Left for dead? Keir Starmer’s new look Labour Party

The Labour Party today looks a shadow of the party that lost the general election in December 2019.

When the former shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, convincingly won the Labour leadership election in April 2020, he promised to rebuild the nation’s trust in the party.

The party’s worst electoral defeat since 1935 prompted Starmer to swiftly dissociate himself from the previous format. When he announced his new shadow cabinet, it was packed with critics of Jeremy Corbyn, his predecessor.

The only frontbench member still present from Corbyn’s tenure was Rebecca Long-Bailey. But she did not last long. When Long-Bailey shared an article in which actress Maxine Peake stated Israel’s security services had taught the US police to kneel on people’s necks, described as an ‘antisemitic conspiracy theory’ by Starmer’s spokesperson, it was her last act.

Perhaps somewhat compelled to give her a frontbench position in the first place because she came second in the leadership contest, sacking the former shadow business secretary and the staunch Corbyn ally was Starmer’s opportunity to decisively break from the Corbyn era.

It was also an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Not only did his new front bench embellish a new look Labour, sacking Long-Bailey over alleged anti-Semitism was the chance for Starmer to demonstrate to the Jewish community his supposed ‘zero tolerance’ for anti-Semitism. That the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews quickly thanked Starmer for his actions suggested it had the desired effects.

However, Starmer has not maintained all of his pledges. Early on he reiterated the need to eradicate factionalism from the party, yet his actions do not imitate his vows. Instead, he appears adamant on amplifying the divisions. Aside from sacking Long-Bailey, the appointments he has made showcase his inclination to extinguish the slightest influence the left possesses.

Morgan McSweeney, his newly appointed chief of staff, is a former director of Labour Together, a group that spent the Corbyn era biding its time and planning for how the left could rebuild its voter base and succeed in the future. Observers also point to the recruitment of David Evans — an experienced party official who held senior roles under Tony Blair — as Labour’s general secretary, as a key moment in Starmer’s battle to ‘get the party to where it needs to be in four years’ time,’ as one official put it.

Whilst the defeat in December was undeniably cause for concern, the sentiments from the Starmer camp are partially imprecise. The Brexit position in the election undoubtedly estranged voters from the both sides of the Brexit camp, but the party under Corbyn was not the abominable organisation they strongly insinuate. Indeed, research shows that support for Labour increased over the last decade, gaining over two million votes between 2010 and 2019. The party ended the decade with a vote share in England and Wales that had expanded from a low of 28.5% in 2010 to 34.3% in 2019. In 2017, Labour’s vote share of 42.4% in England and Wales approached the record of 44% set under Tony Blair in 1997.

Thus, completely transforming the image of the party and everything it stood for risks alienating a multitude of people who heartily bought into its previous agenda. Thousands of Labour Party members and activists who powered the party’s grassroots mobilisation under Corbyn have already withdrawn their membership and turned away from the party, citing an atmosphere of despair as integral to their decision.

Momentum, the grassroots political organisation born out of Corbyn’s leadership election in 2015, have not pulled any punches. Their newly elected co-chairs emphasised the need to rebuild a socialist movement, but more importantly, accentuated they ‘must and will lead criticisms of Keir Starmer, especially if he continues to attack the Left.’

Starmer would argue the decision to side-line and muzzle the left wing of the party has been fruitful. A recent Opinium poll for the Observer shows Starmer level with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, in what is the first time in any poll the Tories have not been ahead since summer 2019. Plenty of Labour MP’s and activists shared the poll when it surfaced, hinting it could be the outset of the Conservative demise.

But increasing approval ratings are not enough to catapult Starmer into Downing Street. In fact, whilst Starmer has reduced the Tory lead, there is still significant work to be done regarding his personal approval ratings. In the same poll, regarding preferences for prime minister, Starmer still trailed Johnson. Given the nature of Johnson’s unconventional governing approach, that could change. But not only is Starmer lagging behind on a personal level, he is still polling lower than Labour, the brand, despite all the talk of him detoxifying the brand.

It does not help that the poll displaying Labour propulsion can be considered an outlier, as the average polls exhibit a comfortable Conservative lead. This was palpable in a poll which emerged just days after the Observer one and revealed a 6-point lead for Johnson’s party.

