The Calm before the Starm? Looking back at Keir Starmer’s first year as Labour leader

By Joe Cooper

To say that these are unique circumstances in which to become the leader of a major political party would be an understatement.

With his election victory last April announced via a press release and video message following a leadership contest completely overshadowed by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Keir Starmer’s first year has been an understandably low-key one.

Vowing early on to offer a “constructive opposition” to the Conservatives given that backdrop, Starmer has contended with the dual tasks of winning back voters after the 2019 election and vying for unity between the warring factions within the Party. While in both cases the results have been mixed, these are still early days for Starmer’s leadership.

One of the major early challenges confronting Starmer was overturning the considerable polling deficit. While governments can reasonably expect a polling boost during times of national crises thanks to the rally-round-the-flag effect, Starmer proved effective in overturning this deficit through regular attack lines on the competence of the Government’s handling of the pandemic. By late September, Labour recorded its first lead in the polls since July 2019, with polls throughout the remainder of 2020 putting Labour neck-and-neck with the Conservatives.

Despite the recent vaccine boost for the Government and polling suggesting the Conservatives have consolidated their ‘Red Wall’ gains, Labour’s polling represents a significant improvement on this time last year, and Starmer’s team will take solace from his own personal approval ratings which remain positive. Having yet to deliver a speech to the country in person, Starmer will be keen to make up for lost time as the country comes out of lockdown and build his profile with the public.

A view from across the aisle: Fraser Raleigh, Associate Director and former Conservative Special Adviser

Offering his view on Starmer’s first year as Labour Party leader is Fraser Raleigh, former Conservative Special Adviser at the Cabinet Office and SEC Newgate Associate Director:

In politics you can tell how worried a party is about their opponent by how much they talk about them. When Tony Blair and David Cameron burst onto the scene representing clear breaks with their parties the attacks were swift, personal and more than a little bit desperate. In his first years, the Conservatives labelled Blair as ‘Bambi’ – young and naïve – while in 2006 Labour devoted an entire election broadcast to an animated short about ‘Dave the Chameleon’, which fell pretty flat when Cameron himself framed a picture of his new avatar at home.

On the test that you must be doing something right if your opponents are talking about you Keir Starmer has not been so lucky. The public have had almost no bandwidth to care about anything other than COVID, including getting to know a new Labour leader who had no chance to make a first impression: no first box-office PMQ or agenda setting party conference. In that political vacuum the Conservatives have simply decided not to give Starmer any oxygen.

There were, however, a few months in the autumn when Starmer looked to be striking a chord, as the former lawyer’s grip on the details threw the confusing system of regional tiers and last-minute lockdowns into sharp relief. So the Conservatives started talking about him. He even got his own nickname; now he was Captain Hindsight, constantly looking back rather than pulling together in the national interest.

Yet just as Starmer was starting to make ground, the vaccine roll out took off at a scale and pace that shocked everyone. Suddenly, the Government had got something right, and Starmer’s approval levels fell in inverse proportion to the vaccine roll out, as this YouGov tracker shows. The Conservatives once again felt no need to talk about him, instead of themselves.

Of course, the next election is still years away when – hopefully – the fight will have moved on from COVID. And while even Starmer’s strongest supporters would not argue he has the charisma of Blair or Cameron, he does take over at similar points in the political cycle. In 2024 the Conservatives will have been in government for 14 years and the Prime Minister himself will have been a major figure for more than two decades.

So while the Conservatives will be happy about not having had to talk much about him in his first year, they will know they won’t have that luxury forever.

A unity candidate?

As the saying goes, divided parties do not win elections. To this end, the second major challenge Starmer has had to contend with is ending the infighting between factions in the Labour Party.

Running on a platform of party unity, Starmer’s outlined his Ten Pledges, a policy platform retaining much of the radicalism of the Corbyn leadership, including commitments to economic, social and climate justice, and common ownership of public services. If this was a clear move to win support from the left, Starmer equally pitched to the right of the party through his calls to build on the success of New Labour. The campaign proved a resounding success, as Starmer won a comprehensive victory drawing on support from across the party.

Starmer’s first Shadow Cabinet continued this theme of party unity, with high profile appointments to senior positions for MPs from across all wings of the party. Starmer would later see his position of strength consolidated within the party, gaining a majority on Labour’s ruling body the National Executive Committee, and appointing his choice for General Secretary in David Evans.

