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14 May 2021

Politics and Society

There is an interesting contradiction at the heart of politics. Voters and parties simultaneously have long and short memories.

Events and policies can live in the public consciousness for decades, while other issues can be forgotten or re-written in quick time, as Keir Starmer is finding out.

When Starmer became Labour leader during the Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020, most people accepted that the Labour Party had a mountain to climb.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the argument, Corbyn’s time as leader had been catastrophic for Labour: their 2017 general election performance showed a party which did well in campaigning but still could not beat a battered and divided Conservative Party.

The 2019 general election defeat writ their fate large – they had become unelectable.

The next leader, whoever they were, would need to tackle antisemitism, navigate the aftermath of Brexit, dampen internal party wrangling, and wrestle power away from Corbyn supporters.

Additionally, and most importantly, they would have to rid the public consciousness of Corbyn’s legacy and the interpretation of policy which the voters had so roundly rejected. All this had to be done during a pandemic when the normal rules of political life simply didn’t apply.

‘Pressing the flesh’ was simply impossible, as were party conferences or strong criticism of the Government. In times of national crisis, history shows us that voters are willing to extend the Government a certain amount of latitude, ignoring what they consider small mistakes in the hope of bigger success later.

News broadcasts have stressed that Johnson and the Conservative Government are ‘doing their best’, not that they are being successful or making the right decisions at the right time.

Starmer’s first test was always going to be the May 2021 local elections. When he became leader, it was recognised that these elections would be difficult, especially if Covid-19 meant that Britain remained in some form of lockdown for a very prolonged period, which it did.

In the meantime, Starmer would need to internally restructure the party, try to hold the disparate parts of the party together in an uneasy truce and find a way to criticise the Government without looking like they were kicking the nation while it was down.

Starmer has done reasonably well at all three, having had his allies take over specific parts of the NEC structure and worked to highlight the Government’s errors and mistakes as a ‘critical friend’.

However, the Labour party remains riven with divisions and Starmer has faced criticism from supporters of Corbyn, as well as those who argued that he wasn’t being dynamic enough, or wasn’t going far enough in his reforms.

With this backdrop to the 2021 bumper crop of elections, many would have assumed that Starmer’s Labour party would have a bad night, and then be able to quickly press on to the next battle. However, that didn’t happen.

Because of Covid-19, the counts took place over several days, meaning that early losses such as the Hartlepool by-election and the loss of local council seats in the North of England dominated the news and the headlines talked of a Labour bloodbath.

Undoubtedly a disappointment for the party, these results were not entirely unforeseen, given the collapse of the Red Wall in December 2019, and the Remain-leaning candidate selected for the Hartlepool seat.

There was odd contradiction evident in the analysis: better results amongst the Mayoral ballots and in the Welsh Assembly were dismissed by critics as examples of ‘local’ politics, while the council defeats were blamed on ‘national’ issues.

For Starmer and his team, they had to take the blows but were not credited with any successes. That may be the price of leadership, but it demonstrated that many had forgotten how and when Starmer had become leader.

It would have been extremely difficult for him to have turned around Labour’s fortunes in just over 12 months, but that had long been forgotten.

However, Starmer is not a mere bystander here. While he has worked on bringing the party together in difficult circumstances, his leadership has looked lacklustre, and his leadership team has looked short on ideas: many voters complained that they didn’t know what the Labour party stood for.

His biggest error happened after the Hartlepool by-election result. After the result was announced, and while results from other areas and contests continued to be released, Starmer decided to reshuffle his cabinet, moving his deputy, Angela Rayner, away from Chair of the party as the overseer of the election campaign.

While this might have been a sensible move once the dust had settled, to announce it while votes were being counted and to allow it to be cast as a sacking or demotion was explosive for the Labour movement.

Corbyn supporters and Starmer-critics lined up to criticise his actions, and in the aftermath, the Party has ended up with only a slightly change top team.

What is needed for the Labour Party to win the next election? Big policy ideas are essential and that takes time. They need to be developed, discussed, adopted and sold to the Party and the public.

For Starmer, the clock is ticking and he needs to work on telling the public exactly what Labour stands for, not simply what he thinks is wrong the Conservative Party. To do this successfully he needs unity.

Some of that will be done with a stick, making those who don’t want to play for the Labour Party team uncomfortable enough to leave, or at least keep their opinions to themselves.

Some will be done with a carrot, adopting certain elements of policies associated with Corbyn. However, Starmer needs to be careful not to fight the last war.

The UK has been changed by Covid-19, and he has an opportunity to make that work to his advantage, but he needs to be bold, and he needs to do it now.

By Dr Victoria Honeyman, Associate Professor of British Government, University of Leeds

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