A year of Keir: labouring to second place

Elliot Sturge explains his disappointment with Sir Keir’s Starmer’s first year as Labour leader

“Any other Labour leader would be 20 points ahead.” This has been the refrain of the Labour left for several months now, based off a remark made by former Prime Minister and alleged war criminal Tony Blair from November 2017. At the time, Corbyn’s Labour led May’s Conservatives by two points in the polls, but, according to Blair, given the mistakes of the Government, Corbyn was to blame for not being ahead by 20. If Corbyn deserved criticism for only being two points ahead of Theresa May’s Government, one wonders what damning indictment Blair has in store for Sir Keir Starmer, who is currently 14 points behind Boris Johnson’s Government. Starmer’s Labour currently sits at only 29% approval, according to some polls – one point lower than in Jeremy Corbyn’s last opinion poll as Labour leader. In keeping with the scrutiny to which Corbyn was subjected from the day he took over as leader, we owe it to Starmer to analyse exactly where he has gone wrong.

A Fine Start

In April 2020, the future was bright for Starmer, who was hailed as the messiah of ‘grown-up’ politics. He sold himself to Labour members as a leader in the Harold Wilson mould: a unifier who would reconcile the party’s warring factions and put the pressure back onto the Conservatives. This message resonated in a time when Labour factionalism was at its worst, and this was reflected in the outcome of the contest. Starmer won with 56% of the vote in the first round, meaning that he was the first choice of more than half of the Labour membership (which is skewed towards the party’s left). Tellingly, he beat Corbyn’s protege, Rebecca Long-Bailey, by 140,000 votes; this was a clear mandate for Starmer to represent all wings of the party. Some sections of the Labour Left – those traditionally most prone to infighting – were seemingly content with Starmer as a compromise candidate, as he had served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet for the previous five years, and made commitments to several left-wing policies during the leadership campaign. Finally, the party had a leader it could get behind, putting an end to internal divisions and finally presenting an effective opposition to the Government.

Indeed, the early stages of Starmer’s reign showed promising signs. Labour’s standing in opinion polls gradually rose, peaking at a five-point lead in October 2020 (though still nowhere near the 20-point lead that was apparently necessary), while Starmer’s forensic style of questioning proved a hit at Prime Minister’s Questions. For a while, Starmer was able to get by – as he had to some degree during the leadership campaign – without setting out a particularly comprehensive vision for the country. His professional demeanour and impressive credentials were enough to make him an attractive candidate for Prime Minister.

One year later, however, both the strong poll performances and the promised party unity have disappeared, and Starmer must shoulder some of the blame. In short, he has been needlessly antagonistic towards the party’s left, failed to offer any substantial opposition to the government, and engaged in the Conservatives’ ‘culture war’ in an unsuccessful attempt to win back Red Wall voters.

War on the Left

It did not have to be like this. Starmer and the Labour Left initially had a relatively good relationship (or as good a relationship as the Labour Left can have with someone who isn’t an avowed Corbynite), but Starmer’s attitude towards them since taking over has been nothing short of hostile. During the leadership campaign, Starmer claimed Harold Wilson was the Labour leader he most admired, but he does not appear to have studied Wilson’s tactics very closely. Wilson achieved impressive levels of party unity through his appointments and through his policies; Starmer has failed on both fronts.

Left-wing representation in Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet was underwhelming to begin with; even though many left-wing Labour MPs had frontbench experience under Corbyn’s leadership, very few of them were offered positions, and the most prominent among them (Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis or Richard Burgon, for example) were either offered low-ranking positions or snubbed entirely in favour of comparatively low-profile soft-left and centrist MPs. This did not bode well for a leader who had promised a balanced Shadow Cabinet, and it went downhill from there. Long-Bailey was the first to go; she shared an interview by the Independent with actor Maxine Peake, at the end of which Peake accused Israel of teaching US police officers the brutal police tactics that resulted in the murder of George Floyd, on Twitter. Long Bailey was promptly sacked only a short time later. Some called this drastic, but there was a case to be made that, given the undeniable antisemitism problems within the party and circumstances in which Starmer took over, he had to take a strong line on this serious issue. Starmer was given the benefit of the doubt.

No such benefit would be given to Starmer when he sacked another three left-wing ministers for voting against a controversial armed forces bill. Starmer had whipped his MPs to abstain on the bill, which would give soldiers serving overseas presumption against prosecution for offences including war crimes and torture. Given that the one issue on which the Labour Left is most scathing towards the party’s centre is illegal wars, this seemed to be a very clear slight against the party’s left. Another six frontbenchers were then forced out as Starmer whipped his MPs to abstain on another controversial bill, this time permitting undercover police officers to commit crimes with impunity. Empowering the police to abuse their position is another very important issue for the Left, which Starmer at least ought to know. His distancing himself from anything vaguely left-wing appears to have been deliberate, part of an ill-conceived electoral strategy.

