The Keir conundrum: Labour should be soaring ahead… yet in this withering analysis, ANDREW NEIL says a struggling Starmer and his front bench of nonentities are stuck in the doldrums – and have nothing to offer Britain
Exactly 25 years ago next Sunday, Tony Blair’s Labour Party was swept to power in the biggest landslide ever recorded since Britain became a proper democracy.
The hapless John Major led the Tories, who’d been in power for 18 years, to their worst result since 1832. There was an almost 9 per cent swing to Labour and Blair ended up with a record 179-seat majority in the House of Commons.
When the sun rose to herald a glorious spring morning on the day after the election, even the weather seemed to be shining on Blair’s New Labour victory.
It is commonplace to observe that Starmer is no Blair. He is wooden where Blair was relaxed, dull where Blair was exciting, hesitant where Blair was fluent
He arrived at London’s South Bank to the sounds of D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better, his campaign theme tune, to exclaim: ‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’
It certainly had. Labour was to stay in power for 13 years. The Tories spent most of them in the political wilderness and even when they managed to take power again in 2010, it was only as a coalition government in cahoots with the Liberal Democrats. It was another five years before they could win an overall majority.
It is a measure of the electoral mountain today’s Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has to climb that he needs a Blair-size swing to secure an overall Labour majority of just one. That’s right. To squeeze into 10 Downing Street even on the slimmest of margins, Starmer needs to repeat the historic 1997 swing to Blair. It’s a tall order — probably too tall.
That’s not to diminish the progress Starmer has made in two years as Labour leader. He’s returned his party — more quickly and more comprehensively than I expected — to its mainstream social democratic roots after Jeremy Corbyn’s neo-Marxist interregnum, even though he campaigned for the leadership on a largely Corbynista platform. It was clear he never meant it.
He comes across as decent, moderate, patriotic, which is a direct contrast with Corbyn. A serious politician — which many will see as a contrast with Boris Johnson — who has risen from humble beginnings through his own efforts to become, after a high-flying legal career, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
His remoulding of the Labour Party has already had its reward in the polls: Labour now regularly leads the Tories among all major pollsters.
But that is hardly surprising: oppositions are usually ahead in the mid-term of a government’s life. What is surprising is the paucity of Labour’s lead, especially when you consider the mess the Johnson government is in.
The Prime Minister is still haunted by and hunted for breaking his own lockdown rules during the pandemic.
He is such a wounded beast that, despite an overall majority of 75, he could not muster the votes among his own MPs this week to see off a Labour move to set up yet another inquiry into ‘partygate’, this time by the Commons Privileges Committee, to ascertain if he misled the House of Commons over the Downing Street shenanigans.
Those who see this as a trivial diversion from the big issues facing the country might like to consider that, when it comes to the big issues, Johnson also has considerable form. He has reneged on his 2019 manifesto, on which he was elected, which promised no rises in income tax or National Insurance.
Instead, he’s increased both (one through a 2.5 per cent rise in National Insurance split between employees and employers, the other by freezing income tax thresholds, which is the same as a tax rise for millions when they move into a higher threshold).
The supposedly low-tax Tories now preside over the highest taxation (as a share of GDP) since the Labour government of the late 1940s.
These tax rises have exacerbated a vicious cost of living squeeze which was already under way because of rising prices, especially for food, petrol and home heating — all essentials. A cost-of-living crisis has always been manna for the Opposition.
Only 14 per cent of voters think the Government is handling inflation well; 74 per cent think it’s doing badly. The Government is deemed by voters to be doing badly on every major issue bar terrorism and defence. The Tories have even lost their reputation for managing the economy.
When Johnson delivered his big majority in December 2019, the Tories had a 32-point lead over Labour on the economy. Today they’re neck and neck (though to be fair, voters don’t seem to think Labour or the Tories are much cop at managing the economy).
Partygate has merely reinforced the general perception that Johnson simply can’t be trusted. When pollsters construct a so-called ‘word cloud’ of words people most associate with Johnson, ‘liar’ is the clear leader.
His personal popularity is down there with Gordon Brown’s when he was on his last legs as prime minister.
Trust me, that is not a good place for any PM to be.
And yet . . . the latest YouGov poll puts Labour a mere six points ahead of the Tories. One year into Blair’s leadership Labour was a massive 35 points ahead; at times his lead hit 40 points. After the Major government’s humiliating ejection from the European exchange mechanism in the autumn of 1992, the Tories were never in striking distance of Labour again.
With Labour’s current 39 to 33 per cent lead, Starmer hasn’t even managed to get Labour support above the 40 per cent essential for the huge swing he needs to win.
Crucially, he’s not persuading those who voted Tory in 2019 to convert. Only 6 per cent of these Tory voters say they’ll now vote Labour. Around 5 per cent won’t vote at all and 20 per cent are currently undecided. If most of the undecideds end up sticking with the Tories, Starmer’s slim poll lead will evaporate.
It is commonplace to observe that Starmer is no Blair. He is wooden where Blair was relaxed, dull where Blair was exciting, hesitant where Blair was fluent, struggling to extend his appeal beyond the Labour laager, whereas Blair had deadly appeal for disillusioned Tories, even in the Conservatives’ southern heartlands (where he made huge gains at the Tories’ expense).
Focus groups resound with complaints that Starmer’s ‘a bit flat’ or ‘a bit bland’. But charisma alone does not explain why Starmer is so far behind Blair when comparing the mid-1990s with now.
Policy — or rather the lack of it — is also playing its part. He’s criticised in focus groups for changing tack to bend with the electoral wind, that he doesn’t have a clear set of core beliefs.
