This article is taken from The London Economic’s bi-weekly email, Elevenses.
Good morning. Sunday marks a year since Keir Starmer assumed the leadership of the Labour party. Anniversaries of this sort are fodder for news editors, who will have circled the date long ago and commissioned a host of look-backs and cast-forwards to fill the Easter papers.
The tone of that coverage will be markedly different from twelve months ago. Starmer’s coronation was hailed as a victory for “serious” politics. The adults were back in the room. Sir Keir – a knight of the realm no less – would waste no time holding Boris Johnson’s feet to the fire. Just look at him! Handsome, authoritative, lawyerly – not a hair out of place on his perfectly-quaffed head. This was a leader for Johnson to fear, the perfect person to rebuild the ‘Red Wall’ and prosecute the Tories.
Unsurprisingly for a media class still harbouring a pathological hatred of Jeremy Corbyn, the trumpets heralding Starmer’s victory were a bit over the top. Following his first PMQs, the word “forensic” featured so frequently in news copy that journalists might as well have been describing a crime scene. But it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t just columnists for The Times who welcomed Starmer’s victory.
A leftist friend shared with me this week a text he sent to a disenchanted supporter of Rebecca Long-Bailey after Sir Keir’s victory. He urged his disappointed comrade to focus on the “big picture”. Starmer’s Labour would be serious about a Green New Deal, avowedly non-interventionist and intent on abolishing tuition fees and opposing austerity. “Keir has committed to all of that,” he wrote. “That’s enough for me.” That, it’s worth remembering, was the Starmer pledge: keep the things people liked about Corbynism (and, despite what Dan Hodges tells you, there was a lot that people liked), but package it up in a smart suit and a neat haircut, with a spritz of “electability” and “competence” thrown in.
It’s fair to say that hasn’t happened. As Owen Jones tells POLITICO this morning, “there’s no meaningful sign of commitment to his domestic policy pledges, there’s a lack of coherent vision of any description, and as for ‘electability’, the current polls speak for themselves.” I’ve long been wary of jumping too quickly to conclusions on the current iteration of the Labour party. We are, after all, three years away from a general election and in the midst of a pandemic. Most voters, I think, are more concerned with when they’ll be able to go to the pub and take a holiday than what Keir Starmer is up to. But at some point something has to give, and that point is fast approaching.
As with all things in life and politics, my barometer for how much a story cuts through with the general public is my mother. A few months ago, in the heat of Starmer’s fiercely constructive criticism of Johnson’s coronavirus response, she applauded the Labour leader for not “playing politics” with the pandemic (a line I’ve always found bizarre, considering that every decision taken by the government throughout this crisis has been intensely political). But in recent weeks the narrative has changed. A more common refrain is now: “That Starmer, he’s a bit useless isn’t he?” If you repeatedly refuse to take a stand on anything, people notice.
It’s not yet too late to right the ship. Starmer would be well-served by casting an eye over the Atlantic at how Joe Biden has accommodated and integrated his left flank. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rather than being cast out as pariahs, have seen their ideas embraced – and Biden’s popularity is soaring as a result. At some point, Starmer must start leading public opinion rather than following it. Voters need to be shown why they should vote Labour, rather than why they shouldn’t vote Tory. Until that happens, Keir Starmer is going nowhere.
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