Feb 23, 2021
8 mins read
The sustainability of a leader's career ultimately depends on one thing, the amount of political capital they possess at any given time. Political capital fuels their leadership and determines what they can achieve and the timeframe they can achieve it in. In this article I assess how much political capital Keir Starmer currently has in order to calculate how much longer he will be the leader of the Labour Party.
How much longer will Keir Starmer be the Labour leader?
No matter how powerful a politician is, the length and trajectory of their career depend on how much political capital they have and how they spend it. It takes years to accumulate but can be spent in seconds. That capital is earned by building relationships, gaining experience, learning from the mistakes of others and building trust with the electorate. It is not fixed, it is in a constant state of flux and can be replenished with electoral and policy successes and, conversely, depleted by scandal, bad judgement and indecision.
Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair
Margaret Thatcher is a good example of a major political player who instantly wasted her hard-earned capital. Having successfully hoodwinked the public for a decade with the now discredited neoliberal trickle-down theory and the specious claim that household spending is the same as government spending, Thatcher was finally toppled by the poll tax. Unable to resolve a problem of her own making, which caused Dukes and dustmen to pay the same amount of tax on their properties, Thatcher swiftly fell. The longest serving prime minister of the 20th century used up all her capital on just one decision.
Tony Blair is another example of a long serving prime minister who used up all their political capital on a single decision. Blair wrote to George Bush promising he “would be with you, whatever”, offering his unqualified support for America’s planned war of aggression against Iraq. That single note not only forced him to eventually resign, it had severe consequences for Iraq, global security, the UK and the Labour party. His decision to lead the UK into that illegal war caused the deaths of 655,000 Iraqis (2.5% of the population), acted as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism globally, degraded the UK’s national security and broke trust between the Labour party and the British public.
Blair expending his political capital on that single decision, and the breach of trust it entailed, led to Labour losing over 2 million votes and 145 seats in the following two general elections. That huge loss of seats was the single largest contributory factor towards Labour winning its lowest number of seats since 1935 at the 2019 general election.
How much political capital does Starmer have?
How much political capital does Keir Starmer currently possess? Firstly, let’s look at his level of experience and the depth of his political relationships. Starmer scores poorly here. He is a political novice, having only become an MP in 2015. He has a limited network within Parliament outside of the centrist MPs in the party who advise him. He also regularly receives advice from Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson is now part of his inner circle. As he is so inexperienced he is heavily dependent on those advisors. It should be remembered that the people who advise him were the architects of New Labour, a political project which left Labour insolvent, with its lowest number of members in a century and with just 8.6m votes and 29% vote share in 2010.
Secondly, let’s consider the strength of his mandate. Despite spending more money than any candidate has spent on any internal election in the party’s history, Starmer won just 35% of the eligible vote to become the Labour leader. Just one third of the party’s members and supporters actively wanted him to be the leader. More people did not vote in the election than voted for him. For comparison, Jeremy Corbyn won 49% of the eligible vote. Objectively speaking, Starmer’s mandate is not very strong. His political power base is mainly derived from approximately 150 MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
In his recent keynote speech, which most commentators agree over promised and under delivered, the centrist advice he has been receiving was glaringly apparent. His big idea was to offer bonds to people with savings, an idea lifted from a Thatcherite think tank, and limited support for small businesses. These are archetypal centrist policies which might gain limited traction in a benign economy but amount to completely ineffectual economic tinkering during a time of economic crisis. If I were in a cynical mood I could easily imagine that having realised Starmer rendered himself unelectable by taking contradictory positions on Brexit, centrists are now feeding him bad advice to undermine his leadership so one of them can replace him.
Political capital and polling
Under the leadership of Keir Starmer Labour is trailing behind arguably the worst Tory government in history. His supporters have relied on his personal ratings to deflect criticism of Labour’s polling but since his own polling started falling they are no longer able to do that. The party’s polling and Keir Starmer's personal polling have become disastrous. In a recent Survation poll Labour polled at 33% and had dropped 5pts in less than a month. This is bound to further diminish Starmer’s capital. The polls are indicating that the more the public sees of Keir Starmer the less they like him. With his lack of experience, lack of political skill and rather wooden presentation when speaking, he simply does not have the ability to turn things round. These danger signs cannot be ignored, even by his most zealous supporters.
Political capital and the membership
Since he became leader in April 2020, Labour has lost more members than have been lost in any year in the party’s history. This has created a huge gap in the party’s finances, estimated at over £2 million a year in lost membership fees alone. Unite has also reduced its funding to the party by 10%, costing a further million pounds a year. In addition, Starmer’s refusal to defend the reputation of the party in court has cost Labour £650,000 on one case alone and has opened the party up to potentially millions of pounds more of legal liabilities.
In war terminology, Keir Starmer is the general of the Labour party. Self defeatingly, one of his first priorities as general was to declare war on his troops. Starmer’s general secretary, the staunch Blairite David Evans, has denied members their right to free speech by suspending branch and CLP chairs and secretaries who allowed members to protest about the unjustified suspension of the former leader Jeremy Corbyn. It is worth noting that Corbyn is the most popular Labour leader by vote count in the 21st century. It is a rarely reported fact that Corbyn won more votes and gained more seats than any other Labour leader this century.
By attacking Corbyn and the members who support him, Keir Starmer has seriously depleted the political capital he could otherwise have drawn from the party’s membership. It could be argued that as far as his relationship with members is concerned, he has little or no remaining political capital.
In addition to his attack on party members, Starmer has made several other bad decisions which have drained his capital. His “constructive opposition” strategy has proved disastrous, leaving him in the compromising position as the leader of the opposition of repeatedly stating that he agrees with and supports a Tory government that has badly mishandled the Covid19 pandemic, resulting in over 100,000 avoidable deaths. His strategy of appealing to Tories has also badly compromised the Labour party. He whipped Labour MPs to not oppose Tory legislation which enables state agents to murder, rape and torture and not be held to account in a court of law. His most recent controversial decision was to not call for the resignation of Matthew Hancock, a Tory minister who was found to have acted unlawfully. All of these poor judgements not only deplete his political capital, they also damage both his and the Labour party’s reputation and credibility as an opposition party.
How long has Starmer got?
The next leadership test for Keir Starmer, and his next opportunity to replenish his rapidly deteriorating capital, will be at the local elections in May. Again, this does not look good for him. His strategic obsession of trying to win over Tory voters instead of securing and increasing the Labour base and winning over unregistered voters is backfiring badly. His supporters are already in damage limitation mode and are trying to set expectations by claiming not winning any seats would amount to a “good outcome’.
As this article has revealed, Keir Starmer’s political capital is at a dangerously low ebb. That capital is the fuel which allows him to resist political gravity. When the fuel runs out he will fall from the sky and crash to the ground. That is how all political careers eventually end, in failure.
Keir Starmer is currently running on fumes. If the results in May are as bad as predicted it will not be possible for him to continue limping on as a lame duck leader until 2024. Starmer should consider his position after the local elections. If the results are as bad as expected I would strongly advise him to stand down. The Labour party cannot win power with a leader who is incapable of retaining and increasing their political capital.