LONDON — U.K. opposition MPs want their leader Keir Starmer to step it up a gear.
The Labour Party boss is nearing a year in the job and — despite making marked progress with the electorate — is thought by some on his own side to be stuck on his opening gambit.
“We’re still in that place where we are an increasingly effective and credible opposition — but that’s not enough,” said one Labour frontbencher. “You’ve got to also be a credible government in waiting.” The person added: “People are starting to get restless and wanting to know what we stand for … That really needs to start now.”
Starmer took the job at a tough time for Labour: Not only was the pandemic in full swing (his election came less than two weeks after the first full national lockdown was imposed) but the party was at one of the lowest points in its history.
It fell to just 202 seats at the 2019 election — its worst result since 1935 — and was riven with splits and controversy that had festered under the leadership of predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer spent his first months intent on building trust with the voters and setting himself against the previous leadership. That meant casting his team as a potential government in waiting instead of a protest movement. He has also started to deal with toxic internal management issues that had sullied the Labour brand, chiefly over anti-Semitism — including a painful report into the subject that Starmer said had revealed “failures of leadership” and ultimately led to Corbyn’s suspension from the party.
He has made significant progress in climbing out of the hole Labour was in; closing the gap in the polls between the two main parties from 22 points when he took over to a couple of points now. But a number of prominent MPs and aides POLITICO spoke to from the party’s left and right wings want Starmer to go further: they want a positive vision for what a Labour government would do.
“The next stage has got to be about a narrative about how Labour’s values would translate into different approaches in a more coherent way than we’ve seen today,” said former minister Angela Eagle. “That’s not a criticism — I think that the building blocks for moving into that space have been put in place.”
Indeed, Starmer has begun to edge towards the next phase of his leadership, setting out his thoughts on foreign policy, devolution and families in a series of speeches. Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds began setting out the Labour vision on the economy — an area where Labour is historically on the back foot — in a landmark lecture this month.
But some MPs want the team to go harder and faster in setting out what Labour sees as solutions for Britain’s challenges, and want Starmer to shake off some of the perceived hesitations in his tenure so far: that he is worried taking bolder positions might draw criticism from the press and alienate the working class voters he needs to win back.
Former Labour communications chief Tom Baldwin summed up some of the thinking, arguing Starmer had set out a solid base but “now needs to do some hard yards of winning arguments on values and ideas.”
“It must find a voice on Brexit again; the future of work; the shape of public services; the unity of the U.K.; and climate change,” he said. “Keir deserves credit for building himself a platform and earning the right to be heard. Now he needs something more to say.”
Starmer is aware that it’s time for a shift and has begun mapping out the next stages on the path to 2024. But his team is fighting against the overbearing nature of the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the political landscape and handed a political advantage to the government as the rallying point in a national crisis.
The upshot is that Labour will continue to focus on the nuts and bolts of the pandemic fallout as part of the grander vision Starmer sets out, at least in the near-term. The means a focus on what the economy should look like after the virus takes its toll on jobs and incomes; the needs of the health service after being ravaged by the crisis; and how to rebuild the nation more broadly once the storm has passed.
“We can secure our economy, protect our NHS, and rebuild Britain,” Starmer said in a speech this month. “So that it’s the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in.” In that second line, the kernel of a wider vision is visible, aides argue — mapping the recovery from the pandemic to a narrative about a Britain that works better for all generations.
While his MPs want more flesh on the bones, they aren’t asking for detailed policy promises at this point in the electoral cycle, especially with the full effects of the pandemic and Brexit still to unfold. As previous opposition party leaders have found to their cost, political opponents have no compunction in stealing catchy policy ideas and claiming them as their own.
“I don’t think we should rush to say we’ve got solutions right now when some of the problems haven’t even come about,” said Clive Efford, chair of the moderate Tribune group of Labour MPs, the largest bloc in parliament.
Peter Kyle, a shadow justice minister, argued: “Keir is doing it in the right order. He is also the most strategic leader that we’ve had since Tony Blair. He knows we are years out from an election and he wants to get this right.”
Part of that strategy revolves around the coalition of supporters Starmer seeks to appeal to. The party needs to win back many of the pro-Brexit working class voters who turned away from Labour in 2019, but if he appeals to them too strongly, he risks losing the support of the anti-Brexit crowd in cities and in Scotland.
Until recently, Scotland was itself a heartland for Labour. At the 2010 general election they won 41 out of 49 seats. They now hold just one. The previous leadership flirted with offering a second independence referendum, either as a sop to voters or in preparation for an electoral pact with the Scottish National Party. But Starmer has kicked the issue down the road.
“There should not be another independence referendum while our economic and health outlook is so precarious — nor until there has been a proper assessment of the costs, consequences and uncertainties of separation,” he said in a recent speech. He has tasked former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, himself a Scot, with investigating options for greater devolution.
Starmer’s MPs are aware Scotland is a tough spot for Labour. Some argue he should offer a confidence and supply pact to the SNP, but without offering a referendum. Others, such as left-wing firebrand Ian Lavery, argue Scotland should be offered another referendum to get the constitutional question off the table, but that Labour should fight to keep the U.K. together.
“We cannot get past the doorstep in Scotland unless we’ve got an idea on the way forward constitutionally in Scotland,” Lavery said. An election for the next Scottish Labour leader is currently underway.
Meanwhile, some in Labour fear team Starmer is too obsessed with winning back so-called Red Wall voters in the party’s former heartlands, and holds back from bold pronouncements for fear of alienating them and attracting criticism from the media.
For his interventions on the government’s response to the virus, Conservatives have branded him “Captain Hindsight”, someone who waits until the final moment to take a stance, when it’s clear which way the wind is blowing. It’s a charge that’s in danger of sticking.
But team Starmer rejects the accusations, pointing to his numerous early calls on the pandemic that were subsequently vindicated, like his advocacy of a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in October — something ministers ended up doing after first ridiculing him.
Other critics see his gambit of “constructive opposition,” which has meant Labour backed broad swathes of the government’s pandemic policy, as a sop to the Conservatives and an overcorrection from the previous leadership, which avoided giving passes to the government at all costs.
“The name is in the title: Her Majesty’s Opposition,” said Lavery. “When the historians write about this particular point in time, they’re going to be saying the Labour Party were equally as culpable [as] the Conservative Party because of the way in which we seem to support what’s being put forward.”
A Starmer aide rejected that critique — arguing that the leader has attempted to be understanding and constructive at a time of national crisis, but has called the government out where it has made repeated or obvious mistakes. “This is not a normal time for politics.”
Whether his stance on the pandemic proves to be the right one or not, the scale of the challenge facing the party is daunting. Labour needs to increase its number of MPs by 60 per cent to win a majority at the next election. And there are numerous stumbling blocks between now and then, with the first being the local elections in May (over which Starmer aides are already playing down expectations.)
“There is a kind of positivity about where we’ve got to so far,” said a senior Labour official. “But equally we recognize that if this is a project to get Labour elected in 2024 and we’re trying to climb towards that, we are still right at the bottom of it and we’ve got a lot more to do.”
The same person added: “There are going to be some bumpy months coming up, but we will only win the election under a proper vision of what Britain under Keir Starmer would look like, and why lots of people who feel let down by the Labour Party in recent years should vote for the Labour Party again.”
Eagle, the former Labour minister, put it more pithily: “It’s Everest,” she said. “So, you know, I think we’ve made a decent trip to base camp.”
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/keir-starmer-labour-party-uk-opposition-mount-everest/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication