Keir Starmer is a terrible leader of the Labour party by any measure. His favourability ratings are poor, Labour still languishes well behind the Conservatives in polling despite abundant crises that are entirely precipitate from the Tory government’s actions, and in response to those crises — from coronavirus to fuel shortages — his response has been lackadaisical and weak, somehow not landing any punches even as the government’s already poor handle on the situation loosens further.
In the face of a once-in-a-generation series of catastrophes, which (as with the Winter of Discontent in 1978–9) could be easily exploited to seize the public mood by a more capable leader of the opposition, Starmer’s response has been milquetoast and underwhelming. Following his pledge in his leadership campaign to seek renationalisation of energy supply, he was quick to smack down Ed Miliband’s suggestion of this in response to the clear market failure unfolding in the domestic energy space, and then as a weak justification his supporters attempted to rules-lawyer his way out of what had been a fairly clear promise for him, as if they were trying to find a loophole. Meanwhile, his response to the pandemic primarily involved supporting the government (to the point of literally parroting “schools are safe” during PMQs when Boris Johnson dared him to, a truly pathetic display that only became more so when it turned out schools weren’t) and then attempting to claim they’d got it wrong all along.
The only time Starmer has shown the least inclination to be daring and robust has been in taking on the left of his own party. Sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey and removing the whip from Jeremy Corbyn are, at least in some small, tenuous senses, justifiable on their own terms. What is not is taking the Labour party conference, usually a time for the party to put across its messaging on a platform wholly reserved to it, and prefacing it by trying to force through changes to the party rules that would make any leadership challenge in the future harder and less likely to reflect the views of the party membership — with the almost explicit aim of preventing another Corbyn “situation” from happening. Starmer took what should, ideally, be a celebration of the party and what it stands for and soured it by turning it into yet another intra-party battle against its own left flank — worse yet, one he decidedly did not even win, as he had to climb down from his proposals to restore the electoral college since even those who stood to benefit most from it in terms of influence (the unions) objected.
The curious thing about all of these is that they are in diametric opposition to public opinion. The public is broadly for the nationalisation of energy companies, for government action to intervene in supply chains to ensure continuity, broadly less libertarian than the government when it comes to COVID restrictions, and thoroughly bored to the back teeth of hearing about internal Labour party beef. A primary criticism of the Labour party since the time of Corbyn onwards has been that it is internally divided — entirely true, but somewhat eliding the fact that it has been primarily the party’s centrist and right flank attempting to prosecute factional battles against its left, who showed limited appetite for trying to rig the rules in its favour even as they occupied the leadership and the NEC. What is strange is the actual leadership of the party continuing this while its faction holds almost total control over the party machinery.
The simple conclusion that has to be drawn from this is that Labour under Starmer is not actually trying to win over voters. The public, broadly, do not want the pitiful not-even-ideological-enough-to-be-Blairite non-stances of Starmer’s Labour. Even if the aim was to try and soften the party’s image for Tory voters who think that Boris is a bit of a shit and just want to vote against him, the polling indicates that this isn’t working either. The only one of the other parties whose supporters think he’s doing a good job is the Liberal Democrats — whose support base is too disparate and small to help Labour into power, and in any event has proven countless times that it will always manage to find a reason that voting Labour would be against its deeply-held moral principles and thus, regretfully, etc etc etc.
This behaviour clearly isn’t to motivate the party’s existing support base, either — indeed, Starmer has, quite aside from antagonising the left that he has clearly set out to antagonise, embittered quite a few of the left or soft left who believed he was sincere when he said he was a socialist who truly stood behind his pledges, believed his promises to be a unity candidate, believed that he would be a champion of 2017-manifesto politics but with better PR skills. All of those turned out to be, charitably, contortions of the truth. Less charitably they were deliberate lies. The only people who find Starmer’s current incarnation of Labour appealing are, frankly, rather weird relative to the general public — or so invested themselves in petty factional battles that they’d be happy with a red-rosetted dog if it bit the left enough.
So who is it for? It all becomes clearer when you realise that Starmer’s conference speech, and the weighty, sub-Chris Leslie tome of non-ideology that preceded it, was written by Philip Collins — a former Times journalist. It’s not for the public, it’s for him and people like him. The centrist and right wing commentariat — writing for the likes of the Times and the Guardian — are absolutely, implacably, vocally for the marginalisation of the Labour left, whose ideas are to be denigrated and shunned, but never considered except insofar as they can be spun in the least charitable ways possible. They are consistently vocally against state intervention in industry under pretty much any circumstances that may reasonably present themselves. They are also consistently against “punch and Judy politics”, committed to a bizarre fantasy where, rather than the profound enemies of Labour that they have shown themselves to be and a malevolent force in their own right, the Conservatives simply want the same things Labour do but from a different angle, and so the way forward is not to do the same scorched-earth warfare that the Conservatives usually do, but to build new bridges for them to burn.
All of these stances are in direct opposition to the wishes of the aggregate British public — were they not, Labour’s polling would not be hovering around its 2019 lows, because it would be giving them everything they wanted and then some. As it turns out, these commentators are the only people who have shown any sign of being at all impressed by Starmer’s leadership, and are insistent that either this is success or that success is surely just around the corner. The simple reason for this is that Starmer’s activities are laser-targeted at them, and absolutely nobody else.
If I had to guess at a motivation, it is possibly because the expectation is that if Starmer wins over the right-wing media, when Boris Johnson’s Tories have somehow finally worn out their welcome and shown themselves to be a busted flush, these same commentators will start boosting Starmer, and from there comes an election victory. The problems here are twofold — one, given the abundant crises, and Starmer’s fawning reception from these people, why is this not happening yet — and given that it isn’t, why do you expect it to happen at all? And two, why do you expect the right-wing media to support any Labour party at all when the Tories still exist?
The more probable explanation though is that, once again, the Labour centre/-right have completely misremembered what happened in the Blair years, of the right wing media swinging behind Labour and helping boost them to victory, and then taken this new moderate Labour myth as gospel. Sure, Murdoch boosted New Labour — right up until he didn’t. Starmer wrote for the Sun, with the stated aim of trying to win over Sun readers, but the Sun immediately went back to trashing him a few days later. The misremembering here is that Murdoch’s love of Blair had anything to do with his policy stances, when in actual fact it was because Murdoch hates to back a loser, but is happy to indulge one situationally regardless. And Starmer, by all accounts, looks like a loser.
I don’t think he could turn it around at this point. A lot of people don’t know him and those who do know him are more likely than not to dislike him. But the lesson for the next leader, whoever that’s going to be (and the plausible contenders at this point are all pretty dismal) is that Labour is not going to win if all of its messaging is targeted at 0.1% of the population, be that the “Red Wall” or the Labour left or the Labour right or the commentariat. A positive policy offering is needed that constitutes a bold and comprehensible response to the problems of today, and the initiative seized to attack the government whenever possible. Perhaps, as a thought, we could start with a leader who promised to use the 2017 manifesto as a starting point and to articulate Labour values clearly to the country. Wouldn’t that be nice?