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One year of Sir Keir

How does Starmer compare to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron?

Taking an opposition party into government is a rare feat in British politics. At the 1979 General Election, the first-time voters who witnessed Mrs Thatcher take power are now in their sixties. In the intervening period those voters have seen the government change hands just twice. Keir Starmer is the latest in a long line of politicians to try and prove he is the exception, not the rule.

Placing Starmer’s year in a historical context is difficult when you consider the things he has not been able to do. He has not addressed a single crowd, shook a voter’s hand or appeared in an interview without the issue of Covid at the forefront of questioning. 

But like the three people he hopes to emulate — Thatcher, Blair and Cameron — he has faced many of the same hurdles that they had to overcome. 

The polls have become central to the recent rumblings about Starmer’s direction. He inherited a party on 28 per cent but was soon described as “the most popular opposition leader since Tony Blair” due to his favourability ratings. The recent Conservative revival has prompted questions about whether the party can return to power in one heave. The historical omens don’t look good either; Thatcher, Blair and Cameron all had a poll lead on their first anniversary as leader. 

For Tony Blair, polls were central to his prolonged honeymoon as Labour leader Inheriting a party that was already around 20-25 points clear, by 1995 Blair commanded a 33-point lead over the Tories. Much of this was aided by a media that had turned against the Major Government. The Daily Mail urged MPs to “change the captain”. “Not for a generation”, they warned, “has Labour looked so electable. Tony Blair is both fresh and plausible.” Expectations were so high that Blair’s main priority was to reassure the electorate that victory was not assured: “I am anti-complacency to the point of obsession.”

For Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, their poll leads were more conventional. 

By February 1976, Thatcher had steered her party towards a lead of 5 points, and her personal ratings were slightly higher than that of Harold Wilson’s. In the preceding two months, though, Labour had been ahead and various commentators had wondered why she was not doing better considering the economic conditions.

In a sign that Thatcher had not yet fully developed her approach to the unions, she unveiled a specific plan to work with industry to secure jobs

David Cameron increased his party’s standing by 5 per cent to 37 per cent, giving him a lead over Labour on 32 per cent and the Lib Dems on 16 per cent. The Daily Telegraph expressed caution that his poll lead was not as big as many had hoped but that “at the stage in the political cycle, policies are less important than Mr Cameron’s instincts”.

Opposition leaders would prefer not to talk about the polls, aware that they can go up and down depending on events. A more critical examination — and one that Starmer is finally going to face in Hartlepool this May — is the by-election. For Mrs Thatcher, she was faced in early 1976 with “the most important series of by-elections since Labour returned to office” in Coventry North-West, Carshalton, Surrey and the Wirral.

Coventry was the most critical contest for her broader electoral strategy of winning over “disgruntled” trade unionists in the industrial cities. In a sign that Thatcher had not yet fully developed her approach to the unions, she unveiled a specific plan to work with industry to secure jobs. She spoke of not being “hostile to trade unions” but “believing in a strong and responsible trade union movement — strong to protect the interests of people at work”. 

Expectations were high when the Labour candidate, Geoffrey Robinson, admitted that the race was “neck and neck” — and the media reported on how he was “working from 7am to 11pm to defend what has always seemed a routinely safe Labour seat”. But Robinson proved a popular candidate and Labour held on. Michael Foot claimed it vindicated his employment policies and the media saw it as a “disappointment” for the Conservatives.

Tony Blair’s most significant test came in Littleborough and Saddleworth in the summer of 1995. It was a seat that had traditionally been a straight Conservative/Liberal battle. Labour’s Phil Woolas increased the party’s vote share by 14 per cent and knocked the Tories into third. It enabled Blair to claim that “once more New Labour is winning new support in every part of the country”. 

Labour’s tactics in the by-election, rather than their performance, drew most of the attention. New Labour was accused of running a “dirty tricks” campaign against the Liberal candidate after insinuating that he was “pro-raves, soft on drugs, high on taxes”. The Labour backbencher, Richard Burden, caused a stir when he wrote a highly critical piece on his party’s tactics and the “chilling implications for the future” had Labour won. It was, he argued, “a kind of political amorality” in which “anything goes as long as it looks like being to our electoral advantage”.

For David Cameron, a by-election in Bromley and Chislehurst symbolised the difficulties he faced in changing the party’s image. His central task had been to detoxify the brand and make himself the face of the new conservatism. In addition to the eye-catching media stunts such as cycling to the Commons and riding a husky-powered sledge to visit a remote Norwegian glacier, he pushed for internal party reforms on selecting more diverse candidates.

For Keir Starmer, the most challenging task has been navigating the relationship with Jeremy Corbyn

Cameron failed to impose a modernising candidate on Bromley and Chislehurst with one local activist claiming that there would be “a real problem if we had a gay person taking over the mantle of Eric Forth”. In what was seen as an act of defiance, the local party chose Bob Neill, who “as a middle aged, middle class barrister and a lapsed mason” was “hardly a poster boy for Cameron’s new Conservatives.”

