Has Keir Starmer had a good year? Ask activists and the one in three Labour loyalists losing enthusiasm for him, and the answer would be a rather disgruntled “no”. According to them, Starmer has done very little to hold the government to account during the coronavirus crisis.
But ask the voters Labour lost in 2019, and those concentrated in the all-important marginal constituencies any party with an eye for power needs to win, and the answer, however hard it may be to believe, is the inverse. Starmer has been too political, they say. He’s spent far too much time on the offensive. He hasn’t been getting behind the Prime Minister in a period of national crisis.
Starmer’s first year has been an unprecedented one. To clearly assert his position in the middle of a global pandemic and make an impact with voters who are not interested in politicians playing politics mid-crisis is a unique challenge. But 12 months in, Starmer stands in a somewhat better position than his predecessors.
One of the unintentional (or perhaps intentional) advantages of not making much of an impact as party leader is that you’re less likely to turn off voters. According to the Britain Elects poll tracker, Starmer has earned the ire or praise of 70 per cent of voters: seven in ten Brits, one year in, have an opinion of him. This compares to the 83.6 per cent and 84.1 per of Britons who had a positive or negative opinion of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, respectively, when they were one year into their own terms as party leader.
Starmer’s fall from grace in the eyes of the public has become obvious in recent months. An intensification in falling net approval ratings has come at the same time as a bounce in Conservative fortunes over the roll-out of the vaccine and a well-received Budget from the Chancellor. But compared to both Miliband and Corbyn, Starmer’s descent seems quite a muted one.
Whereas Miliband and Corbyn were well and truly under the waters of net favourability one year in, Starmer has only just slipped below it.
Approval ratings are often considered to be a better indicator than voting intention of whether a leader has a chance of winning the next election. While throughout much of the 2010-15 parliament Labour had comfortable margins over the incumbent Conservatives on the question of voting intention (and it does help: local elections and by-elections held during the parliament all pointed to Labour coming out on top), on issues of leadership and preferred prime minister David Cameron was perpetually in prime position. Voters seemed to want a Conservative prime minister with a Labour majority government – and by 2015, they plumped for their leadership preference.
For the voters that want the leader of the opposition to make a mark, Starmer is proving a disappointment. But those voters are a smaller bunch than we’d typically expect this far into a leader of the opposition’s tenure, and compared to previous leaders of the opposition, he’s not doing badly.
That said, among voters in the northern and Welsh seats Labour lost to the Conservatives in 2019, perceptions are poorer than anything Team Starmer should be comfortable with.
Of voters in those key seats, 55 per cent agree that Labour has played party politics during the pandemic. Just under half agree with the sentiment Starmer is not strong enough, and 55 per cent believe “it is unclear what Keir Starmer stands for”.
On perceptions of handling the economy, Labour still has its work cut out. But where Starmer has succeeded – perhaps the only takeaway for the electorate – is in telling voters he’s not Corbyn, and that he’s not as left-wing as the previous Labour regime.
That may have been valuable in netting some Lib Dem sympathisers, as the polls do show. But in no way is being “not Jeremy Corbyn” enough of a pull to take Labour to power.
While Labour’s members may rightfully complain about the leader of the opposition’s infrequent attempts to oppose, they are a world apart from Labour’s voters, and Labour’s prospective voters.
As Tim Bale put it in the Political Quarterly: “[Labour’s members] are overwhelmingly white, well‐educated and largely middle class and middle‐aged, with many of them living in southern England. They are also disproportionately likely to work, either currently or previously, in the public or charitable sector. They are left‐wing but also very socially liberal, and they are very pro‐European.”
They are also likely to be readers of the New Statesman.
It is certainly not welcome news for Starmer that the party’s membership is understood to have been cut by 10 per cent since his ascendency.
But again, the views of Labour members do not equal the views of Labour voters. Nor are Labour members the type of voters in a First Past the Post style democracy the party needs to win if it fancies its chances of gaining power. Simply put, there’s not enough of them.
There can be little doubt that one of the key factors to Starmer’s growing underperformance has been that, bluntly, voters haven’t been keen on hearing him out. To a lot of prospective electors living in the marginal seats, he and Labour have been playing politics during a pandemic when there shouldn’t be a politics to play. These voters are more often than not of a Brexit-backing persuasion, less affluent than the typical Labour member, and pay less attention to day-to-day politics.
With the coming (and hopefully final) end to lockdown, that may be about to change. Voters might start to feel that politicians can and should play politics. That presents an opportunity for Labour.
Starmer has problems with his membership, his base and (still) with Leave voters. While the Brexit identities of old have frayed in intensity, they still form the bedrock of the political identities that exist today.
But compared to the two other Labour leaders of the past ten years, Starmer has, so far, made a better go of it: not election-winning just yet, but a move in the right direction.