Unlike most, Sir Keir Starmer has had a good pandemic. Though he wouldn’t be caught dead saying he was grateful for Covid-19 overshadowing his start as Labour leader, the crisis has undoubtedly benefited him. It has popped Boris Johnson’s post-election euphoria and provided Starmer ample opportunities for seeming calmly competent in comparison to the government’s cock-ups. No wonder his popularity is polling at levels unseen since Blair in his pomp; compared to Jeremy Corbyn, he is a breath of fresh air. His sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary last week embodied his efforts to show the Corbynites that Labour is his party now – and show voters he knows how to lead.
Sir Keir gave Long-Bailey her Shadow Cabinet P45 after she retweeted an interview with Maxine Peake with the comment the actress was an “absolute diamond”. Peake had mentioned in the interview an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory suggesting Israel was linked to George Floyd’s tragic death. Starmer had hoped his election had scrubbed away the stain left on Labour’s reputation by anti-Semitism scandals under his predecessor’s leadership. The hard-left’s obsession with Israel has seen numerous reports and allegations of anti-Semitism in Labour, and widespread condemnation, especially from Britain’s Jewish community, culminated with an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into Labour last year. The only previous party investigated by the EHRC was the BNP. Starmer obviously wants to distance his party from this as quickly as possible. Promptly dismissing Long-Bailey was the only option for him.
Nonetheless, many on Labour’s left have still been astonished that Sir Keir had the gumption to sack his Shadow Education Secretary. A petition seeking her reinstatement has been signed over 20,000 times and attracted support from Corbynite heavyweights like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. Starmer’s refusal to yield marks a clear break from Corbynism. Whilst appointing Long-Bailey was a gesture of unity after Labour’s leadership election, his decision to appoint Kate Green as her successor – the chair of Corbyn critic Owen Smith’s 2016 leadership campaign – shows Starmer already feels confident enough to start re-making Labour in his image.
But by dropping Long-Bailey, Sir Keir wasn’t only stamping his authority on Labour: he was contrasting himself with Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister has been under serious pressure recently to sack two important members of his team: advisor Dominic Cummings and the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick. We all know the details of the Cummings scandal, but since the media and opposition failed to get his balding scalp, their focus has shifted to Jenrick. Accusations abound of him waving through planning permission for erstwhile Daily Express owner Richard Desmond before Desmond gave the Tories a cool £12,000. Jenrick and Johnson maintain his innocence and have released ample evidence to try and do so. Nevertheless, Boris’ refusal to sack his minister compares badly with Sir Keir. The Daily Mail especially has lauded Starmer for his decisiveness against the PM’s dithering. If Sir Keir is impressing the self-appointed tribune of Middle England, surely Boris should be worried?
I’m not so sure. Yes, Starmer was decisive in sacking Long-Bailey. But that was in comparison to Jeremy Corbyn’s sheer woefulness. As happy as I am to see this issue finally taken seriously, this isn’t an exceptional moral achievement. Opposing anti-Semitism is fundamental human decency. Moreover, breaking with the Corbynistas isn’t political genius on Starmer’s part. Hugging himself close to the same faction that last year gifted Labour its worst defeat since the Second World War would have been madness. Sir Keir’s behaviour last week was just the basic leadership Labour lacked under Jeremy Corbyn.
But by getting the fundamentals of leadership right, Sir Keir might still be said to be doing better than Boris Johnson. He has certainly benefited in the opinion polls from the government’s misfortune. Corona, Cummings, and Keir have seen the Tories’ lead cut from around 15% to 5%. Journalists have fallen over themselves to praise Sir Keir’s performances at PMQs. But the next election is four years away, and one must ask whether voters will be thinking of Long-Bailey, PMQs, and Barnard Castle in the polling booth. Many voters don’t watch PMQs and couldn’t name Long-Bailey or Jenrick, much less care about their careers. Whilst Cummings’ trip certainly cut through, it has not been apocalyptic for the Tories: they are polling at about the same level as last December. The mountain Labour must climb before they are back in government is still staggeringly high.
Don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. Despite all their mistakes, the Conservatives are still ahead– and Labour have fewer MPs than at any point since 1945. Starmer might be polling well, but drill down into the figures and it is clear his popularity is overwhelmingly with Remain voters, graduate professionals and other “metropolitan liberal elite” stereotypes. Labour remains as unpopular with many of its former voters in the Midlands, North and Scotland as it was in December. Is a Remain-voting, wealthy London lawyer really the leader to win them back? The ‘culture-war’ and Brexit stuff that the Tories’ benefited from also hasn’t gone away. Labour is still thought of as incompetent and unpatriotic by many who made up its old key vote. Moreover, Labour lag the Tories on many key issues from immigration to the economy. Only a few months ago, the Conservatives won a landslide on a popular agenda of Brexit, spending and reform: one we were reminded of by the PM’s “New Deal” speech this week. If the government can weather the upcoming recession and deliver on its agenda as it says it will, then Sir Keir hasn’t got a hope. Sacking Long-Bailey may have been prudent leadership, but it may well have been Starmer’s peak(e). Some decisive party-management and a few bad months for the Tories does not an election-winner make.
Feel free to remind me of this when Labour gets a landslide in four years’ time.