January 4, 2021

Jeremy Corbyn’s crushing defeat to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives capped off a terrible decade for the party — the fourth successive election defeat for Labour and their worst result since 1935. A year on, with the new leader in place, has anything changed?

To get a measure of the mountain Labour must climb in order to get back into government, compare where the party stood at the end of 2019 with where it was following a decade out of office in the 1980s. By the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure, Labour had effectively gone backwards, winning fewer seats than it had held when Gordon Brown left office in May of 2010. In 1989, by contrast, the party had made significant progress. Labour was polling at 46% to the Tories’ 39%. Moreover, the hard Left had been routed in the party machinery. In 1988, when Tony Benn had challenged the incumbent Neil Kinnock for the leadership, he was trounced, winning just 11% of the vote.

Keir Starmer, too, has taken on the hard Left, most notably by suspending the party whip from Corbyn over his response to the EHRC report into anti-Semitism. Starmer also sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet after she refused to apologise for sharing an article which deployed an anti-Semitic trope.

But the confrontation with Labour’s hard Left is far from over, as is perhaps demonstrated by the frequency with which the hashtag #StarmerOut appears on left-wing social media. The Labour Right made gains during the NEC elections of 2020, but overall the results were mixed, with seven of the 15 positions won by candidates backed by left-wing pressure group Momentum. If Labour’s disciplinary process does not expel Corbyn, it will represent something of a humiliation for Starmer. Yet if Corbyn is thrown out, it could set in motion a war within the Left for years to come. Neither outcome augurs particularly well for the fortunes of leader or party.

Which isn’t to say Starmer hasn’t been successful with the country. Away from internecine struggles, he has made considerable headway among the public with his critical but cautious approach. The first YouGov poll of last year had the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour (49% to Labour’s 29%). The final YouGov poll of 2020 had Labour leading the Conservatives by four percentage points (Labour stands on 41% while the Conservatives are on 37%).

In normal times, the two most important polls to look at when it comes to predicting which way a General Election will go are the leader’s personal ratings and the public’s view of the party’s economic competence. Labour went into the 2015 election polling neck and neck with David Cameron’s Conservative party. Yet Miliband’s poor personal ratings – together with a widespread perception that Labour was spendthrift – produced the Conservatives’ first outright majority for 23 years. That Miliband was more unpopular than Cameron even after five years of Tory-led government ought to have sounded the alarm as to what would come next. According to a LSE study from 2015, leaders in government typically have approval ratings that are 17 points lower than opposition leaders.

Starmer, though, has been turning things around. During the summer of 2020, he was the most popular opposition leader of the past 40 years — apart from Tony Blair. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has become steadily more unpopular as the rallying effect of lockdown (incumbents across the globe saw their support increase during the early days of the pandemic) has given way to a hum of discontent at the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A comprehensive recent poll of 22,000 people found Labour to be on course to win back the so-called red wall seats lost to the Conservatives in 2019.

But the next election is still four years away. And if things return to something resembling normality later in the year, as vaccines are rolled out and pandemic recedes, we might expect to see a boost to the Government’s flagging approval ratings. Boris has many flaws; however he is a deft performer when it comes to articulating the patriotism of those who feel pride in their country’s achievements. By the time summer is here, the focus will have shifted from pandemic to economic recovery.

You might think this would benefit Labour. The pandemic has ripped up the economic consensus that dominated British politics for 40 years. It is no longer taboo for the state to subsidise loss-making businesses, nor to pay people’s wages. Moreover, the post-Covid recovery will require the stimulation of the economy. Attempting a re-run of 2010 austerity policies will prove counterproductive, as Peter Franklin (not a natural Keynesian) has argued persuasively for UnHerd.

Unfortunately for Labour, however, the party performs better during periods of growth than when there is widespread anxiety about the economy. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1992 election, when the Tories managed to cling onto power despite presiding over the longest recession for more than 50 years. Paradoxically, Labour subsequently won power in 1997 under Tony Blair, just as the Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke had created an economic climate of steady growth, falling inflation and a buoyant housing market. Yet voters opted for Labour on the basis that Blair’s party would (the public believed) use the proceeds of growth to improve Britain’s crumbling infrastructure and make life better.

Until now, Starmer hasn’t had to talk policies. His tenure has been largely reactive. He has had to hold a government to account as it dealt with an unprecedented global pandemic. He’s also sought to avoid being dragged into culture war issues. Starmer may have knelt for Black Lives Matter during the summer following the murder of George Floyd, but he also spoke out against the forced dispatchment of the Edward Colston statue into Bristol’s harbour, as well as the ‘defund the police’ slogan adopted by activists.

To those on the Left fighting a culture war, Starmer’s action will seem inconsistent. Yet his ‘common sense’ approach — which accepts the need to tackle racism while eschewing the radicalism of progressive activists — has a good chance of resonating with the public. This is because perceptions of a culture war rampaging through British institutions are largely confined to avid social media users, talk radio pundits and newspaper columnists, where political trends from the United States are more freely adopted. The big dividing lines that fracture US politics are simply not there when the British public are brought into the equation. Nor has Johnson nor Starmer shown a particular appetite to stoke a culture war when it comes to the really big issues. Indeed, a striking thing about the government’s response to Covid-19 is how Johnson has (for the most part) been very un-Trumpesque; he has side-lined the political outriders who’ve been rebelling against mask-wearing and calling for fewer restrictions.

