Diane Abbott has exposed Keir Starmer's Red Wall dilemma

20 March 2021

6:15 PM

20 March 2021

6:15 PM

Were Keir Starmer more like Gordon Brown in temperament then by now he’d be throwing his mobile phone at a wall and ranting about the bigotry of the electorate. Instead, he plods on. Or perhaps we should confine ourselves to saying merely that he plods given the lack of any discernible sign of progress.

YouGov produced more terrible numbers for Starmer this week when its monthly tracker poll on public views of his performance emerged. A month ago, it showed him in net negative territory for the first time, at -6 in the split between those saying he was doing well compared to those saying he was doing badly.

Now that rating has deteriorated to -13. He scored especially badly with the over-50s (-19) and men (-22). Even Labour voters – who scored him a mighty +55 when he debuted on the chart last May – now only give him a +5.

The conventional template for success for an opposition leader says that he – we are talking Labour, so it’s always a he – should first secure his party’s electoral base and then seek to broaden its appeal. But the YouGov poll indicates that Starmer is failing on both fronts simultaneously. Among 2016 Remain voters his net favourability score has declined from an initial +41 to +3. Among Leavers it has tumbled from +11 to a shocking -33.

What’s going wrong? Certainly he lacks the gifts that would be required to transform a very difficult inheritance from Jeremy Corbyn. But I think it is more than that. The usual model for success simply doesn’t work when your party’s base stands for everything that your target voters detest and vice versa.

Starmer won the party leadership by talking up his liberal-leftist credentials, including preaching the merits of continued free movement, closing asylum seeker holding centres such as Yarl’s Wood and supporting a measure to place legal restrictions on a prime minister’s ability to take the country to war.

Base secured? Hardly. The moment he started appearing next to the Union Flag and talking about patriotism, Labour activists kicked off against him. Left-wing MP Clive Lewis accused him of refusing ‘to unpack our country’s relationship with patriotism, identity and racism’. Taking away Jeremy Corbyn’s membership of the parliamentary party produced a similar backlash.

So, more recently, Starmer has decided to try and re-secure his base, appearing to take the side of Harry and Meghan against the Queen and belittling the idea that desecrating a national monument (‘attacking a statue’ as he described it on Twitter) should be treated as a serious crime. Yet this just tells the lost tribe of socially conservative Red Wall voters that his pitch to them was never sincere.

It is a measure of the weakness of Starmer’s position that he has suddenly abandoned his doctrine that Labour should abstain on rather than oppose any legislation to do with public protection or national security.

Diane Abbott rather mercilessly exposes all this flip-flopping in an article for the Labour List website under the unhelpful headline: ‘Labour needs to think about the merit of any legislation, not the ‘Red Wall’’

The former shadow home secretary certainly knows how to hurt an erstwhile human rights lawyer when he is down, observing of his 11th-hour U-turn to oppose the Police Bill: ‘Labour ought to know where it stands on this type of issue’.

That lofty derision towards extra police powers will go down well in Abbott’s Hackney and Stoke Newington constituency. No doubt the Red Wall also thinks Labour should know where it stands. The problem for Starmer is that it wants the party to face the opposite way.

And while Abbott, who holds a 33,000 majority, cannot lose, in those Red Wall seats it is looking more and more like Labour cannot win.

In modern Britain, land of the culture war, can the party of Hackney also be the party of Hartlepool? Well, we are about to find out given the looming by-election in that very working-class and culturally conservative northern town. Labour limped home ahead of the Tories in 2019 with a majority of 3,500 thanks in large part to the more than 10,000 votes garnered by Brexit Party candidate Richard Tice, now the leader of Reform UK.

The bookies know what they think is going to happen this time round, making the Conservatives red hot favourites to take the seat. Being unable to hang on to an archetypal Red Wall seat in a mid-term by-election – a seat that even Corbyn’s Labour of 2019 successfully defended – would be a devastating blow.

Base alienated, target voters blowing raspberries at him, authority diminished if he sits on the fence and further diminished if he flip-flops between his two competing audiences, 2021 is turning into Starmer’s annus horribilis.

Could an alternative leader do any better? That is highly doubtful. The ex-military man Dan Jarvis would have more credibility in the eyes of Red Wall voters, but would surely be unable to keep the metropolitan left on board at all.

Other than that, the cupboard is bare of potential miracle-workers. Starmer is failing because Labour is failing. The electoral coalition that sustained it as a potential party of government for so long has collapsed. It exists now only as a block to creative change on the centre-left: always strong enough to hold on to runner-up status, never strong enough to win.

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