Boris Johnson's Biggest Rival Can't Land a Blow

Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, was more than a breath of fresh air when he took over from Jeremy Corbyn after the 2019 general election. Boris Johnson’s Tories had just trounced the hard-left Corbyn’s party, seizing seats in former Labour strongholds in northern England — so something had to change. 

Thursday’s local, regional and national elections will be the first indication of how far Starmer still has to travel if he wants to replace Boris Johnson. The omens don’t look good.

In a little more than a year since he took over, the former public prosecutor has scored regular debating hits against Prime Minister Johnson in Parliament and taken an unambiguous line against anti-Semitism in the Labour party. He’s even urged the government not to ruin the pandemic recovery with tax hikes, a very different fiscal stance to the tax-happy Corbynites.

But polling suggests none of this will deliver the gains Labour needs. The popularity Starmer built up toward the end of last year waned as the Johnson government’s vaccine rollout picked up steam. Pollsters have suggested Labour is even losing voters to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, neither of which has any chance of doing much governing.

If polls prove accurate and the party loses the parliamentary election in traditionally Labour-run Hartlepool, comes last in Scotland behind the Tories and loses local council seats in the Midlands and the North, people will ask whether soft-left Starmer really is a better bet than socialist Corbyn — electorally, at least.

In fairness, Labour’s problems predate Starmer. Hartlepool, a strong pro-Brexit seat, would have gone to the Tories in the last election except that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party divided the leave vote, allowing Labour to cling on.

Scotland is equally painful. Starmer is named after Keir Hardie, a Labour founding father who hailed from north of the border, and yet his party has barely registered a pulse in Scotland since 2016 and has been in decline since the Scottish National Party came to the fore. The recent appointment of a competent new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, came too late to make much of a difference to this election.

Starmer has two disadvantages in trying to turn things around. The first is personality. His lawyerly demeanor may one day prove the antidote to Johnson’s bluster that the public wants. But regardless of his many failings the prime minister is one of the towering personalities of modern British politics.

Voters will need to tire of Johnson’s antics, the chaos at Downing Street, his tabloid-worthy peccadillos and financial woes. They’d have to grow less tolerant of a Conservative Party that’s been in power for more than a decade and want a change. So far they’re still rewarding the prime minister for delivering Brexit and Covid vaccinations.  

Starmer’s second big problem is his party. Cleaning house from the Corbynite era consumed much of his first year in office. He’s now under pressure from the left to stay true to statist Labour values and from his party’s moderates to prove he can win back those working class voters who defected to Johnson after the Brexit vote. Both sides will want to see evidence that he can draw blood against the Tories soon.

The more Starmer moves his party off the turf occupied by Corbyn, the more he’s faced with a question he hasn’t yet answered: What is the Labour Party under his leadership? Understandably he doesn’t want to be too specific about policies with a general election still years away, but voters are struggling to know what he stands for. This crisis in how social-democratic parties define themselves is by no means unique to Britain. 

It’s hard, too, when the Conservatives are proving adept at presenting themselves as the new champions of the working class. The reality is that the center of British politics has shifted left on economics, with the Tories borrowing Labour policies where needed. Since the Conservatives have a better reputation for economic management, Johnson can occupy that ground more credibly for now. 

The global pandemic has also let the prime minister use the state to ease the lives of citizens, something that would have been opposed more vigorously by traditional free-market Tories during normal times. His government, having failed egregiously to contain the pandemic last year, has spent heavily on job furlough and other support programs.

Right now people are more likely to reward the Conservative administration for the vaccination program — would a Labour government have tapped a venture capitalist to design it? — than punish it for the “cash-for-curtains” scandal or the serious but inscrutable problems of Greensill Capital and its high-profile lobbyists.

Starmer’s best hope is to keep chipping away on those issues of propriety and cronyism and prepare himself for the moment when normal politics resumes and some of his blows actually land. For that, he could also use a stronger top team. Few of his shadow cabinet are recognizable to voters, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to sell them as a government in waiting.

His is arguably the toughest job in British politics. The country needs a sharp opposition to hold the government to account, now more than ever given the Greensill revelations and Johnson’s messy way of operating. Starmer has done a pretty decent job of that. But it’s not enough. 

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.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.