Labour is probably going to lose the next election. That’s not a verdict on the first year of Keir Starmer’s leadership, or an attack on anyone’s strategy, or an assessment of Boris Johnson’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, or a bet. It’s simply a common-sense and pretty obvious statement of how likely it is that a party which lost an election by a landslide a little over a year ago will be in government just four or five years later.
And so it is a tribute to Keir Starmer’s strong start as Labour leader that the fact that he has not established a dominant lead over the Conservatives during the biggest moment of national solidarity and unity since World War II is being treated by some as surprising, and by others as a disaster. On any reasonable metric, he has made solid progress.
The pandemic has kept almost all other politics off the agenda and displaced Labour from the airwaves
In 2019, Labour lost by more than 11 percentage points. It lost by nearly 3.7 million votes. It finished 163 seats behind the Conservatives, losing 60 in the process. Nobody would seriously look at these numbers and think: a few small tweaks, and we’ve got a decent chance next time. The idea that Labour should already be widely regarded as a government in waiting, with the Conservatives on the run and a policy programme ready to be enacted, is based on a combination of unrealistic expectations, a failure to distinguish between stories of interest to political obsessives on all sides and things that the public are noticing, and bad faith.
So far as the polls are concerned, Keir Starmer’s personal ratings are ahead of his party’s, which is more than can be said for his recent predecessors and provides a useful clue as to whether he is Labour’s main problem or not. There have certainly been missteps; there always are, as long-term observers of the Labour Party can attest. But the crisis narrative is built on the widespread assumption that oppositions usually hold mid-term leads – an assumption that just isn’t consistently true, particularly for oppositions that have just suffered landslide defeats. It is not at all clear why anyone would expect significant numbers of voters who chose the Conservatives last year to switch to Labour so soon.
The Tories’ new voters can justify their choice with evidence. Millions of people who voted Conservative to get Brexit done will not have failed to notice that they got Brexit done (questions about whether it was done well, or whether it was a good idea at all, may re-emerge with time). And while many elements of the pandemic response have clearly left much to be desired – Starmer’s early focus on the Government’s incompetence was palpably a fair set of criticisms – the fact that 120,000 people have died is simply not the knock-down argument for deserting the Conservatives that some would like it to be. Nobody thinks the pandemic is the Government’s fault, everyone accepts that dealing with it has been exceptionally difficult, and the policy successes, not least the rollout of the vaccine, are real. Why would anyone expect the Government to become less popular just as things are starting to get better?
Labour’s recent decisive rejection by the voters means that they have little standing to argue that the country made the wrong choice. The Covid-19 crisis has made people even less interested in hearing from the opposition than usual and has afforded less space for discussions of other long-term policy questions. The pandemic has kept almost all other politics off the agenda, and, it has displaced Labour from the airwaves. Ministerial press conferences in Number 10 have not been followed by opposition rights of reply, lavishly broadcast at similar length. Lockdown has made it harder than ever to do the basics of politics too: no real-life speeches, meetings or audience events, no conferences, no unscheduled conversations with anyone.
Labour should not be going into the 2024 election with a manifesto which resembles 2019’s failed effort
Starmer’s approach of trying to introduce himself to the public as someone they can imagine as prime minister at some point in the future, as a reasonable person who shares their instincts and offers “constructive opposition” rather than constant attacks, and as someone who is distinctively different in approach and style from the previous leader they rejected so decisively, has been sensible. The fact that he has been criticised from all sides for not having any policies, despite having announced a lot over the last year, is a good illustration of the pointlessness of announcing lots of policies when nobody is paying attention.
For now, most policies can wait: Labour should not be going into the 2024 election with a manifesto which resembles 2019’s failed effort, and it should not be making big bets now about what the post-pandemic world will look like. If that means that Labour is a bit boring for a while, there are worse things to be. Labour arguably became too interesting before 2019. And if members of the shadow cabinet are failing to make a significant impact on the public consciousness, it’s not the end of the world: nobody normal knows who Robert Buckland, George Eustice, Thérèse Coffey or Ben Wallace are either.
Early on in his leadership, Starmer’s PMQs performances were described as “forensic” by journalists so often that his critics on the left adopted the word as an ironic nickname. Given that it mostly referred to the fact that he was asking focused questions which Boris Johnson found difficult to answer, turning it into a jibe is revealing. All leaders try to demonstrate how they are different, but it is unusual for them to be criticised internally for one of the things they are clearly better at than their immediate predecessor. It is noticeable that while Starmer is attacked by some on his own side for being too consensual, the Prime Minister’s main complaint about him is that he is too critical at a time when unity is required.
Labour would certainly not win a general election if it were held tomorrow
As for claims that Starmer is prosecuting a “war with the left”, it is a reflection on Labour’s blind spot for antisemitism over the last few years that a section of the party interprets disciplinary action against those displaying or downplaying a form of racism as a factional attack – identifying themselves with something that need not be integral to their politics but perhaps, for some, is. It is an interesting tell. Starmer, elected on a specific platform of eradicating antisemitism within the party, simply cannot back down on this, and those arguing for him to do so for the sake of party unity evidently fail to understand that he means it, or notice that backing down would not instil unity anyway.
Labour would certainly not win a general election if it were held tomorrow. But a general election is not going to be held tomorrow. In three years’ time we will know a lot more than we do now about how well the UK has recovered from the pandemic and its accompanying recession, about the effectiveness or otherwise of efforts to “level up”, about Boris Johnson’s ability to satisfy a fractious and ideologically confused parliamentary party, and about whether or not Britain has made a success of Brexit. Keir Starmer’s job is to ensure that Labour is well placed to compete when voters come to deliver their verdict on the world as it is then. He has a long way to go – perhaps too far – but he is going in the right direction.
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