Isabel Hardman

Is Keir Starmer destined to become a ‘Kinnock-esque’ figure?

Is Keir Starmer destined to become a 'Kinnock-esque' figure?
(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
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Sir Keir Starmer is planning a policy review as part of his plans to ‘change’ Labour after the dismal Super Thursday results. This sounds, to put it mildly, like a rather small response to a rather big problem.

Talking to MPs and campaigners over the past 24 hours, I have noticed a shift in the way many of them describe Labour's challenge. The Hartlepool result has underlined that the party’s recovery hasn’t yet started, and that it is going to be a very, very long time before that recovery can take the party back into government.

The scale of the defeat is one reason for this shift in mindset, but another is the way in which Labour's support in Hartlepool has been declining for a couple of decades. There is no evidence that recovering that support can happen overnight. That could mean there will be a few more elections where Labour fails to win, before the party has a real chance. Which could make Starmer a Kinnock-esque figure, who might merely prepare the ground for another leader who wins.

One MP who canvassed in the seat observes that the result had three elements: 'Long Covid, long Brexit and long Corbyn. We have been in suspended animation for 18 months because of the pandemic and so it still feels like 2019 politically. Brexit is still hanging around like a stale smell. Voters just wanted to say thank you for the vaccine programme. And it is undoubtedly true that lots of white working class voters haven't quite been convinced that Jeremy Corbyn isn't still the leader.' A frontbencher agrees: 'It's been a year of politics in suspension in many ways. But I think we do have to speak to the voters and to their aspiration. I don't mean that in an oversimplified way, not slavishly following focus groups, but a bolder clearer agenda for change. You've got to have some kind of confidence in your own thing.'

To have confidence in what you are saying requires some evidence that you're saying what voters want to hear. Part of the work that a Kinnock figure would need to do would be to work out in detail why voters turned away from the party. Opinion polls only take you so far: they show representative groups moving, but the same individuals are not surveyed from week to week. So it is not clear what in particular caused someone to drop their longstanding allegiance to the party, and different factions within the party fill the uncertainty vacuum with their own pet theories about Brexit, working class candidates, left wing policies, free broadband, nasty Tories and the need for more of their sort of politics, rather than the other, bad, sort of politics.

In Hartlepool, organisers realised that the weakening Labour vote was spread out around the town, making it more difficult for canvassing teams to reach them. In any case, the feedback on the doorstep isn't as helpful as activists often think it is. One of the lines being spun today is that Hartlepool voters were no longer angry with the party in the way they were in the previous three general elections. Activists and MPs who were in the seat agree that this is the case, and were nonplussed that voters then turned against the party. But this is to misunderstand what replaced the anger. It wasn't a genuine warmth and enthusiasm but more of the sort of happy disengagement that happens after a break-up: the anger subsides and both sides are able to get along tolerably well because it is clear that they are never getting back together. One canvasser who was shocked by what he heard in the seat says: 'At least when they were angry, it was because they cared about the party.' The challenge is to work out how to make those voters care again.