Elections 2021: Why is Starmer failing?
Rwendland / CC by 2.0
Now you really have to pinch yourself here. We are eleven years into a Tory government (ie the point where governments do badly, and oppositions win the governing party’s seats in by-elections, not the other way around). The Tories are on their third leader in that time, the former two having been ignominiously ejected. We’ve had the horrendous hyperdrama of Brexit, a global pandemic in which 127,000 (and counting) of our fellow Brits have died, and our economy has had its most precipitous retraction in three hundred years. On the face of it, pretty fertile territory for any opposition, no? And yet, and yet, and yet…
We all knew that today was going to be a bad day in the office for Labour and their newish leader, Sir Dreary Dull. One poll never tells you anything but polling trends over time do tell us something. Sir Dreary peaked at the end of 2020, when uncertainty about the Covid crisis and a (then possible) looming no-deal Brexit conspired to help Labour look like a reasonable alternative. Since then, we’ve had the Brexit deal, the vaccine rollout and the roadmap out of restrictions and the Tory polling numbers steadily ticked up.
We ask you, dear readers, what the hell is going on? The DI team have wrapped wet towels round our heads and analysed the situation to death, so here are some thoughts:
1. Remember Labour’s baseline starting point
The Corbyn low point – 2019’s General Election result, Labour’s worst since 1935 – is just about the worst place any party leader has ever had to start from in living memory. Like the Tories in 1997, Labour is in a far worse position than it realises. It faces a seemingly teflon Government and a painful recent history of being on the wrong side of THE political issue of the time – and with Sir Dreary as the architect of that failed, vote losing Brexit strategy. If he moves to the Left, the red wall will completely give way. He needs to move to the Right but can’t lest his party, still stacked to the gills with assorted Corbynite Trots who are itching for him to fail, go on manoeuvres to oust him.
2. What can Sir Dreary actually achieve?
Let’s go back to basics: realistically, what can be achieved in this Parliament? The reality is that he ain’t gonna win much anytime soon. But he could put the building blocks in place for the next Labour leader to realistically challenge at the next General Election but one, most likely in 2027-28. Potentially he is the Kinnock not the Blair.
3. What should Sir Dreary do right now?
He needs to channel his inner ‘Neil’ or ‘Tony’. He needs to think through what turned ‘old Labour’ into the relentless election winning machine that was New Labour. This is about a fundamental rebrand not a little bit of polite, weary sighing, in sorrow rather than anger, mild mannered, mealy mouthed, overly clever lawyer, looking both ways, sit on the fence tinkering. He needs a stark new vision. A bold new strategy. A 24/7 round the clock re-engineered focus on all that is wrong right now in Labour voter land. The red wall is as much about demographics as it is about politics. But allowing Labour politicians to focus endlessly on the middle class, metropolitan elite, London-centric, fashionable political culture war issues (BLM, climate change, trans ID etc, all of which don’t interest red wall voters at all) rather than connecting with all the lost Labour voters on issues that actually matter to them (jobs, getting richer, regenerating their high street) is a very fundamental miscalculation. His cabinet reshuffle to weed out the weak underperformers and get some of the bigger beasts off the backbenches is clearly urgent and imminent.
4. A ‘Clause 4’ moment
It is just a matter of fact that the Labour Party has not historically been very successful electorally. In the last 100 years Labour has only won 10 out of the 28 General Elections that have occurred. Of those 10, only five of their wins had workable majorities; of the other five, two were minority governments and three had single digit majorities. As Alastair Campbell likes to say, the last 12 General Election results over the last 42 years run like this: Tory, Tory, Tory, Tory, Blair, Blair, Blair, Tory, Tory, Tory, Tory. Right now, the only Labour ex-PM who was born in the last 100 years is Tony Blair. Getting a theme?
The Labour Party can only win from the Blairite Social Democrat centre Left. Sir Dreary needs to tack Right. Urgently. And that means re-playing the painful Kinnock era strategy of kicking out all the Corbyn Trots.
5. Why has 2020-21 been a wasted year for Labour?
Now your moment of maximum strength as a leader is the first year after you’ve been elected. This last year was the time for Sir Dreary to wage war on the Corbynite Left. And he bottled it.
This last year has been a game of two halves for him. First off, we had the months long ‘incompetent Tories’ campaign. Based on their hopeful, rose-tinted analysis that Bojo is always incompetent, they went hard on that theme. PPE? Incompetent. Lockdowns? Incompetent. Test and trace? Incompetent. And Labour’s counter argument was: ‘we’d just do it better’, but without any evidence. The problem is that the British public hasn’t bought it. In poll after poll, focus group after focus group, the punters have said the same thing: ‘unprecedented situation, did as well as they could’.
And then the vaccine rollout arrived where frankly, the UK has smashed it. In desperation, and with the election brewing, Labour changed tack and went all in on the ‘Tory sleaze’ theme. Again, the problem is the voters just haven’t bought it. As the Guardian wrote this week: “It is right for the opposition to hold the government to account over corruption, but there is a nostalgic inflection in the way Labour hammers at the word “sleaze”, and it speaks of insecurity. Starmer is trying to ignite flames of public indignation by blowing on 25-year-old embers.”
All this superficial politicking is just plain wrong and not helping. He needs to be bold. Show some tough leadership. He needs to move his party onto winning ground, a new strategic direction, not just thinking tactically about the next few media cycles.
So, unless Sir Dreary gets his act together sometime soon, he may well not be a Kinnock figure after all, but a Hague, Duncan Smith, or Howard ghost, the Tory leaders who during the Blair era failed to move the opposition’s electoral dial.
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