Very little about Keir Starmer’s first three months as Labour leader has been easy, or remotely normal. On 4 April, the day he was elected, there was no fanfare as he was forced to issue a very sober, pre-recorded victory address from a front room of his house in north London, with the country in strict lockdown. Three months on, during a visit to Harlow, Essex, last week, he chose to wear a large plastic visor, putting distance between him and the voters, and safety first.
“He was right to do that,” said one of his front bench, “because until then, not a single cabinet minister had worn a mask in public since this whole thing began. It was about setting an example. But I did think…how bloody weird.” Even now, as he approaches his 100th day as leader, it’s all very abnormal.
Only a handful of his team has been going in to work in the leader of the opposition’s office in the Palace of Westminster. Normally it would be buzzing, with the leader dashing in and out, accompanied by aides. “Nowadays there are maybe four or five in at the most, but the offices are mostly empty, and people are working from home. We do all the shadow cabinet meetings remotely,” said one of his team.
Coronavirus has, in many ways, made Starmer’s start more difficult. Particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, Boris Johnson and the government were very much centre stage, with Labour having to give its support as the nation demanded togetherness. For a Labour party on its knees after four successive general election defeats under his predecessors – Gordon Brown in 2010, Ed Miliband in 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn, both in 2017 and in December last year – some wondered how the new leader could get noticed. Could Starmer begin a recovery from Labour’s latest electoral disaster – its worst since 1935 – and one that some in the party believed could even be terminal?
Today, however, there are signs of life in Labour where before there were very few. In late March, when the lockdown was announced, Boris Johnson and the Tories had regular leads over Labour of more than 20 points in the opinion polls, and Johnson’s own approval ratings were going through the roof.
“I thought then that it would be 10 years at the earliest before we could even think of competing again,” said a shadow cabinet member. Immediately after he was elected, Starmer couldn’t compete in the ratings battles, largely because few voters knew anything about him. When he spoke on the leadership hustings, he had shown himself to be a rather leaden orator and had failed to catch much public attention.
But once in office, the former director of public prosecutions showed his lawyerly precision and calm with incisive performances week after week in the House of Commons. In a deathly quiet chamber devoid of baying Tories. Starmer suddenly looked the part, and an untidy and bumbling Johnson looked wrong for the times, and at sea. As the prime minister and government struggled, Starmer found his feet, people took notice and the mood in Westminster and among the public changed.
In the Observer’s latest Opinium poll, that shift is reflected in startling terms. The Tory lead stands at just four points, and Starmer is beating Johnson on almost every metric. On competence, Starmer scores plus-28, while Johnson, damaged by the chaotic government response to Covid-19, is on minus-4. Asked about the two leaders’ ability to take key decisions, Starmer is on plus-18, Johnson on minus-7. Even on the issue of standing up for Britain abroad, the prime minister who delivered Brexit and won a general election having campaigned for it, is on plus-5, compared with the Labour leader’s score of plus-13. Some 49% of all voters in today’s poll say Starmer has already made them think more favourably of the Labour party. Two weeks ago, he actually overtook Johnson when people were asked who they thought would make the best prime minister.
Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, who is on the front bench, says Starmer has shown qualities that people quickly recognise in a good leader.
“He has been decisive, he has shown grit, he is professional, he looks at ease,” Kyle said. “I have been in the company of other political leaders and they exude this incredible tension and intensity. He seems comfortable, and that makes people trust him.”
Starmer’s start may have been impressive but he still has an electoral mountain to climb, rebuilding a coalition of voters that is over-concentrated in big cities and too small overall, and that has been destroyed in Scotland and its former heartlands in the north and Midlands.
But like Covid-19 itself, Starmer’s early time in charge has had effects no one could have predicted. Politically, just as the pandemic has transformed the previously little-known chancellor Rishi Sunak into a potential threat to Johnson, so it has changed Labour under Starmer into a force to be reckoned with again. It has bred more unity than otherwise might have existed.
Certainly it has not been trouble-free. There have been grumblings from the left about Starmer’s sacking of the lead Corbynista Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary (for refusing to take down a retweet that contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory). But attempts to have her reinstated, which were backed by the likes of John McDonnell, fizzled out.
There was criticism from inside and outside the party too about Starmer’s ill-chosen words to describe the Black Lives Matter protests, which seemed to show a lack of feel for the epic nature of events that followed the death of George Floyd and for what the movement meant.
