Labour is changing under Keir Starmer: from a party that uses Zoom to a party that uses Microsoft Teams. Labour’s front bench is switching video-conferencing platforms for reasons of security and ease of communication, though some shadow ministerial teams are finding it hard to make the transition because of ageing computers or less tech-savvy parliamentarians. (One frontbencher told me recently that their usual recourse in the face of new technology was to press-gang their son into providing free, home-visit IT support, which would now fall foul of the government’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions.)
Observing physical distancing, one shadow cabinet minister complained to me, makes “everything harder”. While Starmer’s core team contains just one household name – the former Labour leader Ed Miliband – most of its personnel are widely respected at Westminster. But in the era of Covid-19, the usual avenues for introducing a new front bench to the public are largely blocked, and the ability to form connections and alliances is stymied. The internal workings of the party are trickier too. Conflicts between frontbenchers are harder to resolve and disagreements on policy are magnified over email. MPs are denied the creative process of chance conversations and one-to-one meetings over cups of tea.
Starmer won the leadership in part by highlighting his pre-parliamentary career defending unfashionable and progressive causes. But now it’s his experience of running big organisations and his skill at chairing meetings that are attracting particular praise across the shadow cabinet.
The single most important meeting in the Labour leader’s calendar, however, involves just one person: his communications director, Ben Nunn. It’s Nunn’s role to prep Starmer before his monthly radio programme on LBC, a half-hour slot that may well prove instrumental to the outcome of the next election. Nick Ferrari’s radio show has a weekly audience of 1.4 million, and its listener base is full of the voters who have condemned Labour to four defeats in a row: skilled manual workers, particularly men. Many in that group voted to leave the EU, but they have been a source of electoral discomfort for Labour for some time: deserting Gordon Brown either for David Cameron or in order not to vote at all in 2010; preferring Ukip to Ed Miliband in 2015; and backing Theresa May and Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 and 2019.
For now, that project largely revolves around introducing the Labour leader to people. Outside the politically engaged, few know who Starmer is – in a recent focus group, I’m told, one participant confidently mistook him for David Cameron.
Starmer’s first aim is to correct that. He needs to leave the impression that he is competent, qualified, detail-orientated, constructive and, crucially, different from what some Labour Party voters have turned away from, particularly on issues of identity and nation. That’s one reason the front bench publicly commemorated the anniversary of the killing of Lee Rigby, an off-duty British soldier murdered in London in 2013, and one reason Starmer felt so comfortable following his own instincts and condemning the illegal removal of a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, in Bristol.
So far Starmer appears to be succeeding. Most people encountering him for the first time like what they see, and in polls he is beginning to draw level with Boris Johnson. If he continues on this course, he will end the parliamentary year with a decisive lead over the Prime Minister on issues of leadership, competence and trust – political advantages that tend to lead to election victory.
So why aren’t the Conservatives more worried? In part, because the challenges of the pandemic transcend the difficulties created by having a competent and popular Labour leader, and a more effective opposition. But there is also a sense that, as one minister put it, Labour is a “one-man team”. If perceptions of the party are changing, it is because people warm to Starmer and are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, rather than because they are enthusiastically backing the party as a whole.
Starmer’s confident performances – in the media and in the House of Commons – are part of the reason his ratings are rising and Johnson’s have fallen, but so too is the Prime Minister’s maladroit handling of government policy, from the bungling of the Cummings affair to the UK’s uncertain exit from lockdown. One Tory MP complained that Downing Street has “managed the impossible: we’re unlocking too quickly for the epidemiologists and too cautiously to help the economy”.
Tories might agree that Starmer is doing an excellent job of making the case against Johnson – but they don’t believe he is yet convincing voters that the Conservative Party needs to be thrown out of office. His arguments – against Johnson’s lack of grip and his fundamental unseriousness – all seem like equally good reasons to replace Johnson with his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. “Rishi is making all the right hires,” one MP joked. “Allegra Stratton [ITV’s respected national editor has traded her broadcast role for the post of strategic communications at the Treasury] and Keir Starmer: he couldn’t have two people better suited to making the case for him.”
Rightly or wrongly, many at Westminster assume that Johnson will leave office rather than contest a difficult election; his party’s self-preservation instinct or his own desire to avoid humiliation will kick in first. Starmer needs to look beyond Johnson and build on his successful introduction and positive first impressions. He will not only have to showcase his qualities and woo LBC’s listeners, but more importantly, he will need to convince voters that Labour as a whole really has changed.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt