When Keir Starmer recently made his first leader’s speech to the Labour conference, he did not once mention his predecessor by name. There were no warm words about Jeremy Corbyn, no kind of tribute to the man who led Labour for more than four years. He was a non-person in Starmer’s speech. This was not an accident.
“I named three Labour leaders. Three that won. That’s why I named them,” he responds briskly. Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair are the only Labour leaders to have secured parliamentary majorities. “I was trying to get across a really important message to the party, the movement and the country. And that is that the Labour party needs to be a party of government. We can spell out our vision, we can have fantastic policies. But unless we win an election, we are not going to do anything to change lives.”
In case there are people who still haven’t got the point, he rams it home. “If we lose the next general election, that would be five in a row, and if they [the Tories] get a five-year term that would be the Labour party out of power for a longer period than [any] since the second world war. This is profound stuff.”
As Starmer reminded the virtual conference, Labour has only had three winning leaders in the past 75 years. Why does he think his party has such a terrible record of electoral failure?
“The key to winning an election is to be able, if you like, to glimpse the future. You’ve got to promise a better future. That’s what happened in ’45, in the 60s and in ’97. And you’ve got to be credible. And trusted. People have got to look at you and say you and your team are a government-in-waiting, you can run the country.”
Thanks to the devastating defeat last December, Labour will fight the next election from its lowest parliamentary base since 1935. It will take a sensationally large swing to wipe out the Tory majority and replace it with a Labour one. When we suggest that this is a mammoth challenge, Starmer does not demur.
“We have a mountain to climb,” he acknowledges freely.
In trying to plan a long and steep ascent, he conceives of his leadership in “phases”. Starmer is a methodical man. Breaking the challenge into stages may also make it easier to contemplate. Furthermore, it enables him to resist demands that he start articulating policies by saying that Labour has to tackle the mountain one step at a time.
“The first phase, the first six months, was about recognising the scale of the defeat and the scale of the task. And being really honest about that. That’s why I said some of the blunt stuff in my [conference] speech. And recognising that you’ve got to change. You’ve got to engage and listen and build trust. Trust is the most important thing. Because people had lost trust in Labour as a force for good and force for change.”
He thinks that “after the first six months, people feel we’ve taken an important step on that journey and that we’re now climbing the mountain.” So now, he says: “We are moving to a new phase.” This will involve answering the question: “What’s our positive vision for the country? And I mean vision; I don’t mean policy. Four years from an election, we’re not setting out policy. Vision. The vision of the country we want Britain to be. That’s the next six months.”
He will stress family as “a fundamental value”. And also patriotism, which will have some on the left wincing. “The reason we go out knocking on doors is because we believe in the country. We’ve been a bit shy of that in recent years. We’ve not said it. A movement that wants this to be the best country it can possibly be. It is a very patriotic leftwing tradition.”
While he has the support of the great majority of Labour MPs, significant elements of the left are highly suspicious. Some already talk of betrayal. During his campaign for the leadership, he sought support among the left by issuing “10 pledges”, signing up to much of the Corbynite prospectus. Starmer is now putting a lot of distance between himself and those pledges, using the coronavirus crisis as his alibi. “The slate has been wiped pretty clean for everyone,” he contends, arguing that the pandemic means that both Labour and the Tories “are going to have to fundamentally rethink what they want to offer the electorate in 2024”. That may well be right. It is also a highly convenient excuse for getting out of previous commitments to keep faith with Corbynism.
When he became leader, the epidemic was at its first peak. Many commentators suggested the Labour leader would struggle to capture the nation’s attention. As it turns out, he has harvested a political dividend by relentlessly prosecuting the government’s many mistakes. Our most recent Opinium poll gave him highly positive personal ratings. After yet another week of ministerial blundering and confused announcements, Starmer is ramping up his attack on the government’s handling of the crisis. “I think they’ve lost control of the virus,” he declares bluntly. “One of the reasons so many areas are now under restrictions is because the government doesn’t properly know where the virus really is. The failure of test, trace and isolate is absolutely fundamental to this. The virus is now out of control.”
This is a very grave charge to level at the government – and one that Boris Johnson will probably brand alarmist – but Starmer thinks he is the one in tune with the feelings of most Britons. “The mood of the country is they’re angry at the incompetence of the government. They are really anxious about a second wave. The confidence has gone out of the public. And they’re really frustrated with the mixed messages. You’ve now got swathes of the north of England on effective lockdown. And they feel that nobody is listening to them. That nobody is speaking for them. What people want, more than anything, is hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”
He unveils multiple demands of the government. First, offer hope that the tunnel does have an end by producing “a road map to vaccination”. He explains: “When a vaccine arrives, it’s got to be done to scale. You’ve got to have a plan for how you roll it out. If they don’t start on that, you can see this is going to be the next problem.”
Another thing that has to be done – “what we need desperately” – is fixing test, track and isolate. Third, “we need targeted routine testing” for the NHS, care homes, students and schools. Also on his long list of things that need to happen is much more local decision-making, support for businesses affected by regional quasi-lockdowns and the “rapid review of local restrictions”.
The Tories will doubtless say this is another example of the Labour leader “carping from the sidelines”, a phrase that they have started to use against him, presumably because they find it resonates with some of their focus groups. Johnson likes to jibe that Starmer is “Captain Hindsight”.
He counters: “Everything we are criticising, we flagged up in advance. There’s no end of stuff we’ve put out about the danger that is around the corner. The prime minister is governing in hindsight.
“He charges forward, he has a car crash, looks in the rear-view mirror and says: ‘What’s that all about?’ That is government by hindsight.”
The makers of the revived Spitting Image, the TV satire, have turned Starmer into one of their puppets. After looking at a picture of the latex version of himself, he remarks: “It could have been worse.” A loyal aide says: “I think it makes him look like JFK.” He’s much more recognised in the streets since he became leader. “A lot more. Which has its ups and downs,” he laughs. “It is a good thing. Because, you know, Boris Johnson – the one good thing he’s got going for him is he’s so well-recognised.”
The same cannot be said of the Labour frontbench. The shadow cabinet is shadowy to most of the country. We suggest that few voters have any idea who most of them are, never mind what they have to say. Why aren’t they making their voices heard? Did he make bad choices?
“No,” he protests. “I picked very good people. It’s a very, very strong shadow cabinet. But we do need the whole team out. I accept that. You will see more of the team out. We need people to see a government-in-waiting which means more than one person. There will be much more of that.”
In the six months since he became leader, he has made a defining issue of competence. This has worked very well for him, not least because Johnson is so exposed to the charge that he is a chaotic PM leading a low-calibre cabinet. Starmer has employed his experience as a prosecutor at prime minister’s questions, but says he doesn’t really approach it like a day in court. “I’m actually asking the questions I think the public want asked. So I haven’t gone for trick questions or curve balls or things that nobody is going to know the answer to. The prime minister, the first few weeks, tried to answer questions with detail and got hopelessly lost. So now, he doesn’t. He’s just got his stock attacks.”
The consensus at Westminster, and this includes Conservative MPs, is that Starmer has regularly got the better of Johnson. But there’s an anxiety among Labour MPs that the Tories could change the terms of combat by switching leaders before the next election. The most talked-about scenario is that Johnson is replaced by Rishi Sunak, the one member of the cabinet to have impressed the public. Recent Labour propaganda has started to target the chancellor, a sign that the Labour leadership regards him as a threat.
Starmer affects not to care that he might face a fresher Tory leader at the next election. “Whether the Tories change their leader or not is obviously down to them. If I’m to get the Labour party in a position to win the next election, I need to focus on what Labour intends to do. As I was always taught as a lawyer, if you’re going to win a case, you need to know your own argument first.”
He again stresses the awesome challenges facing his party: “This is going to take four years. And we’re going to have to be at this every day, every week, every month for the whole of the four years….There is no way the Labour party could be turned around in six months. And there’s no pretending otherwise. This is going to take the four-year period that we have got. Every bit of it.” It will be a marathon up that mountain.