Updated: May 20, 2020
The Mountain to Climb
The Labour Party is a mess. In December of 2019 it suffered its worst general election defeat since 1935. After 9 years of opposition and despite fighting a Conservative Party who just months prior won a derisory 9% in the EU elections, the British Labour Party not only failed to win in key areas, but were totally routed in their heartland territories. The rump Labour Party can only now boast of its dominance in London, and it’s from here that the new Labour Leader hails. Enter Sir Kier Starmer, elected as Labour Leader with a stonking mandate from the party membership, the North London Knight is a highly capable former Director of Public Prosecutions. There is no doubting his intellectual capacity, particularly when set against his predecessor. However, as a political strategist, Starmer's track record seemingly points to incompetence: being generally credited as the architect of Labour’s disastrous 2019 Brexit policy, which even a blind man could see was a dud.
He brought his talents honed as a lawyer to the dispatch box as Shadow Brexit Secretary, employing his wit and guile to deftly lay gloves on his opposing numbers, weaving in and out of the technicalities with an ease that aptly demonstrated his comprehensive knowledge of his brief. But this too missed the mood of the country, though the London centric Peoples Vote enthusiasts might have spent their weekends marching, and their days re-tweeting clips of a Minister fumbling over the precise agri-food tariff or some such, the country just wanted to ‘Get Brexit Done’. They had voted for it after all!
During the torturously long leadership campaign Starmer at no point showed, publicly at least, any self-awareness of the degree to which his steering of the Labour party had sunk it electorally. Farcically, he has since doubled down on the policy. However, Starmer has assumed office in the middle of a pandemic. Brexit, for now at least, must take a back seat, as speculative debates about whether the economy may grow or shrink by 0.5% pale in comparison to the reality that the nation will soon face its greatest ever economic crisis. Before long Starmer’s involvement in crashing Labour’s ship upon the rocks will be a footnote upon a footnote of history, as all eyes turn to his performance during this global pandemic.
Successes so far
Kier has in many ways begun impressively. Whether he is taking full advantage of the freedom he now enjoys, having won the leadership contest, whether his advisers have changed, or he himself is on manoeuvres is unclear. But what is for certain is that Kier is pivoting immediately. His moves do seem ever so slightly, but noticeably agonisingly constrained by the left of the Labour Party, as Kier rolls out messaging via social media, aimed at the membership, justifying his every move. But in the mass media he shows a different side, a tale of two Kiers really. The time of writing, May 8th, is VE day, and today Kier has written the Conservative supporting Telegraph’s front page, as he appeals to a patriotic spirit in order to better target his criticism of the government. "We owe it to the VE generation to protect them from the virus in care homes” reads the headline penned by Kier. Well who could disagree with that? And to have it splashed across a Tory paper is some mean feat indeed.
He has also made well publicised comments that “Labour should not shy away from patriotism” and talked about his aim and desire to improve the country, as something born out of a love for it. In couching his critiques of government policy in these ways, he is mitigating the extent to which he, and the Labour Party, could be perceived as sniping at a government which has all hands-on deck in a national battle. Instead Kier is selling his critiques as part of his duty as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, which will serve to keep the government on its toes and thus improve their response.
As senior left-wing outriders are relentlessly touting the UKs COVID death toll as evidence of either government failure or malice, there is a lot of pressure on Kier from his own side to do the same and take an aggressive approach. There is a clear view amongst many in the party, particularly on the left, that there is blood in the water. However, unlike with Brexit, it is now Kier who understands the mood of the public, and those making virulent attacks against the government who are missing it entirely.
Poll after poll is showing the Conservatives at record highs, peaking at 55% and still holding at 50% despite the peak of the COVID crisis claiming many more lives than had been thought would be the case. The public, rightly, do not blame Boris for a viral infection which emanated in China, and they never will. Kier knows this, and he will not exacerbate his 20-point poll deficit by pressing on this wound, as he knows the British people now demand unity.
His last notable success is his performance in Prime Ministers’ Questions. He has shown himself dynamic, across the detail, and capable of going off script; three things Corbyn never once demonstrated. However, this point is barley worth dwelling on, William Hauge famously whipped Tony Blair every Wednesday for 4 years only to gain one seat in the 2001 General Election. The anecdotal evidence points towards PMQs being an obsession of the already politically conscious, and politically aligned.
We must concede Starmer has had little time to make waves, and that the public is at the present time more concerned with the welfare of themselves and their families. That said: Starmer has not made waves. Despite being the heir apparent since December of 2019, and the Leader since April, there has been no bounce in the polls. On the contrary the latest polls as of the time of writing all show a fall in Labour support to 30%~, while the Conservatives hold steady with an incredible 50% share of voting intention.
Moreover, these are early days in what could be a 5-year parliament. By the eve of 2025 the Coronavirus is likely to be a distant memory and if any ground is gained by Labour at the expense of the government here, will likely be lost, re-won and lost again in the intervening period. After all, a week is a long time in politics. When normality returns the Labour party will remain a party weighted with London MPs and the values and principles they embody will remain at odds with the popular will of the nation as a whole.
Though Kier has shown some signs of attempting to bridge this divide, his strategy going forward must involve a comprehensive revolution within the Labour party of its principles and policies, if it ever hopes to win again.
The Labour party has just on MP in its birthplace of Scotland. It has just 202 MPs overall, a dismal showing when set against the Conservatives 365. To win at the next election Kier must win around 120 MPs, and even that may not be enough if the Conservatives manage to pull together a coalition, as they have proved so capable of doing this past decade.
The truth of the matter is, that no matter the skills of Sir Kier, the fundamental transformation of the Labour party needed to assume power, and the time it will take for the former Labour voters turned Tory to return, emanating from whom there is a lover scorned sentiment, could take a decade. If any possibility of Labour victory exists, Kier has shown so far he is willing to pivot as necessary to achieve it, as he has shown that what he will do with power, is something different to what he will do while campaigning for it.