All in all, it’s been a pretty good week for Keir Starmer. He forced through his frontbench reshuffle, ruffling some feathers in the process, but ultimately managing to stamp his authority on the party.
He got in some good jabs as the government’s continuing problems with sleaze, laissez-faire Covid rule-breaking (that Downing Street party), and its chronic incompetence created yet more negative headlines.
If the Bexley & Sidcup by-election didn’t produce an earthquake, Labour at least put a dent in the Tory majority with a 10 per cent swing. Most voters, however, stayed home. Which perhaps ought to give Starmer pause.
Sure, Bexley & Sidcup is bluer than a desert sky. Even a tanker full of magic Heineken probably wasn’t going to allow Starmer to find common ground with enough voters for Labour to win the seat. But more could surely have been done to make that dent deeper, by persuading some of the waverers to at least stop off at the polling booth on their way back from Sainsbury’s.
Nationally, the polls say it’s neck and neck. Starmer faces a government of historic incompetence, mired in sleaze, with a joke of a prime minister who burbles on about Peppa Pig when speaking to business leaders. It’s a godawful mess, one of historic proportions. A steaming pile of horse manure. But Starmer can’t get a lead.
The Labour leader looks… well, he at least looks competent. Like someone who’d do a better job, although that isn’t exactly hard to accomplish. But he’s not (yet) moving the needle to anything like the extent that he needs to. It’s going to take more to tempt an electorate that views Labour with a mixture of suspicion and puzzlement.
I’m not sure Starmer necessarily needs to spell out too many policies, at least not yet. A friend pointed out a big problem with the party’s approach to social care, which has also been picked up by my esteemed colleague John Rentoul. It amounts to beating up the government’s admittedly dismal policy, which would protect rich homeowners in the south sitting on fat piles of equity at the expense of those in the north. People who, say, bought their council houses. Most of the value of their homes would be gobbled up under the Tory plan.
Boris Johnson’s response to Starmer’s complaints is: “At least we have a plan.” The thing is, Starmer knows that anything he proposes will leave someone – whose vote he might need – losing out. His plan will get picked apart, gutted and hung as a millstone around his neck.
Theresa May torpedoed her majority, in part, by putting forward a social care plan which was given this treatment. So it’s best for Starmer to duck that one, even if he doesn’t look good by doing so.
But there are things Labour could do. Set out some principles. Make it known how life would be better under Prime Minister Starmer. Perhaps try a little radicalism on for size.
Building links with business is a good idea, but business shouldn’t dictate the agenda. So, yes, talk more about dignity at work, fair pay and employment rights. Be pragmatic about public ownership. Recognise that the left has some good ideas so if, for example, fully nationalising the railways (a popular policy) makes things work better for Britain, say you’ll do it.
Sorry. I know that sentence contains something that looks dangerously like one of those vomit-inducing slogans. But then, vomit-inducing slogans can work quite well. “Get Brexit Done” – even though it hasn’t been – explains why we are where we are.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
The fact that an away day with Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) was recently held is a good sign. The SPD was faced with a much better, more competent, sensible and serious opponent than Labour is. And yet the party pulled up its socks and won.
It didn’t do that by hoping the Christian Democrats would just drop the ball after the departure of Angela Merkel. Olaf Scholz had a message that resonated, which he repeated ad infinitum. He had themes. It also didn’t hurt that the SPD abandoned the infighting which had plagued the party.
This helped lure enough former CDU voters to make the SPD the leading partner in German’s coalition, which is something Labour is also probably going to get its head around even if Starmer does decide to can the caution and be bolder. Which he needs to do.