Despite the initial unifying effect of his leadership, however, Starmer would soon face considerable opposition from the left of the party over the sacking of Shadow Education Secretary and leadership runner-up Rebecca Long Bailey. The removal of the whip from former leader Jeremy Corbyn following comments made after the publication of the the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report into antisemitism within the party also caused internal divisions

While Starmer’s predecessor was faced with a hostile Parliamentary Labour Party, the Labour leader has enjoyed a good level of support from his colleagues at Westminster. The decision to abstain on a number of contentious bills was, however, met with resignations from a number of junior Shadow Ministers from the left of the party, though this was hardly a catastrophe for Starmer in his effort to move the party towards the political centre.

Starmer’s willingness to make decisions that will be controversial to the left of the party is no doubt a tactical one in order to signal that the party is very much under new leadership. Given the party’s reliance on its grassroots activist base to speak to voters on the doorstep, he will be keen to ensure that he retains broad support across the party and doesn’t lose the party unity that saw him elected last year.      

A lesson from history: Greg Rosen, Senior Counsel and Labour historian

Starmer is by no means the first Labour leader contend with such issues. Greg Rosen, Labour historian and SEC Newgate Senior Counsel, reflects on what the Labour leader can learn from his predecessors:

As I  predicted in September’s Spectator it was almost inevitable that vaccine success would enable Boris Johnson and his Party to overhaul Starmer’s Labour in the polls. In contrast to the fortunes of Michael Foot, the last Labour leader who endured a Conservative “Falklands Moment”, Starmer’s electoral reverse looks less pronounced – a testament to his achievement.

Starmer may not have defined himself positively in the minds of most voters, but given the global COVID pandemic, it would have been more astonishing if he had. Starmer was less well known to voters on becoming Labour leader than many of his predecessors had been – such as Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, John Smith and Hugh Gaitskell. In this respect he in the distinguished company of Labour’s two most successful Prime Ministers, Clement Attlee and Tony Blair. Like them, he had the opportunity to use a relatively blank canvas to his advantage.

Attlee managed to overcome his lack of definition as an Opposition leader by serving as deputy Prime Minister through five years of war. Throughout his leadership he fielded a talented team of strong personalities whom he was able to balance, enabling him to define himself successfully against them as a kind of ‘anti-personality’. Nevertheless, his defeats at the 1935 and 1955 elections underline that he was not Labour’s most successful Opposition leader.

Harold Wilson and Tony Blair both succeeded by defining themselves early and on their own terms. Wilson caught the national mood with his plan for a “New Britain”, shaped by the “white heat of the technological revolution”, a theme consciously echoed, with even greater electoral success, by Blair’s “New Britain”.

David Cameron drew lessons from Blair’s success too. Cameron’s most effective tactic as Opposition leader was to take an issue of public resonance, address it in plain English, and adopt a stance. He would embrace a policy which, while not necessarily providing a holistic solution, nevertheless was both practical and symbolic. In this, he was clearly influenced by Blair’s ‘pledges’, such as to ‘get 250,000 under-25 year-olds off benefits and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities’, at the heart of Labour’s successful election campaign in 1997.

The weakness of the alternative “safer” approach can be seen in the vacuity of  the rhetorical cul-de sac in which New Labour ultimately parked itself: vague phrases like ‘your community safer’ and ‘your children with the best start’, cut no mustard with voters.

While learning from past Labour Oppositions what not to do, Starmer will also need to be clear in his own mind what he should do. So far, according to YouGov, Starmer is the most popular Labour politician: not bad going. But once the UK emerges from COVID he will then need to act sufficiently quickly, for the history of previous Opposition leaders suggests that electoral doom awaits those who fail to define themselves on their own terms and instead are defined negatively by their opponents.

Looking ahead to next month’s elections

Looking ahead, Starmer faces his first real electoral litmus test in May’s elections, which now includes a by-election in former-stronghold-now-marginal Hartlepool.

While a disappointing showing at next month’s elections won’t be catastrophic, with unique circumstances and the possible electoral effects of that vaccine boost, it does show that there remains an incredible amount of work for the Labour Party to do in winning back the trust – and votes – of the public.