The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the problems facing Sir Keir Starmer since being elected leader of the Labour Party in April have been vastly different from that of any previous incoming Leader of the Opposition. Many in recent years have inherited a political party in disarray, notably Neil Kinnock and William Hague in 1983 and 1997 respectively, but none have had to tread the fine line between party and national interest in the same way as Starmer. Any overarching plans that he may have had for reinventing the Labour Party have been side-lined by the need to confront the acute public health issues facing the nation. Any discussion of Starmer’s suitability to end the party’s long wilderness in opposition must account for these extraneous circumstances that have affected his leadership thus far.
This does not mean that we should dismiss the last 4 months when considering the future of a Starmer-led Labour Party. There has already been a concerted effort to detach the party from the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey for her support of an article perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes is certainly evidence that an effort is being made to tackle a problem that was so instrumental in voters’ distrust of the previous leadership. It is clear that separating himself from the failures of his predecessor will be key in Starmer’s attempts to reassure voters that Labour really is the party for the many.
Despite the outcry from the Left of a witch-hunt of ardent Corbyn supporters, they must realise that a firm stance against anti-Semitism will be crucial in returning the party to a position of respectability and electability, as well as ensuring that they stand against discrimination of any kind. This is something that was evidently lacking in 2019. YouGov polling suggests that an enormous 60% of British people have a negative opinion of Corbyn, compared to only 19% for Starmer. It would be politically astute for Starmer to separate himself from one of the most unpopular figures in British politics.
So far this could easily be read as an attack on the politics and personality of Jeremy Corbyn. It is not meant in this way. An explanation of Labour’s catastrophic election defeat in 2019 must be multi-faceted and avoid placing the blame solely on the shoulders of Corbyn. An understanding of Labour’s defeat is not complete without considering the Brexit strategy that served to further disconnect working-class people from the party that claims to represent them. Corbyn’s morality, courage, and honesty are traits that all politicians should aspire to possess. He inspired a generation that a better world was possible, and the positivity that surrounded the 2017 election was instrumental in raising an interest in progressive politics for many young people, including sparking my own.
Starmer will not inspire the same devotion. It is unimaginable to think of the former Director of Public Prosecutions standing on stage at Glastonbury lapping up the adulation of thousands of festivalgoers as they sing his name. Yet, the devotion of his supporters did not make Jeremy Corbyn the Prime Minister. Starmer may not have the same unwavering support of a strong grassroots base, but his more moderate policy stances present him with a chance of winning back voters that have felt disillusioned with the direction of the Labour Party in recent years. Ideological purity can only take a party so far; real change cannot be made from the opposition benches. To win elections requires compromise and a rejection of ideological politics. To continue in such a way would be a crime against those suffering from a decade of Conservative governments.
In a turbulent political atmosphere brought on by Brexit and a global pandemic, voters are likely to look for stability. In opposition to the blustering and bumbling premiership of Boris Johnson, perhaps a steady, no thrills leadership could see Starmer into 10 Downing Street. Starmer’s pandemic response suggests that this may be the strategy of the party moving forward. He has often offered constructive criticism of government policy, on issues such as testing and PPE, while supporting the government at times where it was nationally beneficial, with his general support of the government’s imposition, and later relaxation, of lockdown measures crucial in promoting the public’s adherence to the restrictions. In doing so, Starmer has gained the respect of many voters who may look to him as a safe and sensible alternative if Johnson’s government descends into the omnishambles which it has already threatened to become.
Unlike Corbyn, at the next election, Starmer will not be offering the possibility of a socialist Britain. This did not convince voters. Yet, this does not detract from the fact that a more moderate Labour government would bring tangible benefits to the people of this country, through changes that cannot be enacted by a party in opposition. Nor is Starmer a leader built in the image of Tony Blair. He does not have the electrifying personality to run an election campaign that inspires and radiates the same positivity and hope as Blair and New Labour did in 1997. But in the face of an eccentric and incompetent leader in Boris Johnson, perhaps voters will look to Starmer as a steady hand to offer sensible governance and enact realistic policies to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. Besides, the tortoise did beat the hare.
By C Hicks