As Keir Starmer marks the end of his first 100 days as Labour Leader, two of our Labour supporting contributors, Dan King and Charlie Gorst give their verdicts on Starmer's performance.
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With the passing of his first 100 days as leader, Starmer has shown he is serious about winning. Yet with factional divisions still racing, and a seemingly impervious conservative majority intact, there is still much left to be decided.
Having become leader of the opposition during the covid crisis there was an initial concern that Starmer would be blown into obscurity as the Government got on with the details of managing the lockdown. Yet despite such an unstable starting position, Starmer has managed to score well against Johnson, with few avenues open to the Prime Minister for a counter-attack.
Recent polling from Opinium reveals that around 37% of the pubic believe Starmer to be the preferable candidate for PM, whereas 35% believe Johnson to be more desirable, whereas another poll by Ipsos Mori places Starmer at 38% and Johnson at 43%. This is a significant improvement upon the Corbyn years and marks a divergence in approach sorely needed: that of politics over socialist piety.
For a candidate promising unity, Starmer has managed to unite both Conservatives and Corbynites in their teary-eyed nostalgia for the good old days, with neither overly enthused about Labour’s new leadership. Yet despite such moisture, Starmer appears determined to win the next election rather than indulging in the ideological masturbation of his predecessor, this being evidenced by the radical change in the party’s rhetoric: support the government when you can, criticise when you must. The public do not warm to preachers in politics, and thankfully there seems little chance of a second coming.
Labour’s crushing electoral defeat has left Starmer cautious of such an overly zealous approach, seeing him launch public attacks on the government only when there is clear ground to be gained. On other issues like the BLM protests, Starmer has struck a fine balance between expressing patriotism on the one hand and communicating his sympathies towards the protests on the other. Though not as full blooded as the Corbyn-Bailey camp would like it, this approach has all the marks of someone biding their time. With so much ground lost in the last four years, political strategy has thankfully taken priority in the Labour party once more.
Yet for all Starmer’s fine-tuned and ‘forensic’ capabilities, the party still lags behind its leader in popularity. A poll by Opinium continues to place the Conservatives ahead of Labour regarding voting intentions, and there seems little evidence this will change any time soon. If the shadow cabinet can metamorphise with the same success as the leadership, then there is hope for further gains. Until solid policy can be brought out by members of the shadow cabinet, the party will be riding solely on Starmer’s success for the foreseeable future.
Keir Starmer has recently polled as the most popular opposition leader since Tony Blair, and his forensic, lawyerish style is tying Boris Johnson in intellectual knots every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions. Whilst Johnson occupies himself with regurgitating three-word slogans devised by Dominic Cummings or ill-conceived gags about Calvin Klein’s or Bournemouth Beach, Starmer is dissecting Johnson’s waffle from across the dispatch box week-in-week-out.
You’d be forgiven for jumping on the Starmer band wagon with the success he’s had recently, but should we believe the hype? Is he now the prime minister in waiting? And does he have what it takes to perform ‘Keirstarm-bul’, and complete an inspirational electoral comeback after the disaster of the 2019?
Despite obvious successes, there has been rather widespread concern that Starmer represents a return to more centrist policies, and there are doubts over whether he will have an appeal to the ‘Red Wall’ voters lost to the Conservatives in 2019. Currently he seems popular with Lib Dem and soft conservative voters, some of whom feel alienated by how far right Johnson’s administration has been dragged over certain issues.
There has also been a clear break with more ‘radical’ policies of his predecessor, which would lose him such support. Whilst in his ten pledges he reinforced a commitment to common ownership, wealth redistribution, devolution from Whitehall and a Green New Deal, it remains wholly unlikely that he will throw his weight behind other policies such as scrapping trident and supporting a wealth tax or Universal Basic Income. He has also since adopted a softer stance on his 2030 climate target.
In addition to those policies, there has also been an abandonment of trans-rights issues, and a wishy-washy stance on BlackLivesMatter, which together indicate a notable shift away from the cultural priorities of Corbynism. Such stances have also gone a long way to wooing the country’s predominantly right-wing press, which have largely given him favourable treatment, which is far removed from their relentless character assassinations of his predecessor. This balancing act between retaining the support garnered under Corbyn and the charm offensive towards the right-wing newspapers which slaughtered their messiah will be hard to play. Especially as the ten pledges which he made in his leadership campaign are mostly unpalatable to said papers’ readership. If these pledges are pursued, then the easy ride which they have gifted him so far may come to an end if he attempts to implement them.
Despite this, he has regularly trounced Johnson at PMQ’s, an area in which many believed Corbyn was especially weak. However, he has done so in a quiet commons, with a noticeable absence of baying Tories cheering for every ridiculous slogan, gag or rehearsed soundbite which - ever the showman - Johnson bumbles out. A socially distanced commons means the dispatch box is more akin to a courtroom, whereas it is often more like pantomime. The reversion back to business as usual at PMQ’s will undoubtedly play into Boris’ hands and Keir will have to change his style, or risk being shouted and jeered down like Corbyn was every Wednesday for four years.
Equally, the importance of PMQ’s in the electoral process are often overstated. The odd embarrassment of Johnson in a session which will be over four years before the next election is neither a nail in the coffin or decisive moment for Starmer. Performances at PMQ’s can only take you so far, relatively few people watch them and those who do are usually resolute in their political convictions.
There is also the fact that Starmer represents more of the same in terms of demography: another white, male, middle-aged and middle-class leader from the south of England. At a time when the electorate are crying out for new ideas, real engagement and something bold, Labour are in desperate need of a charm offensive in their former heartlands in the north and midlands, and it is questionable whether Starmer is the man to lead such an offensive.
Corbyn undoubtedly had a problem with the white working-class vote. It seems other than a patriotic letter in the Daily Telegraph on VE Day, Starmer is doing little to remedy this. Courting the tabloids can only help so much, but is ineffectual when juxtaposed with an image of Boris in a high-vis and hard-hat, whilst incessantly repeating the mantras; “build, build, build” and “jobs, jobs, jobs”.
Moreover, no one is sure what Starmer really stands for, other than appearing competent, which admittedly is seen as a at a premium in today’s politics. In the short-term, it has handed him an early boast in his leadership and born some fruit in relation to opinion polls. In the long-term, he is eventually going to disappoint one or more groups in the broad spectrum of support he has garnered when he does begin to commit to policies.
Whilst Starmer seems in no hurry to make any irrevocable commitments to any particular policies or group, it makes him hard to dislike, but it makes it difficult to garner any notable enthusiasm. This is potentially a risky electoral strategy than being controversial. John Major had the appearance of being ‘grey’ during his time as prime minister and it does not play well with an electorate.
There is no denying Labour’s new leader is a capable orator, a meticulous analyst, and a seasoned debater. But does he have the cult of personality or coterie charisma to inspire such loyal tribal obedience from voters which Johnson clearly has? Only time will tell.