There are some leaders of the opposition who you knew, in your heart of hearts, would never be Prime Minister. Michael Foot, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Miliband all come to mind. So too does Keir Starmer.
Starmer, in his defence, inherited a sinking ship from Jeremy Corbyn. He was handed the lowest number of seats since 1935, a bitterly divided party and a Labour brand that even today remains thoroughly discredited among a large swathe of the country. Corbyn did not cause all of these problems but he certainly entrenched them.
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Labour’s fracture with the working class, its loss of credibility on crunch issues such as the economy and immigration and its growing dependency on social liberals who congregate in areas where the party no longer needs votes were all decades in the making. This is why any recovery — if such a recovery is even possible — will be generational rather than cyclical.
Starmer made a good start, or at least appeared to. Over the past year, Labour picked off low-hanging fruit, winning back voters who were repelled by Corbyn. In the polls, Labour’s average support jumped from below 29% to 35%. At the last election, Labour trailed the Conservatives by 12 points; today, they trail by 8.
How much of this improvement is due to Starmer remains unclear. While his supporters point to his strong leadership ratings relative to Corbyn, the fact remains that even today Starmer’s “net satisfaction” score still lags behind Boris Johnson — while 33% of voters are satisfied with him, 42% are not. Leaders only ever have a short period to make an impression. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Starmer, a year after becoming leader, has now blown his.
Ask someone on the street to describe Starmer and they’ll probably say he opposed Brexit, is a lawyer, took the knee for Black Lives Matter and is better than Jeremy Corbyn but still doesn’t represent “people like them”. This might explain why, when the country is asked who would make “best Prime Minister”, Johnson still leads on 37% while his nearest rival is not the leader of the opposition but ‘Not Sure’. Starmer trails in third, ten points adrift from the man who has been in power for a year and is criticised on a daily basis.
There are, of course, many who argue that Covid-19 dealt Starmer an unlucky hand. But it is during moments of crisis, when the glare of public attention is strongest, that leaders are made. Indeed, it won’t be lost on Starmer’s team that it is precisely at the same time as the entire country has been sat at home, watching the news and paying attention to politics, that Starmer’s ratings have fallen not risen. To put it simply, the more people have seen, the less impressed they have been.
Starmerites might respond that his ratings are better than Mr Corbyn’s. But that is like saying Michael Howard’s ratings were better than Iain Duncan Smith’s. In the end, neither saw power. And it appears that the British people can sense that, too. More than half of them told YouGov last week that they simply do not see Keir Starmer as a prime minister in waiting.
Even if you put the question of leadership aside, there remains little evidence that Labour is dealing with the deep-rooted structural problems that arguably make it impossible for the party to win the next election. To do so would require a swing close to what Tony Blair and New Labour achieved in 1997 – with a leader who is nowhere near as popular as Blair was and a party that is nowhere near as popular as it needs to be outside of London and the university towns.
As the 2019 election and today’s polls underline, amid the “realignment” of British politics Labour is stacking votes where it does not need them while failing to win votes where it desperately needs them. Labour will probably cheer Sadiq Khan’s easy victory in London next month, while struggling to hold its historic blue-collar fiefdom of Hartlepool. It is cruising in its stronghold of London with a 20-point lead, but across the rest of the south it is 25 points behind. No party can win power with these numbers.
This reflects how Britain’s new political geography, the first-past-the-post system and earlier Labour leaders have made life harder than it ought to be for Starmer. Over the past two decades, the Left essentially walked into the casino of British politics and put all of its chips behind social liberals whose support is concentrated in liberal enclaves rather than spread across the country. Much of that was entrenched during Corbyn’s tenure and by the dismal reaction to Brexit, and now Starmer is paying the price. Ask the working class today who should lead Britain and Boris Johnson holds a 19-point lead. Starmer might win a few more seats around London, but he should remember that there are still many more Red Wall seats that could fall. The assault on the Red Wall might just be starting.
There is a broader point to be had, too. At the heart of recent political commentary has rested a fundamentally flawed assumption: that once Brexit was over and done with life would return to the traditional “Left versus Right” fault line that governed politics during the twentieth century. We would get back to debating the economic issues that play to Labour’s strengths and that would clear the path for the party to repair its relationship with workers and return to power.
But I was never convinced. For a start, this narrative completely ignores the extent to which the Conservatives have also leaned towards the Left, variously promising to “level-up” the most regionally imbalanced nation in the industrialised world while moving institutions, civil servants and banks north.
It also underplays the extent to which culture, rather than economics, has come to dominate national life — as reflected in our intensifying debates over cancel culture, freedom of speech, the Royal Family and racism in British society. Only last week, voters looked on as Keir Starmer and a number of his MPs rejected a nuanced report on racial and ethnic disparities and instead implied that Britain, and by extension the British people, are inherently racist. Every day that radical left Labour MPs Clive Lewis and activists like professor Priyamvada Gopal are in the news, screaming about racist Britain, is a good day for Boris Johnson.
But as Ronald Reagan reminded Jimmy Carter, nobody wants to be told over and over again what is wrong with their country and its people, especially when much of it is not true. Nobody wants to hear about the malaise. They want to be inspired and led to the sunlit uplands. They want their leaders to believe in the country as much as they do. Yet as much research over the past year has shown, it is precisely on these questions about culture, identity, race and history where Labour MPs and activists are completely detached from the rest of Britain.
Put all of this together and it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to see how Starmer charts a path to No 10. While he might have steadied the ship, too many gaping holes remain. Labour’s broken bond with the working class, its perceived lack of economic competency, the cultural isolation of its MPs from the average voter and an increasingly radical “woke” Left that is cheered on in seats that the party already holds, but loathed in those that Labour actually needs to win — these are all major obstacles that Starmer has yet to tackle.
And unless he does, then he might find himself going down in the history books as the Labour Party’s Michael Howard — the man who brought “stability” but ultimately failed to win power.