Blair had a simple, reassuring proposition for the British people. He would not restore union power: the Thatcher laws which tamed the unions would remain intact.
The privatisation of energy, aviation and telecoms would not be reversed: nationalisation was not to be contemplated.
The defence of the realm would be safe in his hands: the unilateral scrapping of Britain’s nuclear deterrent was unconscionable (indeed, he said, if he had to, he would use it).
Starmer is up against a big spending, big government Tory in Boris Johnson, who presides over record public spending as a share of GDP and massive annual budget deficits
But what Blair also promised was billions more for schools, hospitals and other essential public services. This chimed with voters who broadly supported the Thatcher revolution but thought public services had been neglected during her tenure.
In other words, Britain would remain a market economy under Blair — but more of a social market economy. It was a winning formula. Starmer has nothing to match it. He has cleansed his party of the most egregious bits of Corbynism but he has yet to replace them with anything distinctive. He wraps himself in the flag, which is not to be sneered at (Blair was never afraid to do it); but so do the Tories.
Under his leadership, Labour is for strong defence and Nato again; so are the Tories.
He is trying to rebrand Labour as a low-tax party, which has its appeal since the Tories are now a high-tax party. But nobody really buys it — not when Labour is still making massive spending commitments. But then even extra public spending doesn’t resonate the way it did in Blair’s day.
Blair could define himself against fiscal conservatives like Thatcher and Major, who were associated with cuts in public services, sometimes unfairly.
Starmer is up against a big spending, big government Tory in Boris Johnson, who presides over record public spending as a share of GDP and massive annual budget deficits. Starmer can’t plausibly espouse lower taxes and more spending than the Johnson government.
More than 55 per cent of voters still don’t think Starmer looks like a PM-in-waiting. The same percentage don’t think Labour is ready for government. Two years after Blair became Labour leader, 58 per cent thought Labour was definitely ready for power.
And, though he has largely purged Corbynism from his party, he can’t quite escape the fact he twice campaigned for his predecessor to be prime minister. We were all reminded of what that would have entailed when, despite all that is happening in Ukraine and the horrors uncovered, Corbyn this week backed statements hostile to Nato and could not bring himself to support, much less praise, President Zelensky.
When the sun rose to herald a glorious spring morning on the day after the election, even the weather seemed to be shining on Blair’s New Labour victory
The Labour leader’s problems don’t stop at the dearth of policies. There is an even greater deficit in talent. The Tories suffer from this too. The current Cabinet is the least impressive in living memory. Only the status of office masks how bad it really is. The lack of suitable alternatives is one reason Johnson is able to cling on.
But the Labour gene pool from which Starmer can draw is even more depleted. Blair came to power with Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, John Reid, David Blunkett and more — big beasts all.
What they lacked in experience they made up for in ability and purpose. They shone brightly compared with the Tory frontbench, which was exhausted and hollowed out by 18 years in power.
In stark contrast, Starmer has Angela Rayner, David Lammy, Ed Miliband and more of that ilk most folk have never heard of. Just to list those names is to make the point. The weakness of the shadow front bench places an even greater strain on Starmer, even as he’s yet to establish his own leadership credentials with the wider public.
His Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, is competent enough but her public profile is close to invisible — despite the cost-of-living crisis moving to the top of the agenda, only 10 per cent of voters know who she is.
Indeed, after Starmer the only other Labour politician with national recognition is Ed Balls —and he’s not even in Parliament any more. He doesn’t seem to regard himself as a politician now, preferring life as a reality TV participant/presenter.
But there are those in the Labour party who’d love him to be the Labour candidate in the upcoming Wakefield by-election, which he’d almost certainly win. (His wife, Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, is head and shoulders above most of her colleagues.)
The talent famine means the Starmer operation is prone to mistakes. This week he had to retract his claim, made in the Commons, that Johnson had criticised the BBC’s coverage of Ukraine. Not a good look when you’re accusing the PM of being less than forthright with Parliament.
He has endorsed local election leaflets claiming the ‘cost-of-living crisis means families are £2,620 worse off’. The actual figure, so far, is closer to £700. Bad enough. But not almost four times worse.
These mistakes happen when you have an inexperienced leader supported by an inexperienced team. Tony Blair made sure his operation was Rolls-Royce from the start.
There are plenty in the Labour Party who despair at all this harking back to the Blair years, of course. He wasn’t even a proper Labour Party man, they say; he was an impostor who, unlike the post-war Attlee government, didn’t leave behind any marks of fundamental change.
I think that’s contestable but even if you take it at face value it leads Labour to a very dark place. If you discount Blair as ‘proper Labour’ then it means there hasn’t been a majority Labour government since 1966, when Harold Wilson was re-elected by a landslide.
In the intervening 56 years we’ve had the Tories (1970), a minority Labour government (twice in 1974), Thatcher (1979, 1983 and 1987), Major (1992), Blair (1997, 2001 and 2005), a Tory-led coalition (2010), Cameron (2015), Theresa May’s minority government (2017) and the Johnson landslide (2019).
Those who hanker after ‘proper Labour’ are, in reality, condemning themselves to perpetual opposition. There is no future for Starmer in that.
If he is ever to make it to Downing Street, he needs to hew closely to a distinctive centre-Left message. What that means in the 2020s is not easy to answer.
It is a conundrum that perplexes not just Sir Keir Starmer but America’s Democrats, Germany’s ruling Social Democrats and even French President Macron, who hopes for re-election tomorrow by straddling the centre.
But until he finds a convincing answer the chances are the Tories, whether under their current wounded beast or a fresh face, will still be in power the day after the next election — and there will be no new dawn breaking for Starmer the way it did for Blair.
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