ADAM GRAVELY | The 2019 general election was a humiliating defeat for the Labour Party. ‘Red Wall’ seats in the North of England were turned to rubble as voters flatly rejected the offer from Jeremy Corbyn, choosing instead to lend their trust to Boris Johnson. Corbyn stood down as Leader and was replaced by the Shadow Brexit Secretary and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, in a decisive contest to replace him.
In normal times, a new leader would have been making a barnstorming speech to a packed party conference hall. COVID-19 took this event, like so many others, online. The brightly lit stage was replaced with a red brick-wall backdrop in Doncaster, one of the northern hubs that the party managed to cling on to. A sign that Labour wants to win back the appeal of the working-class voters that they lost.
His speech was designed to signal a defining shift from the Corbyn years. From being introduced by Ruth Smeeth, an ex-Labour MP who faced significant anti-Semitic abuse, to tackling the issue of trust on the economy and national security. Yet it was the minefield of Brexit that Sir Keir had to wade through with care. After all, he was the spokesperson for the Party’s strategy that could not stand up to the Conservative’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra.
“The debate between Leave and Remain is over”, said Sir Keir. However, this is quite a departure from the last 12 months as a man who became a figurehead for a “People’s Vote”. He recognises that Labour has lost the argument over EU membership and must guarantee the outcome once and for all. Instead he turned the tables like any good Barrister and pointed to the Prime Minister as being the one to hold the country back from getting a deal. “We’re growing tired of the Prime Minister’s bluster”.
Conservative strategists know that this issue could be Sir Keir’s Kryptonite, and will be trying to pitch him as wanting to pull the UK back into the European Union. In the last Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess, Boris Johnson accused Sir Keir of having “more flip flops than Bournemouth beach”. Thus far Labour are still seen by the public as being less capable on managing the UK’s departure from the EU. The YouGov tracker poll for September puts Conservatives ahead at 33% to Labour’s 14% on who would be best to handle Brexit.
His EU stance is not the only matter on the new Leader’s agenda. Sir Keir has also been walking a tightrope throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Trying to be both a supporter of the government in the national interest, and a constructive opposition, has brought him flack from both the Tory right and the Labour left of British politics. From the Prime Minister, he has been coined “Captain Hindsight”, saying one minute he will support the government, but subjecting them to criticism the next. Meanwhile the Corbyn support group, Momentum, have accused Sir Keir of not going far enough to oppose government Coronavirus policy.
The charge levelled by the Prime Minister struggles to stick given the mountain of evidence. Sir Keir’s support for the government has been one of constructive criticism rather than simple nodding through counter-virus measures. From as early as May, Labour were warning the government that the furlough scheme needed extending to avoid massive job losses. Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, was keeping count of the 40 requests made and the 20 declines. The government eventually replaced furlough with a new Job Support Scheme. However, it is also true that Labour have attacked this new measure as not going far enough. The economic measures are only one of the policy areas where this pattern of challenge to government U-turn to further challenge; the problems with Test and Trace, children returning to school, and household evictions. The sum of a dozen U-turns by the government up to the end of August has not satisfied the wrath of the left flanks of the Labour Party. The grassroots campaign group, Momentum, have condemned Sir Keir’s silence for not pushing for Test and Trace to be taken away from the private contractors (even though Labour have called for an investigation into how services have been contracted out). Momentum’s co-chair, Andrew Scattergood, took to Twitter following Sir Keir’s conference speech to accuse the Labour leader of failing to deliver on substance.
There are glimmers in the polls to show that Sir Keir’s tactics could be working. A survey by Opinium for The Sunday Observer newspaper put Labour ahead of the Conservatives at 42% to 39% respectively. Brand Keir, which was unveiled under the banner of “A New Leadership” is starting to resonate with the public. 55% of those surveyed believe he is ready to lead the nation.
The jury is yet to cast their vote in the case of Starmer v Johnson. Yet with the popularity of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the anger among Conservative backbenchers on the lack of control they have over the government’s agenda, a change in leadership on that side of the aisle cannot be ruled out before the next election. This would bring a different, and possibly more difficult, dynamic for Sir Keir to navigate. Boris’ bluster has led him into difficult waters, be it with false accusation that Sir Keir was complicit in having tolerance for the IRA, or, most recently the fumbling around what the lockdown rules entail. Sunak, with his capacity to stay cool in a crisis, is being viewed as more competent than the Prime Minister. This could make for a harder cross-examination at the Despatch Box.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor