Keir Starmer begins 2022 looking like the best-placed Labour leader since the distant days of Tony Blair. That at least is what many opinion polls currently suggest. During December, the party moved into a sustained lead over the Conservatives, making Starmer more highly rated as a leader than Boris Johnson. But much of this has been the result of the public turning away from the government thanks to revelations about Number 10’s egregious flouting of its own Covid rules rather than them seeing Starmer’s leadership in significantly more positive terms. In some ways those who supported Johnson in 2019 have merely moved from active dislike to a basic uncertainty about Labour and its leader.
And however good Labour’s present position is – one that would see it win back perhaps all of its lost Red Wall seats – it is still insufficient to guarantee a Commons majority: it would make it the largest party but one unlikely to be able to govern on its own.
If all this takes some of the gilt off the gingerbread for Starmer, even more sobering is the memory of how recently serious question marks hovered over his leadership. In May, defeat in the Hartlepool by-election and an under-whelming performance in local elections caused many to wonder if he would ever make headway with voters. A botched attempt to downgrade deputy leader Angela Rayner’s position to stymie her own ambitions for the top job raised questions about his ability to manage a still-divided party. Labour’s campaign to retain Batley and Spen in the July by-election consequently became a make-or-break moment for Starmer: had just 150 voters changed their mind Labour might have lost the seat and the pressure on him would likely have been intolerable.
So like a football manager whose team is unaccountably 2-0 up in the first half of a match, the Labour leader has to decide whether he should stick or twist: does he cautiously sit on his lead in the hope the Conservatives fail to respond, or go on the attack to try and make victory certain?
Labour has been here before, most notably following its fourth successive defeat in 1992. As after 2019, many experts then predicted that for the foreseeable future Labour was finished as a party of power, because it had lost a significant section of the electorate to the Conservatives, in that case affluent but hardly middle-class voters in the south and midlands. But Black Wednesday, Conservative divisions over the direction of the EU and ‘sleaze’ saw John Smith’s Labour take an impressive opinion lead. Smith was associated with the idea that, in such circumstances, the party that lost in 1992 under Neil Kinnock could essentially win the next election. He decided to stick. We will never know if that was the right strategy as Smith’s death allowed Tony Blair to become leader. Blair had long believed Labour could not simply rely on voters’ disaffection from the Conservatives to deliver victory: it had to show it had changed to win them back: hence New Labour.
But Blair had it easy compared to Starmer. By moving the party to the low tax preferences of voters in the south and midlands, New Labour could rely on the traditional loyalty of those in the north and Scotland, ones which of course no longer exist, partly thanks to Blair’s strategy. Starmer in contrast has to win back older Red Wall voters while keeping hold of younger metropolitan voters whose cultural outlook and economic interests are very different, and who owe Labour no loyalty, a dilemma mapped out in the excellent Brexitland. In this regard Starmer’s leadership has charted a constant course. It has been defined by trying to find an appeal that would address the concerns of both groups, emphasising Britons’ need for ‘security’ through better public services and an interventionist state concerned to reduce inequality, at the same time as avoiding talk of Brexit and highlighting Labour’s patriotism. Until now this has only provoked tensions in his own party while seemingly making little impact on voters.
There are huge differences between the Labour and Conservative leaders, but they share one similarity: they have few friends in their own parties. Starmer was backed by the likes of Progress and Labour First on the right only because they saw this soft leftish MP as the means of ending Corbynism. But thanks to promising to continue many of the policies associated with Corbyn’s leadership many of Starmer’s votes came from admirers of the outgoing Labour leader, someone who Starmer has now suspended from the Parliamentary Labour party. Too left for many in his own newly reshuffled Shadow Cabinet, but too far right for a significant number of members Starmer has always lacked the platform to do what he wanted.
The opinion poll lead he currently enjoys, one admittedly gifted to him by Number 10, is his chance. As Boris Johnson will attest, if it looks like you are an election winner you can almost get away with anything. Will Starmer stick or twist, and in what direction will he go if he dares: will the real Keir Starmer stand up – or was he there all the time – and will the voters like him if he does?
One way or another 2022 should will be the defining year for Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party.