Why Starmer, not Johnson, could fall in 2022
For the first time in years, Labour has plausible alternatives
At the end of 2021, the consensus was that Boris Johnson was in deep trouble. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, was in a stronger position than at any time since he became Labour leader.
But after Starmer’s big speech yesterday, I’m not so sure. For a start he fumbled his lines. At one point he struggled to remember the third of the three values that the speech was all about — “security, prosperity and um er um and er er [nervous sip of water] um and respect”.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
But the problem wasn’t just with the delivery. The content was weak too. Instead of providing positive reasons to vote Labour, it was more about removing negative reasons not to. Starmer said he was “proud” (or “ploughed” as he pronounced it) to stand in front of the Union Jack, but why on Earth wouldn’t he be?
It’s as if Starmer’s entire strategy depends on Johnson’s continued self-sabotage. Obviously, there’s been plenty of that lately — but like most things associated with the Prime Minister it can’t be relied upon.
If there’s no more scandal and if Britain rides out the Omicron wave with comparative success, then Conservative fortunes could revive. Those are big ifs, of course — but there’s little that Starmer can do to influence them. His position is therefore more fragile than appearances suggest.
Before last year’s Tory meltdown, Labour was trailing in the polls. Starmer had to show he was capable of catching up — but the deadline for doing so was hazy. There was no defined make-or-break point for his leadership.
But now there is. Labour has a lead in the polls. To have any hope of winning the next general election the party must keep out in front. Losing the lead would be more dangerous for Starmer than if he’d never gained it.
The first poll of the year, from Redfield and Wilton, appears to show the Conservatives getting off the floor:
Westminster Voting Intention (3 Jan):
Labour 38% (-1)
Conservative 35% (+4)
Liberal Democrat 10% (-3)
Green 5% (-1)
Reform UK 4% (-1)
Scottish National Party 5% (–)
Other 2% (–)
Changes +/- 20 Dechttps://t.co/fcAAHXQrBK pic.twitter.com/kRwCKdbGxq
— Redfield & Wilton Strategies (@RedfieldWilton) January 3, 2022
Obviously, it’s just one poll. But the next few months will be a bigger test for Starmer than most Westminster pundits are allowing for. The point of maximum danger will be in the aftermath of the local elections in May. If the results are disappointing for Labour, then there’d be no better opportunity for a leadership challenge.
At the mid point of a five-year parliament, it wouldn’t be too late to give a new leader a chance. And for the first time in years, there are plausible alternatives for the party to choose from: Yvette Cooper is back on the frontline of politics; Rachel Reeves has impressed as Shadow Chancellor; Wes Streeting’s star is in the ascendancy.
Up to this point, Starmer has had time to play for and room for error. But no longer. His next slip could be his last.
I thankfully missed Starmers big speech yesterday – but having sat through his dismal “Fork in the Road” speech at the beginning of last year, your critique comes as no great surprise.
For that particular relaunch, Starmer’s woeful media advisors let it be known that, among their attempts at rebranding would be, “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.”
Oh, sure, that’ll win round Red Wall voters, just by Starmer cynically draping himself in the flag because a focus group told him (much to his surprise) that most people don’t actually despise Britain, or wish to see the monarchy abolished.
And I’m sure his professed love of democracy will convince all those who watched his 4 year campaign to thwart Brexit.
Starmer really isn’t getting much help from his team, if that’s the best they can do. Blair’s odious-but-undeniably-slick media machine is a distant memory. The current Labour press team is embarrassingly amateurish by comparison and clearly don’t understand the concept of “Under-promise and over-deliver”. They breathlessly previewed his aforementioned speech, promising it to be “on the scale of the 1945 Beveridge Report”, and then had their man deliver a sub-Miliband yawnathon, droning on in increasingly dull and uninspiring platitudes, hidden within which were only 2 discernible policies – both of which had already been suggested (and better) by a Conservative think tank. Rather than a “Fork in the Road” it was more “Follow the same path, only 4 paces behind”
What Starmer and “Starmerism” – if that really is a thing – have yet again failed to answer is ‘What is the current Labour party for? Whose interests do they seek to serve and promote?’
