GLEN O’HARA assesses the Labour leader’s performance since he took the reins, and his ultimate prospects.
Sir Keir Starmer has spent nearly a year now presenting himself as a diligent, calm and intelligent leader – a kind of ‘Mister Competence’, in contradistinction not just to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, but also to his immediate predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Where Johnson and Corbyn seem like mercurial, big picture ‘outsiders’, new types of prickly hedgehog politicians who know One Big Thing, Starmer appears like the ultimate in managerial fox: he knows about lots of things, and he knows where to find out more.
Still, every strength has an obverse as its weakness. John Major had an everyman quality, until voters decided they wanted something more than a plodding neighbour; Gordon Brown looked strong, until he looked juttingly aggressive; David Cameron was your posh-but-lazy boss who liked a laugh with the shopfloor, until he dropped contracts and accounts all over the place and lost you your job, as well as his.
Starmer is just the same. He is intelligent, careful, considered – but flip that around and it can mean dry, halting and nitpicky. Order can morph into sterility, constancy into boredom, detail into confusion. It’s why so many marriages end in divorce – and why political leaders definitely have an ever-shortening shelf life.
It can also mean ‘educated’, haughty, disconnected and arrogant, at least in the argot of the right wing blogosphere and the angriest reaches of Brexity social media – but can also sound like ‘peak London’, at a time when the capital is increasingly adrift from, and unloved by, the rest of the country.
There are two strategic dangers to the politics of competence, especially in an age of technicolour anger and politics-as-story: the first is that constant opposition-in-detail can look like obstruction. One recent focus group found that many voters didn’t like the impression that Starmer was ‘consistently criticising’ at a time of national emergency.
The second danger is that you can end up behind the curve, losing all sense of imagination and emotional attachment as you and your shadow ministers struggle to keep up with events only the government can shape: the classic example of this was when Labour failed to call for school closures to battle Covid before Johnson was forced to announce them.
Voters can picture Starmer as prime minister, just as in the early 1960s they could envisage Hugh Gaitskell and in the 1990s imagine John Smith standing on the steps of No. 10. He has the makings and the air of a dutiful and trusted public servant.
But in both Gaitskell and Smith there was also a fire, a spark – in Gaitskell’s words to “fight and fight and fight again”, or in Smiths’ passion for “the extraordinary potential of ordinary people”. It is slightly less clear that Starmer has this one essential characteristic, this charismatic ‘x factor’ of a reason to trust him with power itself.
Here there was always a point to the Corbynites’ criticism of frightened compromise with Labour’s enemies, because drifting day-to-day without a clear set of principles (however blunt or old-fashioned) can gradually drain the will and sap the image. Corbynite leaders might have been incompetent or unpleasant: not all of their analysis was wide of the mark, or they would never have persuaded many right in the centre of Labour’s membership to vote for them in the first place.
All that said, it would be extremely unwise to underestimate Labour’s leader. The last couple of years could really be summed up in one insight: don’t bet against Keir Starmer.
He watched and waited while the Corbyn shadow cabinet dug itself further and further into the mire: his actions since his elevation to the leadership show almost beyond doubt that he must have been seething. But instead he refused what must have been the strong temptation to walk out, reckoning that his revenge would be better served not so much cold as icy.
Then he defeated the Corbynites’ (albeit reluctant) choice for the leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey: a diminished figure now, perhaps, since Starmer so ruthlessly sacked her, but seen as a more than competitive rival back in early 2020, at a time when many ‘experts’ were speaking of an unshakeable Corbynite grip on the party.
First he ran from the left, emphasising continuity with the policy offer of 2017 and even 2019, disagreeing only with the latter manifesto’s ‘overloaded’ shopping list of proposals. Then he moved his message and signals, if not yet all his policies, sharply towards the centre.
In so doing, he has earned the undying hatred of the Very Online Left. By refusing to accept Corbyn himself back into the Parliamentary Labour Party after the ex-leader appeared to undermine the party’s fight against anti-Semitism, he has further compounded his sins in the eyes of many Labour activists.
Starmer’s march through the Labour machinery has however been incremental and skilful, as well as relatively successful. He has appointed his own choice for general secretary, firmed up his rather tenuous grip on Labour National Executive Committee, and seems to have played some role in forcing out the Richard Leonard, the Corbyn-era leader of Scottish Labour.
What is the result? A sharply better polling performance than the one he inherited, although of course the effect of the coronavirus crisis enormously inflated the government’s numbers when he took over in the spring of 2020.
And there is some evidence, incomplete and fragmentary as it is, of strong progress in ex-Labour seats that now comprise the new marginals: J.L. Partners, the same company that ran the focus group revealing worries about Labour carping, has shown that the voting position in the so-called ‘red wall’ has been nearly reversed since the 2019 election. Most of those seats in the Midlands and north of England would now go back red again.
The politics of competence, though grinding and problematical, can pay off. Some observers seem to think that those parts of England are full of chips-and-whippet Brexiteers, obsessed with culture wars and national identity.
In reality, such voters might welcome a bit of quiet, good governance and order after the last few years. And they might guess, almost certainly rightly, that the better public services they want are more likely to be delivered by just such a premiership.
Starmer has made it to base camp in fairly good shape. But before him is a vast, imposing mountain range – zig-zagging up to the peak of actual power. And even that is a false summit, because if he relies on the Scottish National Party to support a minority Labour government – still more if his parliamentary party is smaller than the Conservative bloc – he will then face governing at the whim of others.
Labour’s frontman is strong on the equipment needed. He has a better team behind him than the party has managed to assemble for some years. But is he a real leader, demonstrating to others that the first razor-sharp ridge can be conquered, and then the tougher long haul beyond endured? Only more time, and more tests, will tell us.
Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2012) and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is currently working on a history of the Blair government of 1997-2007