Dec 26, 2020
10 mins read
Unlike his predecessor, Keir Starmer has enjoyed the full support of the Parliamentary Labour Party and been given a fairly easy time by most of the media. His progression to Downing Street should be assured but progress is stalling. Labour is deeply divided, the party is losing both members and money at an alarming rate and the party is not making any headway in the polls. Where did it all go wrong for Keir Starmer? First published 27th September 2020. Updated 20th August 2022.
Keir Starmer: where did it all go wrong?
Keir Starmer’s resume is impressive; a barrister, QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions, defender of human rights, knight of the realm and now leader of the Labour Party, just one step away from the top job.
He has constantly strived for personal advancement and is clearly a man on a mission, a mission he has yet to describe in any real detail since becoming leader in April 2020. Starmer prefers to talk in more general, value-based terms. In this article in the New Statesman Stephen Bush pens a good description of the leader’s Conference speech and its lack of substance.
With a Tory government overwhelmed by events and ideologically opposed to the interventionist policies required to prevent further economic damage, the stage was set for Keir Starmer to seize the moment. With a brand new mandate as leader he had a perfect opportunity to use that platform to speak directly to the nation and tell them where the Conservatives had gone wrong and, more importantly, what he would do instead. He had the ideal chance to present his own plan and political vision to the country. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to have either.
Whether you are a Starmer supporter or not, we can all probably agree that he failed to meet the moment. With the Tories in disarray, the Labour leader should have been getting his message across and Labour should have been pulling ahead in the polls. Labour centrists insisted the party would be 20 points ahead if it had a leader like Starmer, so where is the Starmer surge? He should be measuring up the curtains for 10 Downing Street by now but isn’t. What happened? Where did it all go wrong for Keir Starmer?
Why isn’t Labour 20 points ahead in the polls?
Starmer’s problem is that regardless of how hard he tries he meets too much resistance. Despite having the support of the establishment, the Labour right wing and cordial relations with most of the media, Labour is only one point ahead of the Tories in some polls. It is similar to what happened during the Labour leadership election when Starmer won just 35% of the eligible vote despite enjoying ample time, funding and support during his campaign. These statistics indicate that Keir Starmer is a weak and ineffective campaigner. The wider electorate has now had time to form an opinion of him and judging by voting intention polls they are distinctly unimpressed.
In the early stages of Starmer's leadership, before people had formed an opinion of him, it is true that Labour reduced the Tory lead. Starmer supporters loudly claimed Labour had drawn level with the Tories but that was not an accurate description of the polling. Labour was only level with the Tories in two outliers and had gained just 6-8 pts since the 2019 general election, when the party won 32% of the vote. Starmer supporters are also keen to say his personal ratings are better than Boris Johnson’s in some polls, but the fact that some Tories might like Keir Starmer but not enough to vote Labour doesn’t help the party win a single vote.
Labour were ahead of the Tories in the polls for a prolonged period of time under Corbyn’s leadership and repeatedly polled at 46%. Currently in some polls Labour is just one point ahead of arguably the worst Tory government in living memory. Remember this is happening in the context of a national emergency and a cost of living crisis which have been badly mishandled by the government. The mismanagement of the Covid19 pandemic has contributed to over 150,000 excess deaths in the UK and the cost of living crisis is driving millions into poverty. Labour should be providing the country with an alternative vision, plan and policies. It is now August 2022 and despite having multiple opportunities to set out his vision and policies, Starmer has still failed to do that.
When did it go wrong?
Like Blair with Iraq, Starmer will be remembered for his central role in the attempt to stop Brexit. It is a rarely reported fact that Keir Starmer was the person who insisted Labour break its manifesto commitment to accept the referendum result. Keir Starmer tried to overturn 17.4 million leave votes, the largest number of winning votes in any election held in the history of British democracy. The Tories will not let voters forget that, especially during election campaigns.
The Tory party could well have splintered naturally after Brexit, Brexit was the glue holding the party together. Keir Starmer is now the glue that binds the Tory vote. Having Starmer as Labour leader hardens and mobilises the Tory base. Labour cannot seriously hope to win power when it is led by a person who alienated 17.4 million leave voters and then 16.1 million remain voters by voting for the Tory Brexit deal, a deal he himself admitted does not protect workers’ rights. A political leader cannot aggravate over 33 million voters and go on to win power, it is simply not a plausible proposition.
Government is a matter of trust. On Brexit, Starmer failed that test. He promised the electorate he would deliver Brexit and then he broke his word. Like Blair with Iraq, Starmer broke trust with the electorate. He disrespected British democracy. No matter how much his supporters would like to hope, that will not be easily forgotten by voters.
