Opinion

Keir Starmer is the runaway favourite for the Labour leadership – but is he too safe?

Keir Starmer is a clear favourite to win the Labour leadership in April.

At the time of writing this, he has 129 CLP nominations and the backing of Community, Usdaw and the UK’s second largest trade union, UNISON. In the most recent first round polling he beats runner-up Rebecca Long-Bailey by 46% to 32%, and in the second round, 63% to 37%.

Starmer is seen by many as Labour’s safe pair of hands. The party’s morale has been low since its shattering defeat in December, and members are looking for a competent, sensible option who can dissect Boris Johnson in Parliament and restore the party’s confidence and fighting spirit.

In speeches and media appearances, Starmer espouses the policies traditionally associated with Labour’s left: rent controls, reversing NHS privatisation and repealing Conservative anti-trade union legislation. His adoption of these policies reflects the extent to which the party’s left has been ideologically emboldened since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015.

Behind the policies, however, Starmer lacks his own coherent analysis of why Labour lost and how it can win next time. The 2019 election was Labour’s worst defeat since 1935. The names of former ‘heartland’ seats like Blyth Valley (Labour since 1950), Bishop Auckland (Labour since 1935) and Newcastle-under-Lyme (Labour since 1919) are etched into the minds of every gloomy Labour activist and every rejoicing Conservative.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Long-Bailey has attributed the loss to three main factors: a failure on the part of the leadership to convince the public it was fit to govern, a failure to present a clear message of hope, and Labour’s support for a second referendum on EU membership.

Starmer, on the other hand, is unrepentant about Labour’s second referendum policy, stating at an appearance in Oxford in January that Labour was right to campaign for a People’s Vote. Recently, Starmer blamed Labour’s 2019 defeat on its inability to appeal to the middle classes: “We’ve depicted the public as elitist at the top and downtrodden at the bottom, without regard to the fact that in the middle, there are a lot of people who want opportunity.”

Starmer is correct insofar as Labour failed to convince the public that its manifesto presented realistic policies that would benefit people across the country, provide opportunities and improve living standards. However, it betrays a lack of understanding about why Labour lost so much of its traditional voter base.

The Brexit issue played a big part in places like County Durham, the West Midlands and Wales. It undermined confidence in the Labour leadership, making many Leave-voting Labour supporters question whether their party was competent and really on their side. The party’s initial ambiguity and later compromise position in favour of a second referendum allowed it to be portrayed as weak and out of touch with its heartlands. It allowed the Conservatives to capture the zeitgeist in traditional Labour areas, convincing voters that Labour no longer truly represented them, despite representing their constituencies in Parliament.

The resounding message from Labour’s Leave-voting heartlands in 2019 was: Labour thought they could ignore us – well, now they can’t. In communities that have lost out from forty years of deindustrialisation and deprivation, ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a call for change from a government that was seen to be on the side of the underdog.

Starmer is right to say that Labour cannot win without the support of the middle classes. Labour has always been a coalition between working class voters and the progressive middle class, and when this coalition has fractured it has always lost. However, Starmer’s unapologetic support for a People’s Vote jeopardises Labour’s chance to re-establish itself in its Leave-voting heartlands.

The UK has formally left the European Union, but the greater issues that the Brexit debate represented amongst Labour communities are still there. The divide between Labour MPs and members and its heartland communities won’t vanish just because we have left the EU. Starmer’s argument that Labour should defend free movement with the EU shows that he is prepared to aggravate the wedge issues that the Brexit cultural divide has birthed in Labour’s traditional coalition.

Labour needs a leader who can make it the party of Hull and Sunderland as much as it is the party of Oxford and Central London. Labour needs to represent – socially and electorally – Salford and Wigan as much as it represents Islington and Holborn.

The process of picking the next Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is no mean feat. Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses. Starmer is a sound parliamentary performer who can pin down a government minister with precision. Emily Thornberry is also good at the despatch box, and has widely been regarded as the victor in most of the Labour leadership hustings, despite lagging behind in CLP nominations. Lisa Nandy appears to be picking up support despite being a relatively unknown figure, pledging to reconnect Labour with its traditional communities. Rebecca Long-Bailey has talked about the need for progressive patriotism, and a message of aspiration. 

Ultimately, whoever becomes Labour leader is going to face an uphill struggle, even if the party seems to be essentially united in accepting the new status quo. Opposition leaders only succeed when they have ideas they can explain in clear terms to the public. The Leader of the Opposition must project themselves as a potential prime minister with a clear and appealing vision.

Leaders of the Opposition have to ride the tide of public opinion whilst trying to lead it. In the early 1960s, Harold Wilson harnessed the white heat of the technological revolution against a government of ‘Edwardian’ aristocrats. In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher promised to rejuvenate the ‘sick man of Europe’. In the 1990s, Tony Blair channelled Cool Britannia and accepted the economic status quo to defeat a Conservative government tired and divided after eighteen years in office.

Labour’s next leader needs to be someone who will capture the mood of the new decade, and harness it to Labour’s progressive instincts. Only time will tell what the new Labour leader will be like. Each candidate is pitching to their party supporters: Starmer’s left-wing pro-Europeanism is a pitch to the soft left. Long-Bailey will not just be a continuity Corbyn. Nandy will broaden her message beyond England’s towns.

The new leader will have to grow into the role as they establish themselves in Parliament and amongst the public. They will have to pursue a vision which speaks to traditional Labour communities as well as the aspirational middle classes.

It will take more than just a safe pair of hands to begin to reconnect with communities that have simply stopped listening. Yet we cannot fully know what each candidates’ pitch and vision will be until they become leader.

Labour members should tread, and vote, carefully. 

Author’s Note: Oxford West and Abington CLP nomination meeting will be on Thursday 6th February at 6pm in the Town Hall

Uther Naysmith