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6 January 2021

Keir Starmer faces his biggest challenge yet in lockdown three

The Labour leader’s calculation is that the country doesn’t want to hear politics as usual during the pandemic. But that’s not what many in his own party want.

By Stephen Bush

The big difference between this lockdown and those that came before is that we have a clear understanding of the way out: the successful roll-out of the new vaccines. 

Tony Blair has a series of proposals for how to expedite vaccination, while Keir Starmer has made the roll-out his sole point of difference with Boris Johnson as the United Kingdom goes into its third lockdown. The Labour leader used his own televised address to the country last night (5 January) to urge us to pull together – and then to call for greater speed and scale in the vaccine roll-out.

Starmer’s calculation, in January 2021 just as in April 2020, is that the country doesn’t want to hear politics as usual during the pandemic. His challenge, now as it was then, is to appear supportive while finding ways to differentiate himself from and undermine Boris Johnson – without looking like he’s doing anything of the kind. 

He managed to do a pretty good job of performing constructiveness in the first lockdown. The trouble is that many in his party – and not just his diehard critics – want a more full-throated and sustained approach to opposing the government.

Given that in normal times, the average non-aligned voter tends to complain about too much squabbling between the political parties, Starmer is surely right in his diagnosis that what voters don’t want to hear right now is a Conservative vs Labour battle.

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The problem for him is that a Conservative vs Labour battle is what the media wants and what his activists want – and ultimately he does need to be able to draw a sharp and flattering contrast between himself and the Conservatives come election time.

The next few months are a logistical challenge for the British state, but finessing the challenge of opposition in lockdown 3.0 is a political challenge for the Labour opposition – and in many ways the biggest one that the Labour leader has yet faced.