Keir Starmer still has time to shine as Labour leader

Since last summer, Starmers have been the stock to short.  

In June, the Leader of the Opposition enjoyed a net approval rating of plus 31 per cent. The latest polls show this has fallen into negative territory. 

But as with all stocks, past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future. In terms of medium to long term planning, a Labour government in 2024 cannot be written off.

In 1959 the Tories won with a majority of 100. A year later, polls were still giving them double digit leads. Labour went on to win, albeit narrowly, the 1964 election.

In 1987, Mrs Thatcher won a landslide majority. In early 1989, the Conservatives still held a poll lead of some 10 percentage points.

This collapsed dramatically. By the spring of 1990, Labour led by incredible margins of over 20 per cent. The April 1992 election saw the Conservatives squeak back with a small majority.

In short, polls years out from the next election are a poor guide. But there are some key predictors which can give us a taste for Labour’s performances in general elections. 

Whenever the Left has been strong within the party, Labour has lost. A year on, facing down the Corbynistas remains one of the crucial battlegrounds for Starmer. The performance of the government is obviously relevant, but it is less about hitting objective targets and more about the overarching narrative. 

For example, during 1992-97 John Major’s government oversaw what was arguably the most successful five year period in post-war economic history. The economy boomed, unemployment fell and at the same time inflation was brought under control for the first time in 20 years. At the beginning of the 1990s it was still 7 per cent. By the middle of the decade it was just 2 per cent.

But the Conservatives never recovered from the damage to their reputation for competence caused by the ejection of sterling from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the precursor to the Euro, in the autumn of 1992. It was, in fact, a pivotal reason for the economic boom, but it was perceived as a disaster. 

Starmer has an opportunity to shape the Covid story to suit him. A task he has tried to knock on the head at every Prime Minister’s Questions with little success so far.

Labour needs to work its own positive narrative which relates to the future and not the past, where Jeremy Corbyn seems to have lived ever since the 1970s. Major Attlee in 1945 pledged the welfare state and the NHS. Harold Wilson in 1964 eulogised the “white heat of the technological revolution”, and Tony Blair had Cool Britannia. The reality may have proved very different to the vision. But it was the vision which captured imaginations.

Starmer has plenty of time to craft one. No one in 1997 or 1964 remembered what Labour had said in 1993 or 1960.

His main task is the dull and dirty one of infighting, to rid Labour of the Corbyn legacy in its staff and candidates. Only then can he start to create the positive message which Labour needs.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 7th April 2021
Image: Kier Starmer via Flickr

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