I’ll preface this article by saying I’ve been thinking about writing it for a while now. I wanted to have it go out in a mainstream outlet, but it turns out none of them want this article particularly badly enough. The centre-right outlets I can understand, but it’s the rejection by the centre-left ones I find most interesting – do they not want Starmer to do well? Have they all but given up on the man completely already? Or is it me? It’s me, isn’t it.
Anyhow, that out of the way, I’ll start with the background before coming onto my thesis. I myself have complained about Starmer a lot in various places since he became Labour leader in April of last year. I have wondered about his overall strategy, about whether he has what it takes in the personal charisma sweepstakes to become prime minister, whether his approach to Britain’s exit from the European Union has been the right one. I’m saying this to make it clear that I see the problems with Starmer. But having said all that, I have also tried and think about it another way. What if, and I’m not saying I fully believe this, just that I think it is more likely to be true than any pundit, on the right or left, is admitting to right now, what if everything Keir Starmer is doing right now and has been doing over the last year is precisely the right thing and is in fact the only strategy that any Labour leader who wanted to win the next election could have possibly adopted? What if, contrary to how it seems from the perspective of late-November 2021, Starmer is on route to becoming the next prime minister?
When he became Labour leader, Keir Starmer was faced with several massive problems. One was the legacy of Corbyn and how it had turned off not just hundreds of thousands of swing voters, but a lot of what would have been considered to that point core Labour voters. The other was that the emboldened left were not going to quietly let Starmer move the party back towards the political centre – they were going to fight it all the way, making some form of civil war inevitable if Starmer wanted to try and make Labour electable again. On top of all that, the party had only 202 seats when Keir became leader, the lowest tally inherited by an incoming Labour leader since Clement Attlee took over in 1935.
I could spend several more paragraphs laying out Labour’s problems as of April 2020, but you get the point. Starmer faced a difficult journey ahead. What he seems to have decided to do was the following:
- Have the pillar of Labour’s electability be the contrast between Starmer as dependable and trustworthy versus Boris Johnson’s chaotic bullshit.
- Surrender to Brexit. At every turn say that Labour wouldn’t reverse the 2016 referendum result if put into office.
- Hope for Tory sleaze to emerge and pounce on it hard.
It’s a simple strategy in many senses – most would argue too simple. I have argued it’s too simple myself over the last 18 months. Can’t Starmer and his people see that by refusing to touch Brexit in any way, they have cut off one of their best lines of attack aka, the fallout from BJ’s terrible trade deal? Can’t Labour see that treading water isn’t going to cut it when they have to gain over 125 seats just to have a razor-thin majority? Can’t Starmer do or say something ballsy for a change instead of always playing it safe?
To be fair to Starmer, he has started to talk about Brexit now. It is not in terms that pro-Europeans will like – make Brexit work! – but it is probably the right path for him to take for now. Passionate pro-Europeans will not want to hear this, but a lot of the country is not ready yet to revisit the Brexit wars of 2016-2019. I think one of the main reasons the Tories won so decisively in December last year was because so many voters just wanted done with the whole thing – at least, for now. Starmer has taken a line of attack that essentially goes, “Boris Johnson promised the sunlit uplands post-Brexit and instead, through his deep incompetence, delivered a deal that is unworkable”. This plays into pillar one of Starmer’s strategy (his competence v BJ’s shambles) and has the bonus of attacking what is perhaps the Tory government’s weakest point – the fact that most people think the deal they got with the EU was terrible. Hell, even the government who negotiated it think it’s terrible and needs undoing.
So, Starmer has made some minor adjustments over the past six months that have helped him. But that’s not really why I think his chances of winning the next election are greater than many will consider. Starmer had to show he was serious about anti-semitism. He’s done that, sacking shadow cabinet members who let the odd dodgy comment float online. He had to show he was serious about moving on from the Corbyn era, going as far as to remove the whip from the former leader himself. Starmer had to show that he could be that solid guy who could be a good foil for BJ’s messed up hair, just crawled out of bed after a bender style and I think he’s done that as well as he could have.