He won the seat by just 633 votes, compared to the 13,342-majority achieved by his predecessor at the 2005 general election following a Lib Dem surge. Critical MPs claimed Cameron was “risking the fourth Tory defeat” because “most people end up thinking there is no difference between the parties”.

While the by-election can be a used as a platform to speak to the wider electorate, there is no doubt that new opposition leaders spend the bulk of their time dealing with internal politics. For Keir Starmer, the most challenging task has been navigating the relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. It was somewhat different for Tony Blair in 1995 when he faced the same challenge from the Islington backbencher.

Corbyn emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the New Labour project and warned that up to 100 MPs were unhappy at the direction of travel under Blair. The resistance to Blair was channelled into a campaign to stop Clause IV being revised. Former titans of the 1970s and 1980s — such as Arthur Scargill, Jimmy Reid and Tony Benn — warned of a great betrayal. Corbyn mounted the most prominent resistance in the PLP, but his arguments were somewhat undermined by events in his own constituency. 

When the Guardian visited the “socialist republic” of Islington in April 1995, they were shocked to find that Corbyn’s CLP had voted in favour of the change by 65 per cent. Corbyn responded that “the debate has been very one sided” with “the whole party machine swung behind the change”. There had, he claimed, been “no equality of debate.” Wigan MP, Ian McCartney declared that the Islington result made a “mockery” of Corbyn’s claims to represent the rank-and-file membership. “Labour”, McCartney wrote, “has nothing to be ashamed of in aiming to be winners”.

With his first by-election looming, Starmer will soon be judged by the same standards as those he hopes to emulate

Just as Corbyn’s presence now hovers over Starmer’s leadership, so too did the figure of Edward Heath in the 1970s. Rehabilitated during the 1975 EEC referendum, journalists speculated about when he would be brought into Thatcher’s Shadow Cabinet. In a special BBC programme to mark her first year as leader, she held firm: “Lets win the election first, then I will choose my team”. She was also stumped by a journalist who asked how she actually differed from Heath: “That’s a rather difficult question in many ways.”

On the backbenches, many of Heath’s supporters were waiting for her to slip up. In a precursor to later battles in the 1980s between the “wets and dries”, Peter Walker was vocal about the party’s failure to oppose Labour on the economy. Moreover, Thatcher’s strained relationship with Enoch Powell was judged by many commentators to be a problem, and repairing it was “essential to early recovery”.

For David Cameron, his problems came when trying to move on from the legacy of the Thatcher era. He suggested that Thatcherite policies had “little or no relevance in modern Britain”, which angered many of the party’s grandees. Figures such as Lord Tebbit — who was a popular columnist Daily Telegraph column — warned that “the danger is that New Conservatism is a child of Notting Hill populists”.

Even Winston Churchill, it appeared, was no longer a figure to revered. In late 2006, a strategy document was leaked which outlined why MPs should stop talking about Churchill and embrace the ideas of the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee instead: “She supplies imagery that is more appropriate for Conservative social policy in the twenty-first century”. Tory MP Douglas Carswell was “appalled”. Toynbee, he argued, “has been an advocate of the sort of state centralism that has been the cause of many of these problems”. For one backbencher, it was too much: “It’s like electro-convulsive shock therapy…is there any point in being a Tory anymore?”

It was an appearance on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross that best signalled the gulf between the old and the new conservatism. Ross was a bogeyman for the right-wing press after he had signed an £18m deal to stay with the BBC and Cameron was lauded as “brave” for becoming the first politician to appear on his late-night show in 2006.

A tieless “Dave” seemed totally at ease with a discussion on drug legalisation and the favourable policies that New Labour had brought in. With Bruce Willis watching on from the greenroom, Ross concluded that Cameron was “a decent person” but worried about the rest of his party: “The Conservative Party by voting for me, voted for change” he declared. 

It was his discussion on Mrs Thatcher however that angered traditional Conservatives. At one stage, Ross had asked, “Did you or did you not have a wank thinking, Margaret Thatcher?” — which drew in hundreds of complaints and an Ofcom investigation. The Mail on Sunday called for Ross’ head and Lord Tebbit was again on hand to fire up the grassroots: “It was obscene”. But it was clear that Cameron was aiming for a different audience. By the end of his first year, Frank Luntz — the US pollster who had first identified Cameron as a potential election winner — found he was now “most popular among people who did not vote at the last election”.

After an unprecedented year then, Starmer has faced similar challenges to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron in taking on the forces within and carving out a new vision for the future. In contrast to them, the pandemic has given him some extra breathing space and a second chance to make a first impression on the electorate. With his first by-election looming, he will soon be judged by the same standards as those he hopes to emulate. Soon we will have a better idea of whether he is a history maker or not. 

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