Thursday 2 May, 7.00am
Despite a bad news cycle and attacks from the Left, Keir Starmer is pursuing the right course towards Labour recovery, says Paul Krishnamurty...
"There is a potential sweet spot for Labour where voters grow sick of the constant societal division, and swing back towards the unity argument."
It may seem odd, in light of the pandemic, Brexit and other crises facing the government, but much recent media focus has concerned the opposition. Following a spate of polls showing Labour trailing the Tories by around 4-5%, Keir Starmer stands accused of failing to capitalise on the chaos. Is that fair or an accurate assessment of the leader's progress to date?
Next election betting remains close
Certainly not in betting terms. Labour are currently rated 2.35/4 to win Most Seats at the Next General Election and 3.9 to win an Overall Majority. Pretty respectable, considering they start 163 seats behind the Conservatives, and 124 short of a majority. Frankly, both ratings look wildly optimistic, especially the latter.
Nor do the polls read badly given the context. Labour are outpacing their December 2019 result by 6%. Their gap behind the Tories has shrunk since the early days of the pandemic, in the wake of the furlough scheme. Starmer's approval ratings are far better than his two predecessors Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband were at this stage. He's even competitive, often leading on "Best Prime Minister".
Boris Johnson now tying with Keir Starmer on preferred Prime Minister: pic.twitter.com/BqW6x5BvNc? Ben Walker @BritainElects (@bnhw_) February 8, 2021
Without being at all bullish about Labour's prospects, I regard the critical narrative as largely bogus, driven by a couple of factors. First, internal and external opponents with an agenda to attack Starmer. Obviously the Tory press, anti-Labour pundits and the party's far-left, ultra-Corbynite wing will throw whatever material is at their disposal.
Non-Tories wrong to expect success in Britain
Second, a wider, deeper culture of delusion among non-Tories about the realities of British politics. This repeatedly manifests itself in over-expectation and strategic ineptitude, and explains many past failures, from Corbyn to New Labour to Remain. A sense that the majority 'should' share their analysis and the polls should move accordingly, despite little evidence they do.
Why, precisely, should Labour be in a better position at this stage? Based on what precedent? The Tories won 43% at the last election, largely because they united the Brexit vote. They've just delivered that key promise. Even if Remainers are eventually proved right in it being a disaster, it will take many months, years for that to become the accepted wisdom.
As for Covid, or the economic fallout, why again should we assume the government will suffer? Obviously they didn't create the pandemic and, whilst their management has been widely criticised, it doesn't automatically follow that voters will be intolerant of mistakes in an unprecedented crisis. Or believe the opposition would be any more competent. Plus the vaccine rollout has turned that narrative in the government's favour.
Miliband comparison may be misleading
Some critics have noted that Ed Miliband consistently led in the polls at this stage. True, but more context is needed. During the mid-term between 2010-15, UKIP emerged and the Lib Dems imploded. The instant effect of both worked against the Tories and in Labour's favour. The SNP had yet to surge in Scotland. By the general election, these dynamics had unravelled and in any case, psephologists later concluded that those polls were systemically wrong, overstating Labour.
Miliband nevertheless came in for similar criticism. Why wasn't he faring as well as Tony Blair at this stage? Therein lies the delusion. A wide range of commentators seem obsessed with dubious comparisons, ignoring longer-term factors and historical context.
Only one leader thrived in last 40 years
Other than Blair in the mid-1990s, when have Labour or their agenda been the dominant political force? He remains the only leader to win consecutive majorities. That 'golden era' coincided with the Tories hitting rock-bottom - divided, unpopular, in urgent need of modernisation - and Labour's once-in-a-lifetime support from the Rupert Murdoch empire.
At his peak election, Tony Blair won 43.2%. Starmer could well be on for 40-plus, because the surging Green vote would probably collapse at a general election. Corbyn got 40% in 2017, and the parties were more or less tied throughout 2018. So the difference is not so great.
To be clear, the coalition New Labour built no longer exists and had broken by the time they lost power in 2010. The salient issues dividing the country and policy prescriptions have changed. As have target constituencies.
The Blair lesson regards communication
But where they can learn from the 1990s regards strategy, language and symbols. Blair knew how to communicate with the fabled 'Middle England' who determine UK elections, and how not to alienate the disengaged majority.
The first task of a would-be PM is to earn basic trust, rather than bombard voters with policy and ideology. Reassure that you're on their side and not a threat to their material or physical security. Then they might give you and your policies a fair hearing. Corbyn never understood this and went into elections with terrible approvals, despite very popular policies.
Starmer right to embrace the union flag
That is how to understand Starmer's reported embrace of the union jack, and talk of 'progressive patriotism'. Something that should be a non-story but which, in today's febrile environment, sparked a Twitter war and even excitable speculation of a leadership challenge.
There is no hint of racist, or xenophobic rhetoric or intent. He's simply attaching his brand to a popular symbol that resonates with the majority. Basic political strategy. Blair and Brown surrounded themselves with union jacks without being associated with racism. Remember 'Cool Brittania'?
Labour must prepare for Scots referendum
Starmer is also thinking ahead, to the next great culture war. Nationalism left Labour with nothing to say on the big talking points from 2014 onwards, and lost 50 out of 51 of seats in Scotland. Independence would ruin their electoral maths and the dividing lines of any referendum are unlikely to work to their advantage in England.
Labour must have a clear position this time. Their only workable stance is the one Gordon Brown managed to articulate well in 2014. Passionate, instinctive support for the Union. Because the Left believes in bringing people together, not dividing them.
There is a potential sweet spot for Labour where voters grow sick of the constant societal division, and swing back towards the unity argument. With good leadership they might eat into some of the Conservative vote in Scotland, which is often based around unionism rather than Toryism.
Will that happen? Probably not. In the current social media environment, a more centrist Labour will continue to be swamped by memes from the extremes. Rebranding, detoxication, removing voter fears of Labour, is nevertheless essential if they want to win power again.
The next election is probably three years off. At this stage I'm still a Tory backer but there is plenty of time to change and, broadly, Starmer is on the right path.
Thursday 2 May, 7.00am