Keir Starmer has a long way to go to make the Labour Party electable once again. Having won the leadership campaign on the promise to ‘reform and unite’, he acknowledged the need to course-correct from Corbyn’s divisive leadership – no small feat for any new leader.
Over the past year, it is clear that Starmer has learned from some of his predecessor’s mistakes. He has recognised that the perception of the Party as unpatriotic was a significant contributor to 2019’s historic election loss, which saw the Conservatives win their biggest majority since 1987, and has since made efforts to change tack, likely in a bid to win back some of the support lost in the former Labour heartlands. With a renewed focus on British values, ‘patriotism’ is now a driving force behind his ‘[fight] for a better country’. This includes advocating the display of the Union flag, despite considerable pushback from some Labour MPs.
Though Labour continues to poll below the Conservatives, there have been six-figure shifts in party membership, and despite a recent dip, he has enjoyed consistently high favourability in YouGov polls since becoming leader, showing there is at least some appetite for a shift to the centre-ground.
However, over the past year, Sir Keir’s actions and rhetoric have often conflicted, casting some doubt on the integrity and durability of his convictions.
Following the Party’s damaging anti-Semitism scandals, Starmer’s intention to make ‘rebuilding trust with the Jewish community [a] number one priority’ has delivered mixed results. Despite vowing to implement all recommendations made in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on anti-Semitism within the party, suspensions have been selective.
While he ensured his predecessor had his Commons party whip revoked, and sacked former Shadow Education Secretary (and ‘number two’ to former Shadow Chancellor) Rebecca Long-Bailey, after she refused to apologise for sharing a conspiracy theory about Israeli secret services on social media, Starmer still appointed Naz Shah as Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion. This, despite the fact that Ms Shah was named in the EHRC report and had been previously suspended from the party.
Another persistent blight on Labour’s electability is its Momentum base. Starmer may have condemned March’s ‘Kill the Bill’ riots as ‘inexcusable’ and ‘completely unacceptable’ but it remains a stain on Labour’s reputation that individuals from Bristol’s Momentum faction were involved in the violent riot, which resulted in windows smashed, police vans burned, and officers injured.
Starmer may be right to oppose ‘draconian’ elements of the Conservatives’ police and sentencing bill, which infringe on free-speech and citizens’ right to peacefully protest, however, for this condemnation to hold water with the British public, Starmer would do well to distance himself further from certain voices in his Party, such as Nadia Whittome, who recently appeared unwilling to condemn Bristol’s violent riots.
Starmer has also shown inconsistency when it comes to his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. After having been pictured taking the knee, he later noted the organisation’s mission statement included intentions to ‘defund the police’, which he described as “nonsense”, much to the dismay of a number of Labour MPs and activists. Starmer received further criticism from within his own party for referring to Black Lives Matter as a “moment” – which prompted heated criticism from Labour’s Corbynite faction. At the very least, it made the Labour leader appeared uninformed and error-prone.
These accusations are likely to be hard to shake off, particularly in light of his weak opposition throughout the pandemic. Party insiders have expressed concern over an aimless ‘feeling of drift’ creeping in as Starmer’s honeymoon period passes. Accusations plaguing Starmer’s integrity range from excessive agreeableness and lack of ‘political killer instinct’, to reliance on policy purely based on focus-groups and think-tank talking points. His nickname ‘Captain Hindsight’ has proven hard to shake off, having been mentioned twelve times in the Commons over the past year. Of course, it would be rather premature to argue that Boris will emerge unscathed from this crisis; it very much remains to be seen whether the phenomenal vaccine rollout will be enough to heal wounds inflicted earlier in the pandemic.
If Labour wish to follow through on their course-correction promise and capitalise on the pending public backlash over SAGE and the Conservatives’ enforcement of crippling Covid lockdowns, Starmer would do well to fashion himself as a principles-first dissenting voice. Party allegiances aside, the electorate will look favourably on Sir Keir showing more fortitude when it comes to public debate.
As the nation emerges from an unprecedented revoking of civil liberties, and recovers from loss of lives and livelihoods, twelve more months of mostly abstaining will be politically damaging. If Starmer wants to see his popularity surge ahead of 2023, more unapologetic appeals to British liberalism – as with his recent opposition to the health apartheid caused by vaccine passports – may win back some of the bi-partisan good graces squandered by his predecessor.