LONDON – If Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gone to one extreme with his pithy 2019 election slogan – ‘do Brexit’ – opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer has gone to the other.
Ahead of Labor’s annual conference, which began this weekend, Mr Starmer drafted a policy statement designed to present his beliefs, which was over 11,000 words long. Despite this newsworthy length, it is unlikely to compete with the bestsellers.
Serious, knowledgeable but lacking in charisma, Mr Starmer is a mirror image of Mr Johnson, a polarizing politician renowned for his phrases and showmanship rather than his stability or firm grip on politics.
Yet when Mr Starmer addresses Labor Party members in the English seaside town of Brighton this week, he sorely needs a little spice up – both to boost his image and to explain the agenda of a party that suffered a landslide electoral defeat in 2019 under its predecessor, left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“If you put Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson together, they would be the ideal politician,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. But after a lackluster year, Professor Fielding said, Mr Starmer “needs to communicate his goal and what the Labor Party’s interest is under his leadership in post-Covid Britain”.
“It is an existential question that he must ask himself, answer and then communicate,” said Professor Fielding.
No one doubts the intelligence, seriousness or skill of Mr. Starmer, a former attorney general who has risen through the ranks of the judicial establishment from a humble start in life.
But some think he is not politically savvy enough, while others accuse him of choosing internal fights to underline his opposition to the Corbynite left. These include a dispute over changes to the voting system for future leadership races that would likely have prevented a left winger from securing the top post again. The plan sparked enough anger within the party that Mr Starmer was forced to come up with a watered-down version instead.
Yet the most telling complaint is that he has simply failed to make his presence felt in a way that showcases the party’s positions or improves its standing with the public. Critics also say he failed to exploit Mr Johnson’s many setbacks.
Elected last year in the wake of Labor’s catastrophic 2019 defeat, Mr Starmer has spent much of his leadership detoxifying a party whose image has been marred by persistent internal bickering over allegations of anti-Semitism. This resulted in the suspension of Mr Corbyn, who remains excluded from the Labor parliamentary group.
This focus on inter-party unrest, along with Mr Johnson’s 80-seat majority for Mr Johnson’s Tories, has relegated Labor to the role of spectator in Parliament – so much so that Mr Johnson has brazenly broken a wish and raised taxes this month without fear. that Mr. Starmer and his colleagues could do a lot to benefit from it.
Perhaps aware of the need to confront the Tories more aggressively, Mr Starmer stepped up his criticism over the weekend, telling the BBC there had been a “complete lack of planning” on the part of the government. government over the shortage of truck drivers which worries the British. delivery of fuel and goods.
In terms of electoral strategy, Labor faces a huge challenge. In 2019, he lost a handful of parliamentary seats in his former strongholds – the center and north of the country – as working-class voters warmed to Mr Johnson, with his pro-Brexit agenda and willingness to engage in cultural wars.
This left Mr Starmer with the unenviable task of winning back those traditional Labor voters behind the so-called ‘red wall’ without alienating anti-Brexit supporters in big cities like London, where party support is growing. more concentrated.
His bad luck is that the pandemic has dominated the media agenda, keeping the government center stage and giving it a megaphone to trumpet its leadership role, whether deserved or not.
In the first few months of the Covid crisis, the Prime Minister floundered, resisting blockages first and then having to back down, and Mr Starmer outperformed Mr Johnson in their one-on-one in Parliament. The effective rollout of the vaccine by the government has rekindled the fortunes of the Tories, but that effect has now faded and Britain faces an uncertain winter, with the effects of the pandemic difficult to predict. Still, Mr Johnson votes well enough for an accident-prone leader in the middle of his tenure.
Critics on the left say Mr Starmer’s camp has opted for platitudes and avoided distinctive center-left policies to avoid offending an electoral group.
“They thought Starmer was Biden and Johnson was Trump, and Johnson would self-destruct,” said James Schneider, former spokesperson for Mr Corbyn. “The difference is, Biden is a much more attractive figure to the American public – he has an appeal to everyone.”
When Labor lost an election for a vacant parliamentary seat in northern England in May, Mr Starmer suffered another self-inflicted setback with a botched reshuffle of his top team. He appeared to blame his assistant Angela Rayner for the loss, stripping her of a key position, but was forced to retreat in the face of a backlash and ultimately gave her more responsibility.
A real leadership crisis was averted when Labor unexpectedly won an election in another northern constituency, Batley and Spen, in July.
But Mr Starmer’s authority could be called into question as he prepares to face Mr Johnson in a general election which is due to be held by 2024 but is due a year earlier. A Labor member on the rise is Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, who has raised his profile during the pandemic.
Other party members are still attached to Mr Corbyn’s far-left platform and remain angry at Mr Starmer’s pressure to change the voting system. She also wants Mr Corbyn to be reinstated in the parliamentary group.
The concern of more moderate Labor supporters is that they might see a repeat of the leadership of Ed Miliband, who, like Mr Starmer, came from the ‘soft left’ of the Labor Party, but who lost the general election of 2015.
Tom Baldwin, Mr Miliband’s former spokesperson, said he believes Mr Starmer can win and he may well be an effective prime minister. But he also criticized his lack of a compelling message and his focus on internal battles, which he said “are not going to help us reconnect with voters.”
“I would prefer the Labor Party to have a conversation with the country about the country,” said Mr Baldwin.
Mr Starmer’s supporters say voters will be disappointed with Mr Johnson in light of his broken promise not to raise taxes, and the government will break through on promises to bring prosperity to neglected areas of the country .
Once “normal” politics resume after the pandemic, voters will eventually warm up to Mr Starmer, they argue. Although he prefers to talk about politics rather than personality, Mr Starmer spoke fondly of his upbringing in a recent interview with Piers Morgan.
Still, his personality is very different from Mr Johnson’s, and most analysts believe his best tactic is to build on his strengths, hoping voters will be drawn to a man who exudes stability after years. political unrest.
It is also essential, according to political analysts, that Mr Starmer gives voters a clear reason to support the Labor Party.
“He has to find a message, he has to be able to communicate that message and be able to sell it, and he hasn’t done any of that so far,” said Professor Fielding. “Competence is not enough.