The clever politics that could save Keir Starmer's leadership
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Keir Starmer is facing mounting criticism from within his own party. JAMES BALL assesses how seriously he should take it.
Keir Starmer is, we’re told, a politician in crisis. Despite the devastating effect of coronavirus on the UK and on the standing of the government, the Labour Party lags behind the Conservatives in the polls, his personal ratings have fallen since he became leader, and few people would successfully be able to name a trademark Starmerite policy.
He has been facing such criticisms from the corners of Twitter that think “Keith Starmer” is a dazzling display of wit since the moment he was elected to the job of Labour leader last year. But the malaise is spreading: broadsheet commentators are now sallying forth too, and a coalition of the party's MPs and unions has even called for an emergency conference to discuss his leadership.
Readers who spend less than three hours a day on Twitter might call for a pause here – Starmer has only been leader for around ten months, they could reasonably note. Surely that’s too early to be talking leadership crises, let alone defenestration?
Recent history, though, somewhat scotches that sensible-sounding argument. June 2016 was, after all, just under ten months into the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and it was then that first more than half of his shadow cabinet and then four fifths of the Parliamentary Labour Party tried to rid themselves of his leadership.
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Given that, party loyalists can hardly claim some sacred principle of inviolability in a leader’s first 12 or 18 months – but they might want to remind would-be challengers how the attempt to topple Corbyn ended up. Labour is not a party with a track record of successful ousters.
But given Corbyn faced a challenge roughly this far into his leadership, perhaps it’s worth comparing how well the two leaders are doing, relatively speaking, at this point. When Corbyn took the job, Labour were eight points behind the Tories in the polls. Exactly ten months into his leadership, Labour was eight points behind the Tories in the polls, though it had briefly closed to just a three-point gap for a time.
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The situation Starmer inherited on becoming leader of the opposition was quite different: the day he took over, Labour was a full 22 points behind the Conservatives. Ten months on, Labour are just three points behind (on an average of polls), after a period with very small leads.
Yes, critics of the current leader can argue, Starmer’s poll ratings have been buoyed by the Conservative government’s terrible handling of most of the coronavirus crisis. But Corbyn’s were similarly buoyed by a sustained Brexit campaign during which the Tories focused almost all of their fire inwardly.
Looking at individual poll scores, Starmer comes out similarly well: his net approval rating ten months into the job is a pretty mediocre +2 – the lowest of his leadership so far – but his predecessor at this stage scored an off-the-charts -38.
Starmer inherited a far worse position than Corbyn (more on this later), has far more obviously improved that position, and has much better personal ratings than Corbyn did this far into his leadership.
In fact, a poll of UK voters found only 4% of people think the Labour Party has got worse under Starmer’s leadership – with 48% saying it has improved. The headache for Starmer is that many of that 4% are concentrated within his party’s own membership and activist base – people who were prepared to excuse a far worse performance from his predecessor but will damn him for his own lukewarm results.
Part of this is simply because a hardcore element of Corbyn’s supporter base has conveniently rewritten recent history to be more flattering to the last leader and to themselves. Their version of events leans heavily on the 2017 election result, on crowds shouting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” and on Labour polling above 40%.
Missing from that history is the Conservatives polling still higher in the 40% range, the 2019 election delivering Labour’s most disastrous result since 1935, and a bitter and divisive internal struggle over the party leadership’s failure to tackle endemic racism against Jewish people.
The realistic position is that no leader is going to be able to repair all that damage overnight, especially not one like Starmer, who was essentially chosen as the compromise candidate – someone who might try to paper over the cracks in the hope they’d eventually heal by themselves, rather than try to save the party through a fiery reckoning.
None of that is to say that Starmer doesn’t face real problems, though. Compromise choices rarely set the electorate on fire, and Twitter firebrands aside, Starmer is not a politician who inspires strong emotions in either his followers or detractors.
His caution and desire not to make a misstep is starting to show itself – Labour sometimes sounds more pro-austerity than the Conservatives, so determined are they not to accidentally sound like spendthrifts. Starmer has played his hand cautiously, not revealing too much in the way of politics, signalling wonkishly the party is to the left of where it once was without spooking the horses.
In other words, it’s starting to worry people in and around the Westminster bubble that Starmer has a touch of the Milibands. If that label sticks, and it’s close to doing so, the 'continuity Miliband' label could sink Starmer and Labour with it. But he still has time.
It is not as easy to be in opposition during a global crisis as some of Starmer’s detractors believe. People want some sense of unity against an outside threat, a recognition of hard times, and to believe everyone wants to help and for things to work out. Trying to attack the government without looking like you’re hoping for it to fail – and thus the virus to win – is a delicate line.
There is one place Starmer can turn to for help on this front, though – to the last Conservative opposition, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Cameron and Osborne’s genius here was to turn a global financial crisis, primarily caused by US banks, into a UK crisis caused by Labour supposedly spending too much while in office (handily leaving out that they had, until just months before, endorsed those spending plans too).
It is not hard to see how Starmer could do the same: Britain has suffered more than any other high-income country from coronavirus. Starmer could connect that up to underfunded and exhausted councils, an NHS in a state of perpetual annual crisis from under-funding, a broken welfare system, and a distant and uncaring government.
It is clever politics, it is directly from the Conservatives’ own playbook, it has the benefit of being true, and it might even – if only briefly – end the constant accusations from his own side of being a ‘centrist’. Is he brave enough to try it?
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