Conservative lead swollen beyond recognition, and the public mood strongly favouring a united front against coronavirus. His team’s first priority was to introduce him to voters, strike a superficially conciliatory tone and make a favourable impression on the public. Starmer has accomplished this mission. He leads Boris Johnson on most measures in the opinion polls; sometimes even coming out best-suited to the role of prime minister (a question in which the incumbent should enjoy a decisive lead over their challenger).
But Labour still trails the Conservative Party in the polls. Yes, its position has markedly improved since Starmer took over, but if the election was held tomorrow the result would be another Conservative government. While perceptions of Boris Johnson’s competence have declined, his approval ratings remain comparatively strong.
Although Labour’s standing has improved in Scotland, the SNP has grown more popular, too, stretching its lead over the parties of the union. Starmer’s counterpart north of the border, Richard Leonard, is expected to lead Labour to another chastening defeat in the Scottish elections next year: the only thing that separates Leonard from his predecessors is that everyone now accepts that the party’s problems cannot be fixed by a change of leader. Given that voters in England still hold serious doubts about Labour’s fitness for office, the nightmare scenario is that a Conservative prime minister is once again able to win a majority in England by warning about the dangers of an SNP-backed Labour government.
Within the Labour Party itself, there are possible problems ahead. The GMB’s Tim Roache, the most vocally Corbynsceptic of the major trade union leaders, stood down in April, citing ill health, reportedly against a backdrop of allegations of sexual harassment. Dave Prentis, the leader of Unison, the first trade union to back Starmer’s leadership bid, will retire at the end of the year. If either union’s leadership moves to the left, it would imperil Starmer’s majority on the ruling National Executive Committee – and if both do, it would shatter it.
Starmer is the most popular opposition leader since Tony Blair, but his political position more accurately resembles that of David Cameron in 2005. Like Cameron, he has inherited a party after a defeat that makes it hard to see how he can win a parliamentary majority in one term. Like Cameron, he is more popular than his party, whose brand bears the scars of its recent and not-so-recent mistakes. Like Cameron, he has a minority of MPs who are further from the centre than him and could threaten his position. But crucially, as with Cameron, the majority of Starmer’s MPs accept that his leadership is Labour’s biggest asset, and that without him their problems would only get worse.
That acceptance is one reason why the arguments about how Labour can win tend to spring from what Starmer should do and who he should appoint to the shadow cabinet. Everyone agrees that, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, Starmer will lead Labour into the next election. Shadow cabinet positions are a particular source of contention because Starmer’s first appointments are finely balanced between the party’s left and right wings, and because the leader’s office has let it be known that its next priority is introducing the shadow cabinet to the public. This process will surely end in the axe for those who make an unfavourable impression.
One set of possible promotions and sackings would shift the party decisively to the left, another to the right. Two shadow cabinet ministers in particular are the source of great hope and anxiety: Rachel Reeves and Ed Miliband. Reeves is resented on the party’s left for her perceived role in dragging Miliband’s leadership to the right on issues such as welfare and immigration, while Miliband is resented on the party’s right for the 2015 defeat and for his part in opening the way for Jeremy Corbyn. The fate of both has come to symbolise the real direction of Starmerism – to the left with Miliband, or to the right with Reeves.
The reality for shadow cabinet members is that their future depends on one question: can they introduce – or re-introduce – themselves to the public in a way that makes as favourable an impression as their leader managed? Despite all the attention on what Starmer should do next, it is the ability of those in his top team to put their best foot forward that will be vital in Labour closing the gap with the Conservatives.