The biggest reason Keir Starmer has proved a flop is not that he leads an unelectable rabble, or that Labour’s coalition of voters is splintering, or even that Covid has marginalised him — it is far simpler: He’s never known what to do.
In fact, he lacks the first clue about how to do politics. High-powered lawyer he may once have been, but we might as well have pulled some random middle-class bloke out of a saloon car on a ring road and invited him to captain Britain’s next doomed attempt to win the America’s Cup yachting challenge. Because Starmer’s default pose is to be frozen at the wheel and staring blankly at a mysterious instrument panel as his crew awaits orders. He has thus always been doomed to catch a crab rather than the wind in his sails.
His lack of basic knowledge about how to go about building an offer the British people might find attractive — let alone compelling — is by turns extraordinary and excruciating.
What, for instance, is his basic proposition? Apart from a platitudinous desire for Britain to be as good as it can be, even those of us who follow the political process closely have gleaned little inkling. What are his three big things — because three is as many as he can ever hope to register with a wider electorate that tunes into politics only intermittently?
Tony Blair said 'education, education, education' — not because he only had one thing but because he understood that saying one thing three times in an interview was a noteworthy device that would at least ensure one major priority got effectively communicated.
By contrast, after Labour’s electoral pasting in early May, Starmer did a now-notorious TV clip in which he promised Labour would listen and change. Yet when pressed to give a single specific example of something he would prioritise, he couldn’t do so. Not one thing.
Blair and New Labour also understood the importance of repetition. At one point in the mid-nineties, Labour aides would come round the parliamentary press gallery and roll their eyes in mock apology for the same soundbite cropping up in a press release for the umpteenth time. We in the lobby were sick of it, they were even sick of it. But we all understood this meant the phrase and the idea it encapsulated would just be starting to percolate into wider society.
Ending Tory boom and bust; tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime; the NHS is not safe in Tory hands — these key propositions were pegged to political news stories every day of the week for years. You have to keep punching the bruise.
By contrast, Starmer is a toe-in-the-water merchant. A few months back his aides placed a piece in the Sunday Telegraph in which he said he wanted to make Labour the party of the family. Then nothing. No major Labour policy followed, no wounding attack soundbite against the Tories, no pegging the idea to stories cropping up in the news agenda. A one-off. One article. Tick, OK that’s done then.
Last Friday a similar approach was taken on crime. Daily Mail readers learned on an inside page lead that Starmer wanted to make Labour the party of law and order. The evidence for this was that Labour would not be spending £200 million on a new yacht, as the Tories proposed, but would spend this sum — trifling in the scheme of things — on tackling anti-social behaviour instead.
'Sir Keir, a former director of public prosecutions, accused ministers of "dropping the ball" on anti-social behaviour,' wrote the Mail’s political editor, Jason Groves — and I fancy he will have been thinking 'is that it?' as he did so.
And indeed, that was it. A transparently superficial dividing line gimmick accompanied by the world’s most boring soundbite. Unveiled once. On the day the Matt Hancock story had broken. Nothing since. Tick. Done.
This is an astonishingly naïve approach. If these two things — party of the family, party of law and order — are to be the key identifiers of Starmer’s Labour, the basics of political ringcraft would say to repeat them again and again. The party machine would be attuned to pulling out examples of government failure on them again and again and to attach Labour’s change proposition to such failures. Memorable soundbites would be minted, along with flagship policy to illustrate how Labour’s approach would differ. Starmer’s own image would be crafted around the propositions — Labour’s robocop leader, Labour’s family man. A memorable over-arching policy name would be produced — maybe something like 'Neighbourhood Rescue', building on the idea that 'the Tories are in power, there goes the neighbourhood'.
On the family issue, perhaps a red wall friendly 'lads need dads' theme would have emerged, again attached to a stream of policies and research showing how boys in deprived urban environments risk falling into crime without a positive male authority figure in their lives. Starmer could have promised to create a national mentoring scheme and invited older men with something to offer to participate.
This is all utterly basic stuff that any competent and experienced political professional will know as second nature. Perhaps the new arrivals in Starmer’s office will understand it. But it is too late for him now. Because another basic rule is that once an opposition leader has been branded a flop by the public at large, he is never going to be branded as anything else.
Leader of the Opposition is not really a glittering title like Director of Public Prosecutions. It’s more an invitation to sink or swim while having weights stitched into your clothing that will drag you under if you do not act fast. Keir Starmer has already sunk.