Keir Starmer: A Brave Battle Against Tories and the Vanishing Hope | Andrew Rawnsley

"Labour Starts the Run-Up to Elections Amidst Ongoing Criticism of Sir Keir Starmer's Leadership"

It is an occupational hazard of being leader of the Labour party to receive a lot of unsolicited advice from people who think they have a better idea how to do the job. There’s no immunity from this for Sir Keir Starmer, even though he must be doing something right. Labour starts the run-up to a general election around 20 points ahead in the opinion polls. Rishi Sunak has just dropped a heavy hint that the UK will make its choice in the second half of this year, as I suggested would be the case last week. Whenever the election is called, few Tories think they have a prayer of clinging on to power.

For all these encouraging auguries for Labour, we are just a week into the new year and a dumper truck of suggestions about how he could be doing better has been unloaded on Sir Keir. The complaint from some is that he is too opaque about what the country should expect from a Labour government. Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and head of policy during Ed Miliband’s time as leader, has helpfully branded Sir Keir “elusive” and lacking a comprehensible sense of purpose. Grist to the mills of those on the right who clamour for the Labour leader to spell out his intentions in pointillist detail.

It is fair to say that Team Starmer still has work to do finalising the Labour prospectus to make it manifesto-ready, a process of refining and bomb-proofing that is underway, but incomplete. Yet in many significant policy areas – including education, health, housing and industrial strategy – it is already clearer what a Starmer government would hope to achieve than what we could anticipate from the Conservatives, should they somehow manage to secure a fifth consecutive term.

The most common critique from the left of the spectrum is that Sir Keir is not offering enough hope to voters. This is often a thinly disguised demand for more spending promises; other times it is a way of saying Sir Keir should be more exciting.

A Labour veteran, thinking to compare the tepid feelings towards his party in the present day with the last time it was in opposition preparing to be in government, recently lamented to me: “For all that Keir has achieved, it doesn’t feel like 1997.”

This is true enough, but mainly because how people usually remember the famous Labour victory of that election year is at odds with how it actually was. Folklore has it that Tony Blair achieved a landslide triumph in ’97 by generating a huge surge of optimistic elation about the prospect of a Labour government. Didn’t an ecstatic crowd line Downing Street flourishing union jacks to hosannah him into Number 10? So they did, but the cheering, flag-waving throng was not composed of members of the public. They were Labour party staff and their families.

Sir Tony, as he has since become, was an ace at delivering uplifting oratory when he thought the occasion demanded it, but the stats tell us that this did not excite a substantial majority of the electorate. New Labour won the 1997 election with just over 13 and a half million votes, about half a million less than dull old John Major had secured for the Tories in 1992. The most crucial factor in the Blair landslide of ’97 was not soaring expectations of what a Labour government would deliver; it was the collapse of support for the Conservatives and efficient anti-Tory tactical voting. A frequent complaint about Sir Tony was that his programme was too cautious and his campaigning too buttoned-down and tight-lipped. That’s a criticism that will sound familiar to Sir Keir. The late Roy Jenkins, generally an admirer of Sir Tony, gently mocked the then Labour leader in advance of the ’97 election by remarking that he behaved with the trepidation of “a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”.

Four previous and successive election defeats for Labour – in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 – made Sir Tony averse to taking any risks. His Labour was very constrained in what it initially promised it could deliver, even though it knew that it would come to power with the economy doing well.

The Labour high command of today is likewise scarred by quadruple consecutive losses, in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019, the last the most catastrophic defeat for the party since 1935. And whereas Sir Tony could expect to inherit decent economic growth, the bequest from the Tories to a Starmer government will be much grimmer.

So what you could call the “hope deficit” is more acute for Sir Keir than it was for Labour 27 years ago. The mood of the country is too sour, or so it is thought among the Labour leader’s team, for there to be a public appetite for the futuristic and sometimes utopian rhetoric employed by Sir Tony to try to enthuse voters. The economic traumas of recent history and the fragile state of the public finances make Labour highly wary of making any spending promises that its opponents can try to depict as inflationary and reckless, an attack the Conservatives and their megaphones in the rightwing media will make despite the Tories’ abysmal record. This is not just an inhibitor on Labour issuing a cornucopia of shiny pledges, it is also a source of continuing tension at the top of the party about policies that were supposed to be already settled. There is notably persistent wrangling about the funding and timing of the green prosperity plan.

Added to which, voter cynicism about politicians and their promises has rarely been deeper. The electorate has been taught to be highly distrusting of bombastic politicians making grandiose claims to have instant and transformative solutions for the ills of the country. If you want to identify the murderers of hope, the list is headed by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, with Rishi Sunak also wanted for questioning for making pledges that he has failed to deliver.

Successful Labour election campaigns of the past, and there have not been many of them, have been based on a combination of a credible leader, a united party, a plausible programme and a sense of hope. Sir Keir has the first two of those elements in place. He has been effective at the dispatch box and has not yet had to face a serious internal challenge to his leadership. The third is still a work in progress. The fourth is the most elusive of all.

Martin Reid

Martin Reid

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