When Sir Keir Starmer became the leader of the Labour Party in January this year, no-one anticipated the seismic events that would unfold throughout 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped Britain and redefined politics.
During the December election, Labour were ridiculed as unrealistic and condemned as financially irresponsible for a commitment to roll out free Wifi across the country – now the Government is paying 9.6 million people’s wages.
So far, the UK has suffered 60,000 deaths, GDP decline of 11% and 2.7m people are claiming income support. Now winter is coming: we have entered a second lockdown with all the mental hardship that isolation entails, and Boris Johnson is warning that ‘deaths could be twice as bad’ as in the spring. National leadership has not been as necessary or so desired since the end of World War II.
Has ex-lawyer Sir Keir Starmer stepped up to the podium and provided national leadership, scrupulous attention to detail and constructive opposition as his supporters proclaim? Or is his caution, conflict-adverse approach unbefitting of the moment, a relic of January 2020 and a future that wasn’t to be?
With a slick suit, a dashing haircut and a knighthood, he hopes he can present Labour’s left-economic platform to the affluent middle England
In the course of the leadership election Keir Starmer was often evasive and reluctant to commit to concrete policy positions or to outline a definitive vision for the country, however he made one thing crystal clear: he was the man to return Labour to government.
This would be the raison de’etra of his tenure. To the despondent Labour masses, the majority of whom would be more aligned to the policy platform of the left candidate Rebecca Long-bailey, the promise of a Labour party back in Government was enough to win him a convincing victory.
In contrast to his predecessor, Starmer radiates a ‘Prime Ministerial’ image. With a slick suit, a dashing haircut and a knighthood, he hopes he can present Labour’s left-economic platform to the affluent middle England and the socially-conservative working-class in the north, whilst at the same time assuring them of his patriotic credentials and credibility on issues of ‘national security’, which proved so toxic to Jeremy Corbyn.
Ten months into his leadership, with YouGov polling showing Labour now at 40%, and level with the Conservatives after a low of 32.5%, he would argue he is well on the way to fulfilling his promise. In a ‘regular’ year it would be difficult to argue against this achievement, yet this is anything but a regular year.
The Conservative response to the coronavirus is almost universally considered to be an abject failure. From entering lockdown almost 2 weeks after most European countries, which Imperial College London’s and former lead SAGE modeller Neil Ferguson estimates doubled the death toll, to the Eat-out to help out scheme in August followed by the need to enact local lockdown the following month, their response to the pandemic has been reactive, ad hoc and clumsy.
The latest YouGov polling shows just 32% of the UK population think that the Government has handled the pandemic ‘well or somewhat well.’ Given the precarious state of the economic and public health situation, to be tied with this Government seems like somewhat less of an achievement.
More poignantly however, is the broader impact of the Labour party over the course of this crisis. With an election still over 4 years away, a narrow focus of public polling can obscure the wider strategic imperatives for the opposition. The role of an opposition party is not simply to observe and respond to public opinion but rather to participate in the debate and actively shape it.
The greatest success of Jeremy Corbyn came not at the ballet box, but rather in the shifting attitudes amongst the UK population to the policies he advocated for: the national centre for social research survey shows support for an increase in public spending grew from 49% in 2016 to 60% in 2018, those with a positive attitude to immigration grew from 30% to 48% over the course of Corbyn’s tenure, and 60% of the public now agree with his signature policy of water and railway nationalisation.
Shifting public opinion is not simply beneficial to those whose lives it impacts (e.g. immigrants being able to enjoy a more tolerant, hospitable environment where they can build their lives) but it also has instrumental worth for success at the ballot box.
Changing public opinion now, in a unparalleled time whereby the public is more receptive than ever to bold ‘Labour’ ideas, would pay off in 4 years’ time when Labour will be forced to present it’s vision for the future of the country.
Keir Starmer’s reluctance to do so, illustrated most pertinently by repeated abstentions on bills and his absence from the national conversation, other than to pursue foregone victories like calling for the universally acknowledged need for more test and trace, is damaging to his election prospects and damaging to those who need the Labour party to be their voice.
Ultimately, Keir Starmer’s success will be judged by the result of the 2022 election. Yet if he wins, but fails to bring people on board with Labour’s vision for the country now, it will be difficult then to implement meaningful changes in the face of an inevitable Murdoch Media backlash; he could await a fate similar to Tony Blair, holding office but not evidently holding power.
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