Okay, many of you will say here, but what about Starmer being about as exciting to watch as cardboard? Can’t he be even a little bit more charismatic? But this question in fact only justifies the strategy even further. If you have a guy who just isn’t showbiz, don’t try and force him to be. Remember “No flash, just Gordon” in 2010? It failed because while being semi-clever and catchy, it only reinforced Gordon Brown’s negatives – the slogan served to remind you that he came across as dull every time you heard it. It brought the fight to Cameron’s home ground instead of showcasing Brown’s world figure status versus Dave the lightweight.
In the same way, Starmer is never going to be as entertaining for most people to watch as BJ. But he doesn’t have to be. If the country is in a place where it is sick of Boris Johnson’s chaotic style of governing, Starmer has offered himself as someone solid and dependable.
Yes, this may not be enough for Labour to win next time out. In fact, if you asked me to place a bet on what I think will happen at the next general election, I figure we’ll get a Tory government with a smaller majority, so Tories on between 330 and 340 seats. But I still think Starmer is giving his party the best possible way of winning. Any other leader would either be more left-wing, more vocally anti-Brexit (albeit in a way that was still sort of half-arsed), or more “Laboury” (think Burnham here), the latter being about this silly idea that if only the Labour party were even more indulgent to its own idea of itself as the saviours of mankind, everyone would drop everything and agree.
Starmer may not win. He probably won’t, in fact. But I think he’s probably given himself the best possible chance of doing so. Yes, the strategy depends very heavily on the Tories making key mistakes. This is never a great thing to build a political strategy on, placing all your hopes onto what your opponent might do. It’s always better to be proactive. At least, if that’s available to you, but again, I don’t think it has been for Starmer. He has too much to do, too many wars to fight internally. If you don’t have the firepower to go on the offence, make certain your defence is as good as it can be. And I think Starmer has done that. It might be enough to get him into Number 10.
Ozer Mehmet says
I think the tactics are working.
1 Anti semitism no longer discussed as a labour issue.
2 Corbyn problem and his supporters sidelined and crying from the outside.
3 Dont talk about Brexit the old Napoleon quote he dont need to because it is going so bad it is becoming self evident.
4 Boris Johnson is now viewed apparently by the public as Homer Simpson which is not appealing to be compared to a lazy slob who gets everything wrong.
5 Yes Starmer lacks personality this is where he needs a strong team he needs Rayner to be aggressive as a foil and he needs Cooper as shadow home against an abysmal home secretary.
Douglas Beckley says
If you think Rayner is any answer to any question then there’s no need to listen to your dissertations.
Matt (Bristol) says
With your comparison to the ’35 election your’re making me reconsider the 30s and 40s. Did the public (beyond the issue of the war effort and appeasement) see Winston Churchill as more competent than Attlee? (Or, for that matter, Chamberlain)? Most people seem to have agreed (inside and outside Labour) that Attlee was pretty dull, and that engaging with full throttle in the war was Churchill’s achievement.
But Attlee could say, well, I was pro-war and anti-appeasement all along and stood alongside Churchill on platforms throughout the 30s, and I also have had more serious engagement with domestic policy than Winston and my party is more serious about domestic policy than the Tories. And I’ve shut up the Labour left (See Laski)
And once the public felt that the war question was more-or-less settled, they turned to Attlee, who was more like Chamberlain in his boringness but had been discredited for a lack of full-throttleness about the war effort.
May = Chamberlain
Churchill = Johnson (sorry)
Attlee = Starmer
Laski = Corbyn
It’s a thought…
Wonderful to see the return of the Don’t Underestimate Ed Miliband Association. Fashions come back around again so fast these days, don’t they?
Ozer Mehmet says
You sound worried.
Are you OK.
Are you OK
Well, I mean, obviously we’d all be doing a lot better if, say, Steve Baker was PM instead of Boris, but otherwise, not too bad, all things considered. You?