In defence of Keir Starmer

The commentariat seems to be turning against the Labour leader. Fortunately, his concern is the voters outside Westminster

February 16, 2021
Photo: Darren Robinson / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Darren Robinson / Alamy Stock Photo

Every day drags. Every week a fresh anxiety or event or statement disturbs the careful orchestration of the march from impotence to power. Every month your competitors, or someone in the media simply bored or irritated by your success, looks to sully your brand, cheapen it, ridicule it. Every year there is a new height to be attained so that the momentum is not lost.” 

This is Labour’s only leader to win a general election since 1974 describing his spell as leader of the opposition, generally considered the most difficult job in British politics. If Tony Blair found the role frustrating between 1994 and 1997, he must have some sympathy for Keir Starmer. Blair inherited a battered—but not broken—party that had been led back from the depths of the 1983 and 1987 defeats by Neil Kinnock and for two years, John Smith. Blair opposed a tired government, engulfed in scandal it couldn’t shake off, divided by Europe and damaged by the ERM debacle. This is not to undermine his achievement in winning a landslide in 1997, but it offers a useful contrast to the task facing Starmer. 

Starmer became leader after Labour’s worst defeat since 1935, with the party’s brand vandalised after five years of Jeremy Corbyn, who reached unrivalled lows in political polls. It was, and remains, a party teetering on the brink of civil war, with the stink of antisemitism—and Corbyn’s shameful failure to confront it or properly apologise—hanging over it. In Starmer’s in-tray was an investigation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a party structure and national executive that had been gutted of talent, and a polling deficit to the Tories of around 20 points. 

He also faces a formidable opponent. It is a huge, but easy, mistake to underestimate Boris Johnson. He is a hapless Prime Minister, but has in 18 months “got Brexit done,” uniting, at least artificially, an unruly Conservative Party around his deal, and—so rare for politicians—built an emotional connection with the public following his period in intensive care and the birth of his latest child. “Boris” has something about him: a two-term mayor of London, a leading figure in Leave’s victory, and a Prime Minister with an 80-seat majority. He is now complemented by the smooth and clearly capable Rishi Sunak. 

This is the context in which Starmer’s first year as leader must be judged. And as the anniversary approaches, there are murmurings of discontent from the commentariat and sections of the Labour Party (beyond those actively manoeuvring for his failure). The Conservative poll lead has increased, correlating with the so-far successful vaccine roll-out. A scepticism has developed about Starmer’s lack of charisma and inability to achieve consistent poll leads against a government that has handled the pandemic so chaotically. 

This swarm of negativity—which all leaders of the opposition sporadically suffer—is broadly unfair. True, day-to-day communication and the broad political operation, hampered by the pandemic and lack of resources (the party is said to be on the verge of bankruptcy after the Corbyn years), requires improvement. But the test of a leader is whether they can they get the big calls right. Starmer has, so far, passed. 

From the outset of the pandemic, Starmer has held a line of constructive criticism of the government. Some, including New Labour architect Alastair Campbell, are frustrated that he has not “gone for the kill” as the death toll has climbed over 100,000.  

Yet a more balanced approach was appropriate because the public is eager for politicians to put aside party differences in times of national crisis. Shrill pronouncements from the opposition amid a global pandemic would not sit well, especially while polling shows that a majority do not put the blame at the government’s door, and are more sympathetic given the unprecedented nature of the threat. Starmer’s more grown-up approach to politics successfully contrasts with the years under Corbyn, who called for resignations, general elections and national strikes on what seemed like a weekly basis, and whose brand of politics often portrays all Tories as “evil” or “stupid.”  

On Brexit meanwhile, Starmer has shown he is seeking to win power, not merely lead a progressive pressure group. The 2019 election settled the issue, and the British people are exhausted by the debate which engulfed politics for four years. There were rumours of a wave of frontbench, or even shadow cabinet, resignations in the aftermath of Starmer’s decision to vote in support of the government’s deal at the end of last year—but there were only three (all with heavy Remain-supporting constituencies), illustrating relative authority over the parliamentary party. 

He avoided the pitfalls of planned CCHQ attacks—“Labour seeks to block Brexit again”—and moved the debate on (one can only imagine the uproar regarding the EU’s vaccination programme if Labour had voted against the deal). As time passes, there is no reason why Labour cannot begin to emphasise the damage being done to the economy by the Conservatives’ hard Brexit, just as Blair and Brown attacked the Tories after Black Wednesday despite supporting our entry into the ERM. 

Starmer’s management of the Labour Party itself has been successful, if not without bumps in the road. Corbyn stalwarts have been removed from the Shadow Cabinet and Starmer’s favoured candidate for general secretary has been appointed. Corbyn himself, meanwhile, rightly had the whip removed, notwithstanding the left’s howls of protest on social media. The National Executive Committee has a majority that supports Starmer and significant progress has been made on new internal disciplinary procedures to root out antisemitism. 

Starmer has responded to understandable criticism about a lack of diversity in his office with meaningful engagement, not cheap gestures. Recent data also indicates a significant churn of new members since he became leader, replacing many of those former members of the Socialist Workers Party and other groups that joined under Corbyn. The de-Corbynisation project has gone as well as it could have done in 12 months. 

More broadly, Starmer has chosen to develop the right themes in this early period of his leadership to begin the work to win back the swathe of voters Labour has lost. Adopting a patriotic motif—with Union Jacks present at set-piece speeches and political broadcasts—while discussed extensively in the comment pages of the Guardian, is not a radical political decision but a prerequisite for any potential prime minister to be taken seriously by the electorate. His conservative approach to tax rises at this juncture, and relative restraint in criticising a lack of government spending, is a signal to voters that the days of dizzying tax and spend are over. His introduction of Gordon Brown to lead a constitutional convention and careful removal of Richard Leonard, the disastrous leader of Scottish Labour, suggests there are the beginnings, at least, of a serious strategy to rebuild north of the border—essential for any Labour government.  

In his first year, Starmer has not benefitted from much political oxygen. The public are paying little attention to Labour following its disastrous election defeat. This is compounded by the all-encompassing pandemic. Beyond the policies of the pandemic—lockdown issues, Treasury support, NHS-capacity and vaccines—Starmer has no scope to begin to tell his story, espouse his values or build a political agenda. A lot of the criticism implies he had a blank canvass upon which he could paint his vision. In fact, his role on the national stage for now remains limited. 

Still, Starmer has been introduced to the public and, in general, they like what they see. He has passed George Osborne’s “Camp David test”—you can imagine him at the presidential retreat without a pang of embarrassment—and has the intellectual heft of a prime minister in waiting. He continues, despite a recent negative shift, to have a net positive poll rating, something that proved beyond both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. 

Now, the mountain gets steeper. Depending on the incipient constituency boundary review, Labour will likely require an unprecedented national swing at the next election to gain a majority of just one. In the first year, Starmer has shown he instinctively understands how the party can become competitive in 2024. The next test is whether he has the boldness and imagination to force it there.