Sir Kier Starmer seemed like a breath of fresh air after Corbyn’s departure. It was a genuinely exciting takeover; he appeared measured, compassionate, intelligent and less fixated on building a cult within the party. He seemed to have all it took to bring Labour out of the dark ages and into a period of prosperity. Sadly, however, Labour has stood up from the swamp it had fallen into, and sat straight back into a safe and inoffensive armchair. It’s hard to imagine how the Conservative government could still have a hope of staying in power: 117,000 deaths, three national lockdowns and millions of pounds wasted in private companies for PPE and Test and Trace. The icing on the cake; an education secretary who couldn’t become less popular if he tried and yet is still in office. On the face of it, Labour and the Conservatives appear to be fairly close. Starmer, in fairness, has done well to gain back 12 points. Labour sits at 37% and the Conservatives at 42% in a recent YouGov poll. However, it is more specific polls that illuminate the crisis facing the Labour leadership and its deepening unpopularity.
‘It’s the economy stupid’, was famously coined by James Carville in 1992 in reference to the most important factor in political elections. His words couldn’t ring more loudly than right now. With vaccines on the way, the public is increasingly turning their eye to the economic recovery plan soon to be laid out by Rishi Sunak. Unfortunately for Labour, the 2008 crash still hangs over them, and distrust is pertinent. A recent YouGov poll found that only 22% of the public believe that Labour would be the best party to bring down the national debt. Whilst the Tories have been quiet and hesitant to talk of tax raises, Starmer leapt at the opportunity to proclaim an all-out support for a hike in taxes, from which he has since U-turned. This won’t run well with voters.
George Bush infamously lost his Presidency for going back on his words ‘read my lips, no new taxes’, because he both went back on his promise and because the public always fear tax rises in times of uncertainty. Labour lost its position as the working-class party in the 2019 election when the northern Red Wall crumbled. The latest polls suggest that this position remains the same, with just 28% of Northern working-class saying they would vote for Labour.
Starmer also suffers from a reputation of being, to put it frankly, boring. His forensic dissection of Boris Johnson’s PMQ’s at the start of his career was welcomed. Johnson lacked his ‘wall of noise’ in the Commons, a mechanism initially hatched by David Cameron. He could no longer hide behind jeering backbenchers vocal support and thus seemed incompetent and uninformed. However, such methodical questioning has bored the British people who, to be honest, quite like a bit of drama. We pride ourselves on ridiculous PMQ insults, almost everyone will remember David Cameron calling Ed Miliband a ‘Turkey’. The British public secretly quite enjoy the quirkiness of our political system and politicians. The best engagement from the public on Twitter regarding Starmer was when he supposedly confronted Johnson outside Parliament’s chamber and had to be restrained by a fellow MP, which was quickly dismissed.
Starmer needs to be punchier, and perhaps prepare a couple of quick one-liners to break up the monotone deposition to counteract Johnson’s cringeworthy but entertaining quips. The Guardian went so far as to compare Starmer to Michael Dukakis, the American presidential candidate who in 1998 lost his race for unemotionally brushing over a question asking if he would want a man who murdered and raped his daughter to face the death penalty.
But has Starmer lost his chance? The vaccines may not be a silver bullet for the pandemic, but it is certainly the saving grace that the Tories desperately needed. The polls are showing the effect of such a successful vaccine rollout. A recent Survation poll saw Johnson’s favourability rate increase by 4 points to 40% and his unfavorability fall by 7 points. The prospect of pubs, restaurants and retail opening months ahead of Europe has allowed the public to somewhat forget about the Government’s spectacular failures. The Tory party spin doctors are also in full steam, shifting the death toll blame from the government to the public. The new and harrowing Stay at Home adverts illustrate this new strategy nicely; displaying images of unwell people on ventilators with the caption ‘look at her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules’. It is interesting you don’t see similar adverts saying, ‘look her in the eyes and tell her you didn’t pursue herd immunity’.
Personal anguish aside, the government is succeeding in shifting the blame of the death toll and using the fantastic vaccination programme as a smokescreen. Starmer on the other hand can no longer play captain hindsight as the Government is finally ‘world beating’ for the right reasons.
Starmer is also still fighting a domestic battle. Blairites scream that Labour has to come back to the centre-left, whilst Corbynites claim he is swinging too much to the right when he puts a Union Jack in his office. His efforts to win back the red wall are failing, and he is facing domestic opposition for his ambition to utilise big businesses as a tool to fight the economic depression. Playing it safe and trying to appease all factions of the party will no longer cut it. Starmer may now have lost his opportunity to criticise the Conservatives for their lethargic pandemic response and now needs to find a new angle in which he can break the glass ceiling Labour seems to be stuck under. To be ridiculed by the sitting prime minister in PMQ’s for not providing the government effective scrutiny over school meals should be an indicator that soft politics is not working. The Labour cabinet need to wake up and realise that uncontroversial tweets and mundane policy proposals aren’t going to win back a northern support base it so desperately needs.