British politics is contested in two different worlds. The first is occupied by readers and writers of current affairs magazines and opinion columns, viewers of 24-hour news channels, participants in political Twitter, and members of political parties. Business here is conducted at a fast pace, where almost every speech is billed as a pivotal intervention, and every policy pronouncement or parliamentary debate might move the polls – whose margin-of-error movements are similarly the subject of close attention. It’s a land where internal control over parties is fiercely contested and where the careers of individual politicians and their aides are made or broken.
The other world is occupied by people who get their news in short bursts on music radio; who absent-mindedly check the news on the BBC home-page or app before getting on with an online shop or the day’s work; who might have Radio 4’s Today programme on but don’t really listen to it. This is the world where general elections are won and lost.
Close allies of Keir Starmer argue that during his first year in office, he has waged an effective campaign to woo the occupants of this second world. His approval ratings are better than those enjoyed by David Cameron this far into his time as leader of the opposition (though worse than Tony Blair at the same point in his leadership). No Labour leader of the opposition has enjoyed such high approval ratings since 2010.
At a time when most people outside Westminster want politicians to link arms across the political divide and present a united front against the virus, Starmer has successfully eroded Boris Johnson’s approval rating while introducing himself to the public in a favourable way. Labour’s recent campaigns – to vaccinate teachers early in order to reopen schools, and to end the scandal where residents in private tower blocks have been left with the ruinous costs of removing flammable cladding – demonstrate the party’s ruthless focus on winning over voters aged 30 to 50, the new and most important swing demographic in British politics.
Yet Starmer’s personal ratings, and Johnson’s growing unpopularity, have yet to translate into a reliable opinion poll lead for the Labour Party. Meanwhile, among occupants of the first world of British politics, an unwelcome consensus is forming: that the Labour leader is simply not up to it. MPs complain that he has “no politics” and that Starmer’s Labour has no clear identity beyond bland reassurance. Backbenchers who feel they would do a better job than the shadow cabinet complain that its members are mostly anonymous. In turn, shadow cabinet members complain that it is hard to make an impression when their quotes are stripped of anything exciting or provocative by the party’s press office. Starmer’s director of communications, Ben Nunn, is widely criticised as remote and inattentive.
[See also: Paul Mason: Labour isn’t working – how Keir Starmer is allowing the Tories to get away with failure]
One problem is that what might be canny politics outside Westminster looks a lot like grim opportunism inside it. Labour’s proposal that teachers should be vaccinated before or alongside at-risk groups has been rejected not only by the government, but by its scientific advisers and the Labour government in Wales, on the grounds that it would risk more lives and would not significantly reduce the likelihood of transmission in schools. For all that the idea is popular with voters, most of the coverage it attracts is hostile, and the campaign risks tarring the party as opportunistic and unserious.
Part of the difficulty comes from fatigue: not with Starmer, but with lockdown. Few people could be said to be enjoying the restrictions, but MPs, who by and large are social creatures, are particularly restless. Many of the normal tools employed by the leadership to reassure fractious MPs – tea or a drink with the party leader, time alone with his senior aides – are simply unavailable. The shadow cabinet has had several virtual away days, but without the ability to make connections in between sessions, the result is just a lot of time spent listening to pollsters on Zoom, rather than the creation of a more cohesive front-bench team.
There is another problem, too. Because the pandemic has led to the suspension of the local elections, Team Starmer’s belief that it has made genuine progress in the country is just that: a belief. MPs, who are already jittery, are made more so by briefings designed to lower expectations (one of Westminster’s grubbiest traditions is the two major parties’ habit of making ridiculous claims about how badly they are going to do in local elections). A strong showing in the local elections would settle nerves in the first world.
However, the leader’s office doesn’t always help itself. This is not the first group of strategists to conclude that British politics can be split into two: a hyperactive, politically focused crowd for whom most things blow over after a day or two; and a slow, less engaged group that has to be carefully cultivated with repeated refrains and messages.
Both David Cameron and the Vote Leave gang that ended his time in office understood that. Cameron’s downfall was that his indulgence of the demands of Westminster saw him blunder into referendum defeat. But the downfall of Vote Leave campaigners was that they considered the task of cultivating opinion at Westminster – other than burnishing the legend of Dominic Cummings – to be largely beneath them. As a result, they were forced out, not because they were unpopular with the public but because they were disliked by MPs.
Labour seldom gets rid of its leaders, but it does have a tendency to hobble them. If Starmer can’t keep the occupants of Britain’s two political realms onside, he may find that his success in the second world – where elections are won – comes to an abrupt end.
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy