For the first time in 13 years, the British public, when polled, think a Labour leader would make the best prime minister. To be fair, Sir Keir Starmer has been helped in this regard by the Conservatives, who haven’t done wonders for their reputation as the party of competence in recent weeks. But the opposition leader has had a decent start. Yes, Starmer is right when he says his party has a ‘mountain to climb’ to win power following Jeremy Corbyn’s historic defeat, but the Tories are on their fourth term and no party has ever won five times in a row.
When Iain Duncan Smith was elected leader of the Conservative party, he said he ought to be judged on his first hundred days. The public gets a sense of the opposition leader by this point, he argued. (In his case, he was correct — and he never recovered.) As Starmer marks his first hundred days this month, the Labour leader and his supporters are finding they have more to be optimistic about. Under his leadership, he has reorganized the Labour machine, made Prime Minister’s Questions a contest again and replaced Corbynites with his own supporters.
Starmer’s most recent act took even his own supporters by surprise. His former leader ship rival, Rebecca Long Bailey, shared an article on Twitter which contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. She was asked to take it down, refused — and was fired soon after. That act has been talked up in some Labour circles as Starmer’s own Clause IV moment.
As well as showing that Starmer means it when he says he wants to tackle anti-Semitism, it also showed the value placed on party discipline. It was deemed untenable to have a situation where shadow ministers refused instructions from the leader’s office. Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a shadow minister, found himself in the headlines over the weekend for accusing J.K. Rowling of using her experience of domestic abuse to attack trans people. He was asked to apologize and did so. As a result, he remains in place.
While those around Starmer insist that he wants to ‘move past’ the labels of left and right in Labour, it’s fair to say that the happiest MPs are those in the center of the party. The departure of Long Bailey led to a mini revolt of Corbynites — who demanded a meeting with Starmer to call for her to be reinstated. With that request quickly refused, the fallout has revealed the new balance of power in the party. ‘The fact that John McDonnell was reduced to sharing an online petition to get Becky back in tells you everything about how ineffectual they now are,’ says an unashamed Blairite. ‘There is noise but it’s not going to come to much because they don’t control the levers any more,’ adds a party official.
While some Corbyn supporters on social media have threatened to quit over the decision, this is even better: they are, in truth, exactly the people Team Starmer would be happy to see go. After years of factional battles playing out in public, a driving aim of the new operation is to make Labour seem sensible and decent. Corbyn outriders on the airwaves defending the latest scandal are a particular source of annoyance, as they are seen to sully the party’s brand.
One of the most obvious changes in the new approach is with regard to the media. To Corbyn, the press was the enemy: he preferred feeding left-wing websites or his own digital fanzines. Starmer is seeking to talk to critics, and build relationships with the mainstream media — which they think will be easier at a time when No. 10’s relations with the press are temperamental. A Daily Telegraph splash on an op-ed written by Sir Keir for the paper to mark VE Day is viewed by Starmer allies as the biggest communications triumph so far. ‘That would have been unthinkable in the Corbyn days,’ says a shadow minister.
Starmer intends to find a middle way in the culture wars, too. He supported the Black Lives Matter movement (and was photographed ‘taking the knee’) but he disassociated himself from the organization’s call to defund the police. While that triggered an online backlash from Corbynites, it was music to the ears of one MP with a working-class constituency who tells me: ‘If I went and knocked on the door of all my BAME constituents and said we were defunding the police, they would think I was mad.’
Labour’s focus, now, will be on jobs — in the belief that the furlough scheme will soon give way to mass unemployment which Boris Johnson will struggle to offset. Starmer allies are well aware of the old adage that ‘oppositions don’t win elections, government lose them’. As one puts it: ‘We need to appear reasonable and they need to screw up.’ So far, this is going to plan: the disarray over COVID testing, the NHS app, the UK’s high death toll and questions over the efficacy of lockdown have played into Labour hands. In the Commons, Starmer’s strategy has been to present himself as meticulous and the Prime Minister as bumbling.
In Downing Street, there is mixed opinion on how much of a threat Starmer presents. The election strategist Isaac Levido has advised aides on Starmer’s weaknesses, while Dominic Cummings described him as a ‘Remainer lawyer’ in a recent call to special advisers. But dull-but-competent is by no means the worst look for an opposition leader. Opinion polls suggest his lawyerly demeanor is not viewed by his potential voters as too much of a problem.
‘He’s a grown-up and he has a serious team around him,’ sighs a senior government figure, looking ahead to the next election. ‘When you are 15 years into government, the other side just need someone who is competent, someone who is not a total Marxist.’ Until recently, that looked like a tall order for the Labour party. Now, with the Marxists on the run and moderates flooding back, Labour just might be back in business.