When Keir Starmer became leader of the Labour Party last year, many Labour members and voters were cautiously optimistic. With good experience in government, and a background in Labour’s soft left, his ascension promised to unify the party and restore it as a vibrant and eminently electable political force.
But despite some initial enthusiasm in the polls, Starmer has failed to establish a clear direction for the party. He lacks conviction, appearing to be more interested in appealing to the half-imagined conservatism of alienated ex-Labour voters than developing a coherent alternative to the Tory government. As such, his personal approval ratings have tanked to barely net positive, and the Labour Party as a whole has started lagging in the polls.
Two things in particular have recently exemplified this failure. First was the unwillingness to criticise Matt Hancock. It was recently revealed that the Health Secretary broke the law by deliberately covering up information regarding pandemic procurement contracts. This comes after last year’s revelation that a contract to produce vials for tests was given to one of his personal friends, despite that person’s lack of experience producing medical supplies. Starmer’s lukewarm response, and refusal to call for Hancock’s resignation was a failed opportunity to hold the government to account for potential corruption and waste of public money.
More recently, Mr Forensic’s opposition to the Chancellor’s decision to raise corporation tax in the recent budget has threated to alienate the Labour base as it has astonishingly placed the party to the economic right of the Tories. This might seem like an attempt to demonstrate Labour’s newfound ‘business friendliness’ and to win over more economically conservative voters. Given that polling data consistently shows that most of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, support a corporation tax hike at this time, this strategy isn’t likely to work.
All of this is reminiscent of Ed Miliband. In the run up to the 2015 election, he decided to half-heartedly back austerity and tough immigration policy in order to gain credibility, which ultimately made him look spineless and massively undermined his electoral performance. Miliband, however, was put in a difficult position. The Conservatives cleverly blamed the financial crisis on ‘Labour overspending’, which Miliband had been part of. In this context, it was tough for him to oppose measures to ‘balance the books’, no matter the economic nonsense of this strategy.
Starmer seems to be following a similar path struggling to properly oppose the government, despite being in a much better position to carve out a new direction for the country. With the Covid-19 crisis and dissatisfaction with over 11 years of Tory rule, it seems that our current moment is fertile ground for new ideas and challenging perspectives. Despite this, Keir Starmer is proceeding with misplaced caution and general lack of vision. He is passing over the opportunity to forge a political project which articulates the deep dissatisfaction that many people have for the way things currently are.
Image: Keir Starmer via Flickr