The real work for Keir Starmer starts here

by Rob Marchant

Given that Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, however corrupt and venal it may have been, was always made of glass, one hopes that Labour’s leader and his team have been preparing for this sudden change at the top.

It is true that Johnson himself benefitted greatly from having, in Jeremy Corbyn, a disastrous figure as his initial chief opponent. And it is certainly open to question whether he would even have won against a half-decent opposition leader.

But just as the outgoing prime minister has benefitted from facing Labour’s worst-ever leader – as did his two predecessors – across the despatch box Starmer must also recognise that he has been the lucky recipient of the Tories’ own historic low point.

A man who was never going to last the distance, Johnson’s main gift has always been his success in selling undeliverable promises in the campaigning stage. But, to use Mario Cuomo’s adage, he could not handle the “governing in prose” stage.

If his only real achievement in government was to “get Brexit done”, then it was a Brexit that polls now show even most Leavers unhappy with. As it is, he has departed under the cloud that has followed almost all his other jobs; the cloud that all that have followed his miserable trajectory over the years predicted he would.

What, then, of a leader who is significantly better than Johnson, by the simple expedient of not being Johnson? We might look at the field of Tory candidates for the leadership and be uninspired. But we have no reason to believe there will not be a marked bounce in the polls for them, whoever is chosen. And that incoming PM will now very likely have two years to get their feet under the table before a general election.

There is an obvious conclusion to all this: Starmer now needs to up his game.

While we should not dismiss that he has made a great deal of progress in cleaning up the party, and gradually steering it towards being a party of government, he is not there yet. And, with Johnson’s political demise imminent, any honeymoon for Starmer’s leadership is now definitively over.

There are three areas which urgently need attention.

One: as Dan Hodges has pointed out, without the convenient own goals that Johnson has consistently provided in the guise of Partygate, Jennifer Arcuri, crony contracts during Covid, and so on, Starmer will need to tack from the personal to the political. No longer can Johnson’s personal failings be his stick to beat the Tories with.

His new opponent is rather likely to be dull, and little prone to scandal. They may be vaguely competent enough to convince the public that they know what they’re doing (let’s face it, the bar has not exactly been set high recently). You never know: they may even, God forbid, create some eye-catching policies of their own, and win support the traditional way.

Two: Labour urgently needs eye-catching policies of its own. While, to be fair, the first three years of a parliament are not necessarily a good time to be announcing initiatives which will be out of date by the election, by the last two years this needs to start happening.

Cost of living is one obvious area where Labour was starting to get some cut-through, but this seems already to have been clocked by most of the Tory candidates for leader; you can pretty much guarantee that there will be heavy attention paid to this by the incoming PM, which will likely leave it neutralised.

Three: it is perhaps stating the “bleeding obvious”, but Starmer needs to clean up Labour’s act on women’s rights. A leader who, at his own party conference, struggled to state clearly what a woman actually was, is now not trusted by a growing segment of Britain’s women, particularly those who are politically active. And, while Labour continues to support the politically-suicidal policy of trans bself id, that group will continue to grow.

If you are one of Labour’s many members and supporters who still firmly believe “this never comes up on the doorstep”, or “it’s not important, it will never swing anyone’s votes”, let me tell you two things.

First, you are probably a man. Women understandably find it hard to duck this one.

Second, please wake up: you are underestimating the potential of this single issue to provide a razor-sharp dividing line between Labour and Conservatives come the election (if it is not, why are almost all the Tory leadership candidates coming out against self-id, including Penny Mordaunt, so desperate to row back from her previous support that she outright lied about it?)

In short, the Tories see clearly the importance of this issue: why is it that Labour seemingly cannot? Perhaps, we might reflect, because it is not yet as serious about the pursuit of power as the Tories perennially are.

These three areas are where Starmer should now pay some urgent attention. If he does, he may just stand a chance in the general election now likely to come along in 2024 (one cannot imagine any of the current candidates for PM being foolish enough to do anything except wait the maximum time to get their feet under the table).

If he does not, it looks highly uncertain that his recent midterm poll bounce will survive the corresponding Tory new-leader bounce which is likely to happen over the coming weeks and months. And he is already on the back foot, as Dave Talbot pointed out here at Uncut in May, working to a highly accelerated timetable compared to previous Labour leaders in preparing his party for government.

Either way, it seems clear that things are about to get much tougher for Starmer.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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