Now that we’ve finally heard Boris Johnson’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, a key question remains: when will we see a return to politics as normal? It might not be the most pressing concern for most people, but for Keir Starmer and his supporters, it matters. Only when this happens can Labour start making some serious assaults on the Tories stubborn poll-lead.
As a Labour member of ten or so years I want Starmer to have a chance to shine. After all, it is not like my party has been blessed with great leaders in recent years. Much of my time on the doorstep during the 2010 and 2015 general elections involved shying away from talk about leadership. When I wasn’t fending off these comments, I was being battered around the head with questions about selling gold or brotherly back-stabbing. I wasn’t alone: Labour friends of mine say this was an experience which only got much worse under Jeremy Corbyn.
So I was very glad when Starmer won the leadership, and happier still when the media heaped praise on him. Not only was he ‘forensic’ but also ‘prime-ministerial’. You can imagine my excitement at the prospect of canvassing under a popular leader. What a novelty! Of course, any door knocking would be contingent on the lifting of lockdown restrictions, but I could wait. Well, I thought I could. It turns out it’s too late now. Keir Starmer just hasn’t got it, or at least that appears to be the verdict from many political commentators.
A piece in the New Statesman, by Stephen Bush, which highlighted grumblings about the leadership among Labour MPs was blown up as evidence in itself that Sir Keir’s ‘own side’ were turning against him. But the key distinction made in the article – between the differing opinions of Starmer inside and outside of the Westminster-bubble – was all but ignored.
We were informed by the Guardian’s Marina Hyde that, like her, our ‘nutter’ nation was crying out for less ‘sober and detailed university lecture(s)’ from Starmer and more Indiana-esque boulder dodging. Matthew Parris, writing in the Times, bemoaned Starmer’s lack of policies and boldness. Queue a succession of pieces over the following weeks saying the same sort of thing.
But this negative verdict on Starmer feels far too premature. It’s true that the polls are still looking rough for Labour. A succession of underwhelming PMQ performances have also done little to reassure those of us sceptical of this recent wave of Starmer critical commentary. Yet wavering Labour supporters need to retain a sense of perspective: Starmer could become Britain’s next prime minister if only he is given half a chance.
These are not normal times. It’s no surprise that the country is rallying behind the Prime Minister during a national emergency. Now, with the vaccine rollout proving to be an unqualified success, Boris looks unassailable. But this good feeling won’t last forever.
As Britain plots its way out of this crisis there will be difficult moments ahead. The Tories will be treading a fine line and could easily slip up. Starmer’s Labour critics should remember this and know that a few bad polls should not erase the progress Starmer has made during this difficult last year.
As for Starmer’s star power, I have detected no noticeable decline in the Leader of the Opposition’s razzmatazz. He has just as much (or rather little) now as he did nine months ago. Of course, back then it was seen by those who are now criticising him as the sign of his seriousness, as a ‘prime-ministerial’ quality.
What about the criticism of Starmer’s increasing cautiousness? This may carry some weight if it were not for the sheer unpredictability of the past few months. Starmer’s careful approach, at least for now, is correct. Now is hardly the time to vocalise your blue-sky thinking let alone to go aggressively on the attack. Everyone’s minds are on returning to normality and the public have made it clear that they don’t want those on the green benches playing politics with the pandemic.
Starmer’s critics who make this charge of timidity also conveniently forget the proactive and brave decisions he has taken in the last year. Have the Starmer-sceptics already forgotten about the purging of the hard-Left from his new Shadow Cabinet? Or the swift boot he gave his leadership rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and then his predecessor? Or the time he whipped his largely pro-Remain party behind the Government’s Brexit deal.
Given this, it was no wonder that Keir made such a good early impression. Unlike Corbyn, and to a degree Miliband, he was not instantly dismissed by the electorate and has enjoyed favourability ratings similar to Tony Blair and David Cameron. And while these ratings may wane, during a period of national uncertainty which would test any opposition leader, his first impressions are worth remembering.
Starmer will have plenty of time to tackle the causes of the Tories’ stubborn poll lead. Labour’s leader recognises that his party is perceived as unpatriotic and profligate with public spending. He has wrapped himself in the Union Jack, despite criticism from some within his party. In recent weeks he has even talked-up business.
While these efforts may all seem a little superficial there is little point setting out a big vision and raft of policies now. In fact, Starmer’s speech last week, billed as the new Beveridge report, proves the point. While the content was sound enough, nobody was listening. Labour, especially its policy hungry activists, must remember that the general election is three years away. Right now people are, more than ever, concerned with the here and now.
Being down on Starmer is clearly the flavour of the month. It will likely last till we get fully out of lockdown. His newly convert critics might find him boring but the pubic appears to (still) look on him relatively well.
Perhaps Labour activists and supporters unhappy about Starmer should remember what came before him. We should rejoice in no longer have a leader who is a drag on the party.
Of course this alone is not enough to win the next election. Labour will have to have to do a lot more to convince voters it will stand up for the country and spend their money wisely. However, Sir Keir appears willing to rise to this challenge and, despite understandable cautiousness during the pandemic, he has a track record for making bold and tough decisions.
Starmer should ignore the doubters, and persevere with his slow and steady approach to rebranding the Labour party to once again ensure that it can win an election.<//>
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