Moreover, as Brexit has made the headlines, Starmer has sought to deftly sidestep Tory attempts to portray him as an out-of-touch remainer. Instead of “re-opening old arguments” over remain or leave,  the Labour leader has urged Boris to “get on” with delivering a “good deal”; as such he whipped Labour into voting for the Government’s deal on 30 December.

Now Brexit is done, some believe voters will expect a tougher line from Labour on immigration. But having voted for Boris’s deal, it would look odd if Starmer now panders to the advocates of open borders who dominate the Labour membership. The Labour leader, though, has gambled that immigration is going to become less of an issue going forward. Public attitudes towards immigration have become more positive since the Brexit vote of 2016. People are also less concerned about it in general. This may change if exit from the European Union does not significantly reduce the numbers coming to the UK, but with the pandemic largely halting mass migration for the moment any way this could well prove to be clever politics by Starmer.

Starmer’s bind is that, as Sir John Curtice has phrased it, Labour “is now very heavily dependent on a pro-Remain electorate that so far at least shows relatively little sign of being resigned to Brexit”. He is gambling that this will change over the course of the current parliament, with Brexit slipping down voters’ list of concerns. However the task ahead is a daunting one. To win power in 2024 Labour must make significant gains in Scotland, retake the Red Wall seats it lost at recent elections, but also hold onto some of the metropolitan seats captured in 2017.

How, then, does he intend to do this? Critics of Starmer often target his caginess and apparent lack of a big idea. This is a familiar criticism from those on the Left who are wedded to the notion that elections are won on policy. Previous Labour leaders have bought into this way of doing politics, with little success. Ed Miliband zig-zagged between various schools of thought in the early years of his leadership, from Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour to themes of a ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘producers’ versus ‘predators’. As George Eaton wrote for the New Statesman back in 2014, Miliband “has announced policies at a rate that Westminster historians agree exceeds that of any recent leader of the opposition”. Much of it was forgotten by the 2015 election.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto offered voters a blitz of policy. Yet few believed the party could deliver it. Boris’ Conservatives won the 2019 election with a remarkably straightforward message: get Brexit done. Against this backdrop — and even if there may at times be a degree of overcorrection from the leader’s office — Keir Starmer is probably right to be cautious about Labour’s messaging.

The other reason for Starmer’s caution is the transformation Labour must undergo following Corbyn’s disastrous tenure. Just 16% of voters trusted Labour on the economy in 2019 and that was only the half of it. As the Labour MP Liam Byrne wrote following Labour’s defeat, “hundreds of voters I met thought Labour’s leader was a ­communist terrorist sympathiser who wouldn’t push the nuclear button or sing the national anthem”.

Neil Kinnock had to undertake a similar process of detoxification in the 1980s. Ultimately it wasn’t enough to save his leadership. As a study exploring Labour’s failure at the 1992 election concluded, “Labour lost because it was still the party of the winter of discontent; union influence; strikes and inflation; disarmament; Benn and Scargill.” It took Kinnock and his successors 14 years following Michael Foot’s calamitous spell as leader to turn the party’s fortunes around. Labour’s current leader has four years.

If he is to do that, then Starmer will at some point have to set out Labour’s platform for governing the United Kingdom. It must be sufficiently radical to cater to those hungry for change, while also painting Labour as a prudent and safe pair of hands – the post-Covid landscape will require a degree of economic radicalism whomever is in government.

Preceding that, Starmer must comprehensively trounce the Left or he must bring them onside. He must make that decision one way or another. And he must do all of this while holding the Government to account during most significant national crisis since the Second World War. The more successful Starmer is in the polls, the more wriggle room he will have. If he starts talking about nation, community and belonging — while offering a radical economic prospectus — the soft Left will go with him if they believe he can beat Boris. That will leave the ‘never Starmers’ isolated; it’s easy to imagine a rump of his left-wing opponents noisily forming a doomed break-away project resembling Ken Loach’s Left Unity project of the Miliband years.

But if Boris bounces back after the pandemic, then Starmer may be in trouble. It’s often said that the Labour Party is not ruthless enough in deposing flagging leaders. However, given that Starmer lacks the cult-like following of his predecessor, and after more than a decade in opposition, this particular sacred cow about Labour Party loyalty could yet be slaughtered.

Part of Starmer’s appeal is the aura of functional – perhaps even boring – competence he emits. In contrast with Jeremy Corbyn, a politician indulgently embraced by activists in relatively stable times, Starmer is the sort of person you’d want in charge during a crisis. Measured, stoical and a details-man who is on top of every brief, he has impressed with his forensic probing of the Government’s response to the pandemic. Historical comparisons are often overblown, but Covid-19 has seen the British state face its biggest crisis since the Second World War. As the rebuilding effort gets underway in the coming years, voters may look to a leader whose penumbra of understated competence is magnified by the reflection of his jaunty opposite number.

Starmer has performed a relatively good job during his first year in office. He’s had Boris on the ropes a few times and he’s thus far avoided any glaring errors or scandals. Moreover, people seem to like him. If I had to score him I would give a seven out of 10: much improved but more expected in the coming year. Perhaps it’s no wonder journalists refer to Leader of the Opposition as the hardest job in politics.