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Starmer must act decisively if he is to act as true opposition to the government

Back in September 2020, I wrote an article about how Keir Starmer had managed to claw back support and credibility for the Labour party. 

Starmer’s embracing of consensus politics and good dispatch box performance contrasted nicely with the Tory government’s floundering pandemic response and Boris Johnson’s wanting leadership. 

Subsequently, Labour experienced a surge in support amongst the electorate with a poll conducted by the Observer in late August 2020 putting the party on 40% of the vote, equal to that of the Tory government. 

I concluded that having regained the trust and votes of the public, Starmer would now have to start defining what exactly he was all about and what ‘Starmerism’ would mean for the Labour party. 

Yet, four months on from that article and it still remains unclear exactly what a Labour government led by Starmer would look like and what policies it would pursue and prioritise. In short – it feels like Starmer is beginning to tread water rather than opening up a lead over the Tories in the polls. 

The politics of the pandemic are not simple and Starmer does not have an enviable task in steering the opposition through the pandemic. He has to tread a fine line, supporting the government in tackling the virus but also challenging it when it gets things wrong. 

And it has been getting a lot wrong recently. For example, free school meals. The images of food parcels circulated on social media this week once again highlighted Johnson’s failure to provide even the most basic support for the most vulnerable in our society. But it fell to Marcus Rashford, who arguably eclipsed Keir Starmer in this regard, to hold the government to account on this issue and provide an effective opposition. 

In the context of the pandemic, Starmer wasn’t just caught asleep at the wheel when it comes to free school meals. Labour’s messaging on school closures and the implementation of a national lockdown was about as ambiguous as the government’s in the days before Johnson announced school closures and new restrictions on 4 January. 

Appearing on The Andrew Marr show on 3 January, Johnson hinted strongly that tougher restrictions would be imminent. A few hours later, Starmer appeared on Sky News to demand that Johnson introduced a new national lockdown within 24 hours but maintained that schools should stay open during the lockdown. By the next day and only when it had become obvious that the government would be closing schools, Starmer changed his mind and demanded schools shut. 

Starmer’s preoccupation with walking the tightrope, being supportive but critical during a crisis, is perhaps beginning to tell in the polls. In a YouGov poll from 20th December that asked participants if they thought Keir Starmer looked like a prime minister in waiting, 31% said he did compared to 43% who said he did not. If Starmer had really wanted to show the country what decisive leadership and effective opposition looked like, he would have called for schools to shut and a national lockdown much earlier instead of waiting until it was all but inevitable. 

Whilst he may not be losing ground in the polls – in the most recent polling, the Labour party remains on 40% of the vote – Starmer is failing to open up a sizeable lead over the Tories, suggesting that he is yet to demonstrate to the public that his leadership would be any better than Johnson’s. Maybe adopting a less tentative and more radical, pugnacious approach to the politics of the pandemic might rejuvenate Starmer’s leadership. 

Image: Chris McAndrew via Wikimedia Commons