Internal tensions were evident too over Starmer’s appointment of a new Labour general secretary, David Evans, who worked for the party under Tony Blair. But there has been no mass resignation from the membership, says Laura Parker, the former national coordinator of Momentum, because Starmer stood on a leftwing programme which he has stood by.
“Why would people leave when the centre of gravity has shifted? It may not have shifted as far to the left as some people want. But it is an anti-austerity, pro-common ownership party. It is a pro-peace party, and it is not a ‘relaxed about the filthy rich’ party – far from it,” said Parker.
She believes it is probably too early to judge Starmer, as Covid-19 has drowned out everything else and given the new Labour leader no real chance to show his true policy colours. But she sees definite signs that the entire movement wants to come together under him if it can.
“The vast majority of people do want to turn a page,” she said. “That does not mean the left is about to abandon all its principles, but there is an appetite for building more harmonious relationships.”
Gradually Starmer is changing the rhetoric from Corbyn in a quiet revolution. In a recent Commons debate on global Britain and the merging of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, he played the patriot card.
“I passionately believe in Britain. I am proud of this,” he said, adding that he wanted the UK to show global leadership. He also relaunched an organisation called Labour Friends of the Armed Forces.
“You would never have had Jeremy doing that in a million years,” said another front bencher.
There will be calls soon, no doubt, from within the party for Starmer to go further than showing competence and some subtle repositioning. “We will at some stage need to hear what Project Keir actually is,” said one of his shadow team. “It takes a bit of time but the public will need to see more than just professionalism and doing well at prime minister’s questions. They will want to know what gets him up in the morning.”
For now, though, the party, like the country, is getting to know Starmer. Michael Chessum, a former member of Momentum’s steering group, says the sacking of Long-Bailey and appointment of Evans have split the left and caused irritation.
“But,” he said, “most members are probably willing to tolerate this, as long as the new leadership honours its promise to maintain Corbyn’s radical policy platform. The question is whether Starmer can really do this while at the same time completely changing Labour’s personnel and tone.”
Across the party, the verdict is pretty positive about Starmer. Even Blairites who doubted him when he was shadow Brexit secretary have been impressed. Blair himself is said to have come round to thinking he has what it takes.
But as he and everyone else knows, it will be what he does over the next four-and-a-half years that will really count.
Highs and lows of the first 100 days
Keir Starmer has landed blow after blow against Boris Johnson at the dispatch box, leaving sketch-writers thumbing their Rogets for alternatives to “forensic”. Johnson’s ripostes have focused on painting “m’learned friend” as a slippery lawyer, making him look a little less like a prime minister and more like a defendant.
The Labour leader has risen in the polls and nosed ahead of Johnson last month. Today Opinium says 49% of people have a more positive opinion of Labour since he became leader. The party has also closed the gap with the Tories, from a whopping 51%-29% in April, when Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn. The Tory lead now stands at just four points, although support for Labour has plateaued at around 38% since the end of May.
Sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey for sharing an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory was praised as evidence of his willingness to tackle antisemitism and his decisiveness, in contrast to Johnson’s backing of Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick. He’s been rewarded with support from the Jewish Labour Movement, which had threatened to split from the party under Corbyn.
Up: Party management
He has seized control of the national executive committee, Labour’s governing body, and the new general secretary is David Evans– a Starmer fan. That puts the Labour leader in control of policy, allowing him to avoid making any unnecessary announcements with at least four more years of opposition ahead.
Downside: Many on Labour’s left are suspicious that Long-Bailey’s departure is the start of a purge, and not sacking Steve Reed as shadow communities secretary for referring to Richard Desmond as a “puppet master” – another antisemitic trope – hasn’t helped. Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey has given him a few friendly reminders who is still around.
Down: Black Lives Matter
Although he took a knee with Angela Rayner on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, Starmer had to apologise later for appearing to devalue BLM by describing it as “a moment” – he’s taking unconscious bias training as penance for his first significant gaffe. Some black Labour members feel racism directed at Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler has not been taken as seriously as antisemitism.
The sober, serious image may be a reassuring contrast to Johnsonian gallimaufry, but Starmer has lacked pizazz and personality. Cartoonists have yet to nail a Starmer persona and impressionists have lent heavily on their Ed Miliband material, while the Labour leader has steered clear of anything as frivolous as a joke.
Clapping for the NHS rather than detailing health policy may be good politics now, but avoiding announcements comes with another risk – voters may have little idea what Labour thinks about pressing issues: Brexit, the new economic reality or any vision of how to escape the pandemic.