Culture Warrior

That the present Government aims to divert attention away from its economic policies towards the ‘culture wars’ – pitting older, white and working-class voters against young, metropolitan progressive ones – is not surprising. What is very surprising, however, is that Starmer has adopted the same tactic, presumably in an attempt to win back the Red Wall voters who were seduced by Johnson’s rhetoric in 2019. 

Aside from the uninspiring flag-based displays of patriotism, Starmer has also, among other things, denied that the mainstream media’s treatment of Meghan Markle was racist, aligning himself with Piers Morgan. He has described the monarchy as “the one institution for which the faith of the British people has never faltered,” apparently forgetting about the monarch the British people beheaded and labelled Labour the party of “law and order,” promising even tougher policing. As if this catalogue was not extensive enough, he worryingly and offensively referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment” and condemned protesters in Bristol for pulling down a statue of infamous slave-trader Edward Colston.

Starmer is so committed to courting social conservatives, that he risks becoming one himself. Nobody denies that Labour, if it is to win the next general election, must build a broader coalition of voters than it currently has. Sir Keir, however, is attempting to do so by purposefully alienating the people who currently vote for Labour. These left-wing voters, whom Starmer has tried so very hard to shake off, may still have stuck around, if this culture-war strategy were a pragmatic way of gaining voters. But – and this is worth repeating – Labour are at least 14 points behind in some opinion polls.

A Conservative’s Best Friend

An element of Starmer’s plan to win back voters from the Conservatives is seemingly to align himself with the Conservatives on as many issues as possible. I mentioned earlier the different reasons why left-wing frontbenchers had been sacked; I neglected to mention arguably the most egregious of them all, however. Last December, three MPs had to leave the Shadow Cabinet after abstaining on Johnson’s Brexit deal, when Starmer had whipped his MPs to vote for it. Those centrists who had branded Jeremy Corbyn a ‘Brexit enabler’ remained curiously silent.

Some may say that Starmer’s hesitance to oppose the Government is justified, as it would be wrong and petty to engage in party politics during this time of national emergency. Others might respond by pointing out – quite truthfully – that Starmer is the Leader of the Opposition, the one person whose job it is to oppose the Government, a Government which, arguably more than any other in British history, deserves to be opposed. Even if the ongoing pandemic did vindicate opposing the Government less than usual, it is hard to see how it could explain Starmer’s refusal to call for Matt Hancock to resign after the Health Secretary was found to have acted unlawfully over Covid contracts. Starmer also failed to call for the resignation of Robert Jenrick, after the Housing Secretary admitted to having acted unlawfully in approving a vast housing development for a Tory donor. Starmer did, however, call for Nicola Sturgeon to resign if she had broken the ministerial code (she had not, but both Hancock and Jenrick had); so at least we know he is willing to call for resignations, just not when it comes to the Conservatives. Could it be that he did not want to cause unstable governance through resignations? Possibly, but only if Starmer believes that the Housing Secretary is more crucial to effective government than the First Minister of Scotland.

Starmer is right to attack this Government – as he repeatedly does – for its ‘sleaze’ and deceit. But these attacks are merely empty words, when he does not back them up with actions. Recently, the leaders of six opposition parties in Parliament signed a letter proposing an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s persistent dishonesty, arguing that he is in contempt of parliament. None of those signatories were Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition.

I am, of course, doing Starmer a disservice. He is capable of opposing Johnson’s Government, in fact he did so quite recently. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak proposed a raise in corporation tax, Starmer – the leader of the Labour Party – opposed it. It is quite some feat for a Labour leader to hand the Conservatives the initiative when it comes to economically left-wing policies; even Corbyn never managed that.

There are a lot of things that Labour voters would forgive Starmer for, if it meant a return to Government. Whether the blunders I have listed here are among those things is as irrelevant as any opinion voiced by Tony Blair in the last 11 years, because none of the things Starmer has done have helped him come closer to power. He is polling as poorly as the last days of Corbyn.

During Corbyn’s tenure, many accused the Labour Left sacrificing electoral success in favour of losing with honour; a valid charge, but losing with honour is a lot better than losing without it, and Starmer’s Labour are currently losing with all the dignity of Prince Andrew in a BBC interview. All that remains to be seen is whether a 14-point deficit is enough to turn the centrists against Starmer, as a two-point lead was enough to turn them against Corbyn.

Elliot Sturge is a second-year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at St. John’s College. Outside of term-time, he lives in Bristol, and he enjoys playing American Football and complaining about things.

Feature image by UK Parliament, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Rwendland, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Jeremy Corbyn, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Rwendland, used under the Creative Commons License

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