Starmer also faces several internal party problems, many of his own making. The Forde Report is particularly problematic for him because he is one of the MPs who took part in the 2016 coup to topple Corbyn. The participation of senior members of staff who were also involved in that coup is detailed in the report. Starmer took part in the coordinated series of resignations in June 2016 in an attempt to usurp the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is difficult to see how he could be an honest broker overseeing the review of a report in which his fellow plotters are being investigated.
Party funding has also become an issue. Labour accounts were in good order when Corbyn was leader thanks in large part to party membership which saw a substantial increase during Corbyn’s stewardship. Under the leadership of Keir Starmer the party is currently haemorrhaging an average of 2,000 members a week. Losing members at such a high rate means the party needs to raise large amounts of money quickly. This urgent need for cash poses several risks to Labour and potentially opens the party up to allegations that large donations influence policy and decision-making. The member/union funded model worked very well for five years and the party enjoyed record annual incomes under Corbyn. It could be argued all parties should be funded by members in order to prevent corruption by corporations and large donors.
What is Starmer’s strategy?
It would appear that Starmer plans to replace lost revenue from members with donations from wealthy donors and corporations, and, in an attempt to win over disaffected Tories alienated by his anti-Brexit position, is shifting Labour right. That allows him to play to his strengths and present his law and order credentials to Tories. The strategy has been tested for over two years now and the results are in and they are not good. Starmer's approval rating is 20 points lower than Labour's polling numbers and is dropping like a stone. In the latest poll asking who voters preferred as prime minister Starmer trailed four points behind Liz Truss.
Starmer’s strategy is now impacting with political reality. His unstable position is not helped by the fact that in his relatively brief political career he has made what he probably considered to be fiendishly clever political manoeuvres at the time, but were in fact fatal political miscalculations. The first was taking part in the 2016 coup to topple Corbyn. Corbyn came within 2,227 votes of forming a government in 2017. It is generally accepted by most objective observers that the damage caused to the party by Keir Starmer and the 171 other MPs who called an undemocratic and unconstitutional vote of no confidence in the leader of the Labour party lost Labour the 2017 general election.
By taking part in that coup Keir Starmer revealed he is a follower, not a leader. He showed he doesn’t have what it takes to lead and also showed contempt for Labour members and party rules and conventions by disrespecting the mandate of the democratically elected leader of Labour. Mr Rules is only Mr Rules when it suits him it seems.
His second mistake was pushing for a second referendum. Starmer was the driving force behind holding a second referendum and campaigning for remain. The 17.4 million people who voted leave will not forget that, the Tories will not let them. When he used the second referendum to sabotage Corbyn he also sabotaged himself and rendered himself unelectable to the 17.4 million voters he tried to cheat.
His third mistake was not securing the Labour base. His immediate priority was courting disaffected Tory voters. He took the Blairite view of “where will the left go?” The Democrats had the same attitude towards their voters and that complacency led to the election of Donald Trump. The question is whether his strategy of dragging the party right will lose more voters than it gains. It is a high-risk strategy, especially considering Labour lost a total of 4 million votes in 2001 and 2005 when Blair dragged the party right. Starmer's leadership is essentially a re-run of a failed experiment.
His team's strategy seems to be based on presenting an image of Keir Starmer as some type of presidential candidate. Starmer provides poor quality material to work with in that regard, he is a dreadful speaker and even worse campaigner. In plain English, he is as wooden as a piece of timber. On twitter he has been nicknamed ‘Cuprinol Man’ with people posting links to old Cuprinol adverts. He is simply incapable of connecting with people. He also has no fire in his belly. I don’t wish to be unkind but the truth of the matter is that Keir Starmer isn’t up to the job, he doesn’t have it in him, he just doesn’t have the ‘right stuff’.
Is Starmer’s strategy credible/position retrievable?
No and no.
At a time of national crisis, Starmer and his team failed to meet the moment. We are in a national emergency, the Opposition should not only be scrutinising and opposing, it should be offering an alternative plan. Starmer should be stating his policies and his vision of how he would lead the country out of recession. His failure to present an alternative, his lack of leadership, suggest he and his team are not the right people to be leading Labour at this time.
For those who say that is too harsh an assessment I present a final piece of evidence. Consider this: Keir Starmer whipped Labour MPs to abstain on a Tory Bill which decriminalised torture and murder by agents of the state. He refused to oppose crimes against humanity, war crimes. The decision to abstain was wrong. As Harold Wilson said, the Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. Abstaining on the Bill was immoral. The Labour Party has lost its way under Starmer.
It is my conclusion that Keir Starmer is neither capable nor fit to lead Labour.
If Labour wants to win the next general election, whenever that may be, it must prioritise replacing him with a new leader. If it does not then we face another decade of Tory rule.
“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly”