Keir Starmer running out of time to prove Labour has any point at all

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Sir Keir Starmer has promised to “carry the can” for the result of the Hartlepool by-election - PA
Sir Keir Starmer has promised to “carry the can” for the result of the Hartlepool by-election - PA

The name of George Lansbury will ring a bell with only the keenest students of politics, but it could one day be replaced with Sir Keir Starmer in the official history of the Labour Party.

It was Lansbury who, in 1935, became the last Labour leader to step down without fighting a general election, a fate that could yet befall Sir Keir if he cannot turn around his party’s fortunes - and fast.

While talk of an imminent leadership challenge currently belongs on the fringes of the Labour Party, the possibility that he could be replaced before the next general election is a matter of open discussion on the Opposition benches.

“He’s got about a year to demonstrate that he can turn things around,” said one Labour MP, “otherwise the party will increasingly start to look for someone who can inspire the public in a way that so far he has failed to do.”

Sir Keir promised to “carry the can” for the result of the Hartlepool by-election, and he has few excuses after approving a candidate championed by his own team.

The selection of Paul Williams, a remainer who lost his seat as the MP for nearby Stockton South at the last election, proved that Sir Keir is “tone deaf when it comes to the North”, according to one northern Labour MP who narrowly retained their seat in 2019.

“Hartlepool voted Leave by nearly 70 per cent, yet they chose a remainer as the candidate,” said the MP. “What on earth were they thinking? He thought that because Paul Williams is a GP his NHS credentials would triumph over Brexit, but that was a disastrous miscalculation.

“Just like Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him, Keir Starmer is a product of the London bubble. He just can’t reach out across the gulf that divides the metropolitan classes from the North.”

Dr Paul Williams and Sir Keir Starmer: The Labour candidate didn't resonate with voters  - Ian Forsyth/ PA 
Dr Paul Williams and Sir Keir Starmer: The Labour candidate didn't resonate with voters - Ian Forsyth/ PA

The long shadow of Corbyn

Thirteen months after taking over from Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir has not only failed to close the gap on the Tories, his personal ratings have slumped to a new low.

It leaves him - and Labour - at a crossroads as the party ponders what it must do over the next three years to achieve what no one else has succeeded in doing before: overturn an 80-seat majority at a stroke.

“We are not going to win the next general election,” said one veteran Labour MP, chuckling at the very idea. “We haven’t even got across to voters what it is that we oppose, never mind what we stand for.

“Jeremy Corbyn led us to the worst defeat since 1935 so it would take something special to reverse that in one leap, which no one expects.

“The question is, do we allow Sir Keir to fight the election and then maybe replace him, or do we replace him before then?”

His most loyal supporters argue that Covid has obliterated normal politics for the entirety of his tenure, and that only when the fog of pandemic lifts will the way ahead become clear.

His critics - who come from every wing of the party - are far less forgiving, pointing out that Labour has failed to land a significant blow on the Tories as the UK suffered both the worst death toll in Europe and the biggest economic hit, not to mention the words Barnard Castle or Marcus Rashford.

'Tory sleaze? The world has moved on'

“He is fighting the wrong battles” said one left-wing Labour MP. “He went into these elections banging on about Tory sleaze and Downing St wallpaper but that hasn’t cut through with voters.

“Tory sleaze was something that happened 25 years ago. It means nothing to young voters, a lot of whom weren’t even born then.

“It also suggests he thinks the Tories we are fighting now are the same as the Tories we were fighting back then, and I’m afraid that’s just not the case. The world has moved on.”

It was a sentiment echoed in Hartlepool as voters went to the polls in the first by-election of the Johnson era.

Lifelong Labour voter Anne, who is retired and is one of the 4.4 million people to have caught coronavirus in the UK, said: “I’m still bad with my chest with Covid. I don’t think I can be bothered with who’s paid for this and who’s paid for that, as long as the taxpayer hasn’t.”

Others, like 70-year-old Denis, believe Labour would have bungled the Covid response. He said: “We’re fed up with Labour. It’s a stronghold and we need a change.

“I don’t know what would have happened with Covid if Labour had been in, I honestly don’t.

“You’ve got to give Boris credit where credit is due. He might not be the best Prime Minister in the world, but look where we are now. Where might we have been? Like India?”

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Pat, who is also retired and in her 60s, is from several generations of Labour voters but has been swayed by the success of the vaccine rollout.

“I think they've done a good job.” she said. “They’ve got it right with all the vaccines they’ve pushed out and everything.

“I like Boris - I think he’s brilliant. And there’s something about Keir Starmer I don’t like.”

'Intelligent but bland'

Quite why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, has a knack of connecting with working-class voters that evades Sir Keir, a toolmaker’s son named after Labour’s founding father, will be the subject of student dissertations for years to come.

Sir Keir, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, must find the answer to that particular riddle and shake off his “bland leading the bland” tag if he wants to make inroads before the next election and, put bluntly, keep his job.

“We are in a situation where Boris Johnson is seen as an insurgent by voters even though he is the Prime Minister, and Keir is seen as part of the Establishment,” said a Labour MP from the moderate wing of the party.

“To convince people to switch sides you need to show them you will bring about change, but people see Keir as representing steady as you go. It’s not enough. Whatever else you say about Boris Johnson, he is someone who makes things happen, whether it’s Brexit or the vaccine rollout.”

Chris Hopkins, the associate director of polling firm Savanta ComRes, has tracked both men’s progress over the past year.

He said: “One of the problems for Starmer is that he still has a really big ‘don’t know’ figure when people are asked their opinion of him. The public see him as intelligent but bland.

“He also hasn’t done enough to show that Labour is completely different now than it was under Corbyn. A lot of people think it is still the party of Corbyn, just with a different face.”

One former Labour front-bencher agreed, saying: “What has been clear on the doorsteps is that the Corbyn factor still hasn’t died. It would take St George to completely slay that dragon.”

'Red Wall' may never be rebuilt

Sir Keir promised to rebuild the “Red Wall” of northern Labour constituencies demolished by the Tories in 2019, but the uncomfortable truth gnawing away at his team is that there is no guarantee Labour voters will return once their loyalty has cracked.

The Tories have already done the hardest part - persuading Labour-voting families to vote Tory for the first time ever - and they will now need to be given a reason to switch back.

Frank Benton, a 69-year-old retired miner whose hatred of the Tories was ingrained by the pit closures of the Thatcher regime, is among those in Hartlepool who is struggling to find a reason to carry on supporting Labour.

He said: “I think we’ve got a North and South divide. I’ve voted Labour all my life, and my Dad has. I’ve always been Labour. But if they’re not prepared to do something about it, sometimes you do need to go on the other side.”

Conservative Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor since 2017, paved the way for further Tory gains in Hartlepool by imbuing the region with a sense of optimism and aspiration after decades of decline.

One voter aged in his 50s said: “Let’s face it: a change is something happening. We’ve got the Tees port opening up. This bloke who is the new mayor for the area, he’s opened up Teeside airport and there’s work coming into the area. The other people have just been talking about it.”

Mr Hopkins said: “Those new Conservative voters going to the polls this week or in 2024 will be asking themselves ‘why should I vote differently?’ and Labour needs to give them the answer. So far they haven’t set out a credible alternative plan for government, but there should in theory be some pretty easy policy wins for Labour.

“They could campaign on better pay for nurses for example, on a progressive environmental policy, on protecting the most vulnerable in society, on tenants’ rights, and when it comes to the economic recovery there will be opportunities for Labour to pounce on any mistakes.

“At the moment, however, there is something of a vacuum on policy and they seem to be just waiting for the Tories to make mistakes when what the public want is positive campaigning.”

Party ripped in two

The bad news - for Labour - on the economy is that the Bank of England predicted this week that economic output lost during the pandemic would return to 2019 levels by the end of 2021 through the hoped-for V-shaped recovery.

The Tories will, however, have to deliver bad news on taxation at some point soon, as economists are united in the view that economic growth alone cannot deliver the tax receipts that will be needed to bring down the nation’s debt and deficit.

Getting Brexit done means the Tory Party has moved on from its decades-long internal struggle, while Labour is deeply divided.

A significant proportion of its younger supporters still believe in Corbynism, and want the party to move further to the left, while for many traditional Labour voters it remains too metropolitan and too detached from its base.

If Sir Keir cannot find a way of bringing these two disparate groups together there is the very real risk for him of a breakaway party being formed.

Add to that the fact that Boris Johnson has had to turn the Tories into a high-spending, big state party during Covid and Labour has little ground left to occupy.

'It's time for a clean break'

By far the majority of Labour MPs, however, feel Sir Keir needs to be given more time.

“His first test was to rid the party of anti-Semitism and to take control of the party again, and he passed that test with flying colours,” said one.

“His next job is to get across to the public once and for all exactly what we do not stand for, making a clean break with the recent past, and then use the next couple of years to explain what we do stand for. But until we can see exactly what shape the country is in post-Covid, it won’t be completely clear what the priorities need to be.”

Cynics would point out that Mr Starmer was supposed to have done that with his party conference speech last September, and even had a second go at it with his A New Chapter For Britain speech in February, neither of which succeeded in defining his leadership or indeed delivering a single memorable policy.

Since Lansbury was forced to stand down because of his pacifism in the face of Nazi aggression, Labour has won only eight of the 22 elections contested, of which three were won by Tony Blair.

Mr Blair, one of only three Labour leaders to win a general election in that time, was the most successful of them because he convinced voters he represented change and a fresh start for the country.

Sir Keir must convince his own party that he, too, can represent change to stand any chance of leading Labour into the next general election.

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