There is an old saying in British politics that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. It’s lucky for Boris Johnson there’s no general election any time soon; Keir Starmer’s Labour Party would be an easy front-runner were a contest held today.
The prime minister seems to be hanging on for now. But months of rolling revelations and what now feels like endless investigations have weakened a government that once looked indomitable and made Britain’s Labour Party a player again. Labour’s poll revival is already changing the dynamics in parliament and will have a bearing on debates over everything from taxation to public services. But can Starmer build on his good fortune and be a real contender for power?
A little over six months ago, there was talk of Labour’s “mortal decline” and it wasn’t far-fetched to speculate that Starmer might not even survive much longer as party leader. Labour trailed the Conservatives in voting intentions by as much as 10 points. And yet there wasn’t much Starmer could do about it. Johnson had carried out Brexit and got credit for the enormously successful vaccine rollout. How do you oppose a government that’s delivering on its promises?
Starmer did what oppositions do and tried to hold the government to account, pointing out government U-turns on pandemic restrictions and relief spending. But he looked like man who picked nits against Johnson’s bouncy boosterism. Johnson dubbed him Captain Hindsight. In public-opinion polls, Starmer continued to rate highly on qualities such as competence and trustworthiness, but this did little to move the needle of opinion until the recent series of scandals unfolded.
It helps now that Starmer did some quiet work while he was biding his time. He got little credit for it in the public eye, but much of his first year as party leader was spent on internal reforms and especially ensuring that the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting hard-left of the party no longer controlled Labour’s direction. (Corbyn was kicked out of the party for refusing to apologize for anti-Semitism under his leadership and the party’s National Executive Committee, or NEC, has just refused a bid to bring him back.)
Getting rid of Corbyn was only the start. Labour has always been seen as big-hearted, but Starmer needs to show it has a brain, too, while appealing to those voters who deserted it in 2019.
To do that, he has worked to change the party leadership, reforming the NEC. His November shadow cabinet reshuffle saw more intellectual heft and political nous brought to his front bench. Communications have been tighter and more professional.
Whereas Corbyn was often criticized for a lack of patriotism, Starmer has wrapped himself in the flag and focused more on British values. Heavy hitters from the Blair era have been contributing. Deborah Mattinson, a former adviser to Gordon Brown and someone who has studied northern voters at length, is now Starmer’s chief strategist. A new Labour think tank, Progressive Britain, has different policy ideas. Whereas Corbyn’s party talked of nationalizing industries and a four-day work week, there are now papers like “Making Private Equity Work for a Progressive Britain.”
And then came luck. Johnson’s dysfunctional Downing Street operation, his error in backing former MP Owen Paterson over lobbying, and the steady drizzle of revelations about government parties during lockdown has changed the public mood. Starmer’s lawyerly demeanor and focus on detail — dismissed as boring and technocratic when Johnson was at his Tiggerish best — now work to his advantage. Starmer may never dazzle voters the way Johnson could, but that doesn’t matter if, like a bad relationship, what seemed fun at first has become repulsive.
The Labour leader has a long way to go to build on this recent momentum, though. His party only managed to win a respectable working majority three times in the last century — at the end of World War II, in the mid-1960s and in the late ‘90s under Tony Blair. The Tories are far better financed than Labour, and they have more powerful media on their side.
Labour fell out of step with the public mood on Brexit and, perhaps unavoidably, seemed irrelevant during most of the pandemic. Can it now do a better job telling a story that makes voters think their lives will be better under Labour? If so, Starmer must avoid the mistakes that lost Labour its northern voters, who were always more aspirational (Johnson’s central insight) than Labour gave them credit for.
Showing some optimism is essential, but it won’t be enough. The party will need greater unity and a governing vision, too. Starmer seems to be focusing on the idea of rebuilding Britain after Brexit and the pandemic, but ultimately ideas will have to deliver growth and opportunity not simply more spending promises.
Despite his reforms and reshuffles, it’d be a stretch to say that the party sings from one hymn sheet now. The Conservatives may have recently lost the habit of loyalty, but it’s Labour that has traditionally been the side with the long knives. Historian Robert Saunders has noted that Clement Attlee faced three attempts to remove him, including on the day he became prime minister. Harold Wilson and trade union leaders plotted against each other. Neil Kinnock had fist-fights in the toilets at the party’s annual conference.
In some ways, the worst thing that could happen from Labour’s perspective is that the Tories quickly and efficiently dispatch with Boris Johnson. His approval rating last week was a minus 46, worse than Blair, David Cameron or Theresa May at their lowest. A Conservative leader who is seen as merely more trustworthy — say, Chancellor Rishi Sunak — could potentially cauterize the ill will toward the Tories. And yet inertia is a powerful force, and the party may decide it’s also risky to lose a leader who has been such an election winner in the past.
When asked if he’d like to be prime minister, Johnson once famously said if the ball came loose from the scrum, he’d have a crack at it. It was that ability to spot the moment and seize it that ultimately propelled him to the country’s most powerful position. Starmer will have to bide his time until an election, but how he responds when the ball comes loose will say everything about whether Labour is fit to govern once again.
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• The BBC Is Dead, Long Live the BBC: Clive Crook
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.