It’s certainly not workers. Except maybe some of those in the public sector. Most of the working class, whose interests the party was founded to serve, have long been an embarrassment to the Labour leadership. Emily Thornberry’s Van & St George’s Flag tweet, and Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy, were just moments that publicly laid bare a view that has been prevalent within Labour HQ for years.
John McTernan, Blair’s advisor, put it most succinctly when he dismissed working class supporters as the “lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices”, and urged the party to ignore them and focus instead on ethnic minority voters, who could be attracted to Labour by stoking their sense of grievance.
The Labour front bench of recent years, whether NuLabour centrists or unreconstructed Trots, seems to have an agenda completely at odds with the hopes, fears and aspirations of their former heartlands – yet still imagined those voters were theirs to command by right.
Nothing that Starmer has written, said or done is likely to win them back to the cause. Though plenty he has said and done will have persuaded former supporters that he is a duffer. A North London fauxialist who seems to have wafer thin policy positions backed up by no principles whatsoever.
Even the cheerleading Starmtroopers over at the Guardian are struggling to back him – with several conceding that he’s going nowhere and his only hope of gaining ground is for the Conservatives to do something to lose support.
Starmer is an uninspiring, charisma-free technocrat, with no instinct for leadership. The Tories will never need any campaign poster against him, other than showing the Leader and his gobby deputy kneeling to BLM.
The sole reason for Conservatives to kneel should be in thanks for only having had to face Miliband, then Corbyn and now Starmer, and praying their good fortune holds.
This comment is as good as the article!
What is the current Labour party for? Whose interests do they seek to serve and promote?’
Public sector workers, north London liberals who aren’t on PAYE, those subsidised by the state, anti-Semites, Muslims, and people with some sort of sex problem.
Probably none of their voters ticks all six of those, but many tick four.
yes yes yes yes! and yes for good measure! excellent. the John McTernan comment was a new one for me.
Starmer looks like a timid possum peeking out of a hedge in the above photo –
Thank you. This analysis is a far superior one.
The 10% drop in Tory support in the polls that was triggered by the Allegra Stratton video was always in part due to the Omicron outbreak and the general sense that another Christmas lockdown was on its way and we were back to square one.
Because so many commentators saw this drop in support as natural justice – the scales falling from the public’s eyes about the hated Boris Johnson – this connection escaped them.
If Boris resists any further restrictions and the case numbers drop as per South Africa (and now, it looks like, London) I think the Tories will be back in the lead.
That doesn’t mean they are out of the woods. They have to demonstrate that they can do something about these bleeding dinghies. If they can do that (a huge if) then I think they will be untouchable at the next GE.
Starmer: the man who said he’d respect the Referendum. Then tried for a rerun. Got rid of Corbyn. But worked to put him in power. Mute about antisemitism. Who knelt?
And his front bench? Rayner, Lammy, Thornberry, Cooper?
Vote for them?
The size of Boris’ majority ensured him two terms. Labour will therefore lose the next election, and therefore nobody will challenge Starmer for the Labour leadership.
This is partly because Labour always allows its leaders to fight an election even when they’re obviously hopeless, but it’s mainly because why would you want to challenge, win, and have that surefire defeat happen on your watch? Far better to let it happen to Starmer and then take over afterwards, in more propitious circumstances, i.e. once he’s resigned and the prospects of defeat have improved.
Personally I think the result of the next election will be quite similar to the result of the last.
I have argued before that Starmer was chosen to be Labour’s nightwatchman. Put in to hold the party together until a ‘proper’ leader could be found. To be fair he seems to have done that.
But whoever follows has to both lead and hold the Party together and win back Scottish and previously Red Wall constituencies.
Could any of the current contenders do that?
Starmer was the best of a very bad lot, but as the next GE is in the bag for Boris anyway, they should never have squandered him by making him lead them to certain defeat followed by his own resignation in May 2024.
They should have put in an expendable placeholder who won’t lose any worse than Starmer will but who would have enabled Starmer to have a go at it in 2029.
Ed Miliband would have been ideal.
That’s all very well but Starmer’s weaknesses won’t matter if Labour and the Libdems can forge some kind of informal electoral pact.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe