At first glance, Keir Starmer’s leadership appears to be in crisis. In May’s elections, he failed his first big test, then compounded his vulnerability with a botched reshuffle that left his deputy leader, Angela Rayner, with much more power than he intended.
Since then, he has looked like a leader trying to save his skin, having recorded a reportedly emotional interview with Piers Morgan, which is said to show a different side to the often rigid, lawyerly Starmer we see. On top of that, a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary about being the opposition leader is being filmed – something it’s hard to see as anything but desperation for publicity. With another ‘red wall’ by-election in Batley and Spen imminent and on a knife-edge, Starmer is going all out to halt the downward spiral that is his leadership.
That said, Starmer is probably in less danger than it seems. He has far more support in the parliamentary party than his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn did, and anyone with a long enough memory will remember that any attempt to force him out resoundingly failed. It must be reassuring for Starmer as however unpopular he is, Corbyn is probably going to have been in a worse position.
It’s also worth noting that Starmer has only ever been leader in the time of Coronavirus, which will have helped him in some ways, including not having to give large Corbyn-like rallies to the masses which would not suit his relatively mundane style. But ultimately, the pandemic has probably hindered Starmer more than it’s helped him.
At the start of his tenure in the depths of lockdown, it was difficult to oppose the government as this would look uncooperative; by the autumn, when the mistakes of the spring and summer were fully unravelled, this approach looked less wise. Then by spring of this year, all was forgotten, and the so-called ‘vaccine bounce’ revived the Conservatives. Am I saying it’s impossible for Starmer to compete? No. But he is facing an uphill struggle as he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to opposing the government on the pandemic.
There’s also the issue of publicity. With daily Coronavirus briefings, certain government ministers gained quasi-celebrity status. Who hasn’t heard of Rishi Sunak or Matt Hancock? By comparison, Annalise Dodds and Johnathan Ashworth, Sunak and Hancock’s shadows, are relative unknowns. Whilst Starmer’s reshuffle has improved the shadow cabinet, demoting the lacklustre Dodds and replacing her with the more vibrant Rachel Reeves, it is still as a whole lacking fight and, more importantly, recognition.
The omission of big figures such as Hillary Benn and Yvette Cooper from his top team is damaging Starmer. Perhaps they didn’t want jobs in a failing cabinet, or Starmer is afraid they would overshadow and outperform him as Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester has. This is a sign of weakness, Starmer must recognise the talent that surrounds him and utilise it to the max, plugging his gaps. It may not be great for his ego, but a poor leader is one who fails to use the resources they have effectively. If Starmer can’t do that, it’s curtains on this act in Labour history.
Communication is far from Starmer’s only problem. Policy and values are arguably even more of an issue for Labour. The loss of the ‘red wall’ seats in the North has made Labour electorally unviable, with some accusing the party of losing its roots and betraying working-class voters. Starmer will have to claw the trust of these voters back inch by inch, another uphill struggle.
He is making all the right signals, appointing Deborah Mattinson, author of Beyond the Red Wall, as his director of strategy. This appointment should steer Starmer in the right direction to winning back these northern seats, but there are still many obstacles to overcome. The ‘Boris Factor’ of incessant positivity and charisma means he simply cannot be ignored and resonates more than the relatively grey shadow that is Starmer, who also risks alienating Labour’s more liberal metropolitan voters if he focuses on the northern working classes too much, something which could easily lead to votes sliding to the Greens or Liberal Democrats.
Finally, Starmer must contend with the enormous factional divide within his party, with some, such as Owen Jones, arguing he needs to defend traditional socialist values, and others arguing he needs to shift to the Blairite centre ground. As Blairite Peter Mandelson put it “Lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose”.
The divide in the Labour party couldn’t be clearer, but the solution to the problem couldn’t be more elusive. Starmer has several mountains to climb if Labour is to improve their results at the next general election, as the pandemic retreats, he must come out all guns blazing, telling the world what Labour is about with a strong communications strategy, a stronger team and policies which appeal to the working classes. Many have said they wouldn’t like to be Prime Minister during the pandemic. Personally, I’m not sure if being Leader of the Opposition is much better politically.