That has not stopped former Labour leader and prime minister, Tony Blair, from eulogizing about the progress made so far, contending that Starmer has made the party ‘politically competitive’ again.

Much remains to be accomplished though. The global pandemic has shattered economies across the globe, but Britain has been of the hardest hit. In August Britain officially entered the deepest recession since records began, following a 2.2% drop in gross domestic product (GDP) – the broadest measure of economic prosperity – in the first quarter, accompanied by a fall of 20.4% in the second quarter. This compounded an already disintegrating economy, with several prominent businesses like Pizza Express, WH Smith and Hays Travel all announcing chain closures and redundancies shortly before.

Observers point to the delayed launch of the lockdown in the UK as a factor that assisted the plunge into recession. Hence Starmer’s insistence on hammering home that the current government is responsible for the deteriorating plight in Britain, with the recurring theme being the government’s inadequacy. From ‘The Tories’ incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery’ to ‘Incompetence has become this government’s watchword’, the former human rights lawyer is ensuring the message he sends out to the public about the government’s handling strategy is clear cut and unmistakable.

Starmer has befittingly dedicated a lot of attention to the issue of incompetence in recent weeks. However, though he has signalled Johnson’s rule amounts to a ticking time bomb, he has not yet offered any policies or ideas which highlight that life under Labour would be better and that they would operate with greater competence. He is positioning himself as ‘not Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘not Boris Johnson’ without illustrating who the alternative, Keir Starmer, stands for. That conceivably explains why despite the government’s inconclusive supervision, including an extraordinary number of policy U-turns and imprudent management of the pandemic, voters still see the Tory party as more ‘competent and capable’.

As Ian, a plumber from Accrington in the red wall, summed up: ‘I don’t know what he [Starmer] is about yet. Meanwhile I see Boris clearly.’

Considering one of the fundamental tasks for the Labour leader is to rebuild the red wall, such proclamations are worrying. Senior aides have underscored that those previous Labour heartlands in the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North which predominantly turned blue in December are a top priority for Starmer. Many of these voters are left wing economically, but socially conservative and patriotic. And Starmer has tried to sing from their hymn sheet to put down a marker. His article in the Telegraph stressing that the VE Day generation must receive the ‘dignity and respect’ they deserve, is a case in point.

But the news that the UK is planning new legislation that will override key parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, is a prompt reminder to Starmer that Brexit, the matter that was instrumental in shifting voting allegiances, is still present and potent. Gathering support from the red wall, especially if the politically sensitive issue of Brexit is front and centre, could prove arduous. Particularly as Starmer was a compelling voice in the Labour pivot to a second referendum, often viewed by Brexit supporters as an undemocratic endeavour to reverse the referendum result.

In July, a poll showed that six in ten red wall voters think the Labour party is not ready to go back into government. Another survey conducted in September shows that 51% of voters in the East Midlands, and 53% in the North East believe Mr Johnson to be the better choice at this point in time. This suggests the wariness that propelled them to abandon Labour is still prevalent. This apace with the fact four out of ten of those who voted Liberal Democrats last year – chiefly middle class, pro EU voters – are now backing Labour, poses a conundrum for Starmer. Labour lost 9% of 2017 voters to the Lib Dems and 11% to the Conservatives. That the latter appear more welcoming to Starmer ostensibly hints he is still being viewed through the Brexit lens by some voters.

In Scotland, the challenge to garner support is just as tricky. When Blair’s Labour rose to power in 1997, they won 56 of Scotland’s 72 Westminster seats. Yet, according to the latest numbers, Labour claims just 14% of voting intentions, against the Scottish National Party’s 47% and the Conservative’s 21%. Next May’s Scottish elections look set to provide Nicola Sturgeon with a thumping majority, which is now synonymous with Scotland’s secession from the UK. Unless Scottish Labour improve and put up a resilient fight, they will shoulder some of the blame for the breakup of the UK.

Ultimately, Starmer inherited a party not trusted enough to govern, brimming with factionalism, and with a strenuous task to win back its once dependable seats. Despite the delirium of recent weeks, those issues are still persistent.

Perhaps the ray of light from Starmer’s challenge is that time is firmly on his side.

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