Can Keir Starmer Save Labour From Itself and Boris Johnson?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s hard to imagine U.K. Labour leader Keir Starmer mocking the French as Boris Johnson did this week. But while metropolitan commentators sniffed at the prime minister ribbing an ally, most British voters laughed along. Starmer clearly has a Boris-shaped problem on his hands, which he’ll have to address as he rallies the U.K.’s opposition party at its annual conference in Brighton.
The prime minister is a Falstaffian man of appetites, an embodiment of Merrie England. He tickles the funny bone of just-about-managing voters in the country’s north and Midlands, who in former times wouldn’t have given the time of day to any pin-striped Tory politician.
Labour’s earnest progressives still don’t quite get it. The party’s last two (failed) leaders were firmly of the view that Labour is so obviously “good” that anyone who votes Conservative must be, by definition, “bad.” The people of Britain must have been naive fools, blinded by the lies of media barons and social media, the thinking went, to have voted for a chancer like Johnson.
But the fault was Labour’s. The opposition party has been out of touch with public opinion beyond its strongholds in London and big cities.
Eighteen months into the job, dour Starmer is still finding it hard to connect with the voters. However, he knows better than to underestimate an opponent who has made large inroads into Labour’s traditional support base.
Starmer’s task is to reach out to those repelled by his party’s assumption of moral superiority, apparent lack of patriotism its failure to come to terms with Britain’s departure from the European Union. Labour has support from young adults sympathetic to American-style identity politics and locked out of an inflationary housing market; but it’s the over-50s who reliably turn out at the polls. The latter distrusts Labour’s economic competence and loathe its factional, left-wing politics.
There isn’t much time to go on the offensive. After a government reshuffle of Johnson’s ministerial team that dropped the worst performers, the prime minister has cleared the decks for an election that could come as early as 2023. Can Starmer beat the Tories, the oldest and most flexible party of power in the democratic West?
It’s a big ask. Labour has lost in succession four general elections, two European elections, several local elections and a referendum. The Conservatives have an 80-plus seat majority in the House of Commons too. Yes, Labour have temporarily overtaken the governing party in the polls, but it has been a long time coming — a high mortality rate and series of gaffes during the pandemic would have sunk many a previous administration.
Labour needs to adapt with the times like other successful center-left parties. Its socialist, internationalist outlook has alienated many voters.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden gained office by running on a moderate platform and no one seriously questioned his patriotism. The example of Olaf Scholz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, lies before Starmer too. As finance minister in the coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, he reversed his party’s long decline in the polls by earning a reputation for fiscal responsibility that soothed the doubts of risk-averse voters. Neither Biden nor Scholz cuts a charismatic figure, but both men have trustworthy solidity.
Labour’s leader needs to play to his own strengths. He can’t compete with Johnson for laughs, but he can give voters a clear sense of direction and competence that contrasts favorably with the prime minister’s Micawberish tendency to hope that something will turn up.
Starmer usually wins his verbal jousts with the prime minister in the House of Commons — he was a former Crown Prosecutor, after all — but the country scarcely notices. His enemies accuse him of having no vision and even his friends admit that a lot hangs on his set-piece conference speech this week. He will have to persuade his party and the country that he, rather than Johnson, understands what Britain needs post-pandemic and post-Brexit.
But first Starmer must convince the voters that his party’s civil war between moderate social democrats and hardline socialists is over. He hopes to signal that the social democrats have won by changing the leadership election and membership rules. If successful, he will boast of a victory on par with Tony Blair’s abolition of the party’s commitment to public ownership that preceded his own election triumph in 1997.
To coincide with the conference, Starmer has written a 35-page pamphlet setting out his stall. Much of it consists of boilerplate criticism of “red tape” and anodyne proposals to make “work pay,” to “rethink and improve public services” and to “put power and control in the hands of people.” All parties promise that, though. The question is how to get there?
The essay contains approving words for private enterprise, a shift in tone from the anti-capitalist years under Jeremy Corbyn, and Starmer wisely drops any mention of his proposal last year to nationalize rail, energy and water. Nationalization is superficially popular in the opinion polls, but the politics are difficult and trust matters. If the pro-market Tories take into state ownership a failing private-sector utility, voters accept it as an exceptional, necessary measure. But if Labour were to do the same, the electorate would suspect more dangerous socialist experiments to come.
Starmer’s pamphlet runs to more than 12,000 words. It would have been better to make a terse, incisive argument that the Tories lack the bandwidth to grip the pandemic and its aftermath. Starmer wants the next election to look like that from 1945, in which Labour showed it had the capacity to construct an active, resilient and efficient state. He must articulate his vision in words that people will remember.
As inflation and supply-chain bottlenecks haunt the U.K. economy this autumn, Starmer will get more of a hearing. He should now focus on setting up tests of competence that prime minister may fail. Not even Johnson will be able to laugh that off.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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