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When a Labour canvasser appeared on a doorstep in the Tooting area of London this week, they were greeted with a blunt “I’m voting Tory”. Given Sadiq Khan’s former parliamentary seat was a tight marginal not so long ago, that’s perhaps no surprise. But what was shocking was the Labour activist’s reply. “You need to check your values,” they told the astonished voter.
That extraordinary exchange neatly sums up Keir Starmer’s problem this weekend. As he surveys a set of elections in which Labour was well and truly hammered in many of its heartlands, there’s a palpable sense that some voters have had enough of being patronised, ridiculed and ignored by the very party that needs their support.
I’ve written elsewhere my early inquest into the Hartlepool disaster, but the results across the country are just as devastating. From Plymouth to Harlow, from Dudley to Nottinghamshire, Labour didn’t just lose seats and control of councils, it often lost by huge, huge margins. The vaccine effect, the Boris effect and the Brexit effect combined to reshape our electoral map.
Labour wins over the weekend in Wales, London, Manchester, Bristol and Liverpool will take some of the edge off the awful performance in English small towns. Yet in some ways the May 6 performance is even worse than the 2019 general election result, precisely because Labour is nearly two years on and going backwards. It’s a reminder that William Hague’s 2001 disaster was more of a failure than the 1997 John Major wipeout.
The difficulty for Labour is these defeats are becoming a feature not a bug. After a predictable wave of “we’re really going to listen to the voters”, will Starmer do what every leader since 2010 has done and simply carry on not listening? After the 2019 debacle, Tony Blair said the exit poll on election night was “like a flash of lightning that clarifies the landscape for you...the problem is the lightning goes, and if we are not careful we will just go back to the darkness again.”
An extra, new problem for Starmer is that the voters are beginning to turn against him personally. The latest research from JLPartners shows that among those who switched from Labour to the Tories their number one reason was “Starmer”. After a year of pretty positive ratings on competence and ability to be PM, it seems the punters are just utterly uninspired by his leadership.
For a year, his team have been saying that their task is to convert the 35% of voters who don’t know who Starmer is into committed converts. Once they see him up close, post-pandemic, they’ll come round, was the theory. The plan is to stage a series of ‘CameronDirect’ style events (although based more on Emmanuel Macron’s town hall meetings) this summer to properly “introduce” him to the public, as well as to listen directly to their concerns.
It’s not a bad idea, but it will need Starmer to step up and bring some eloquence and energy that many feel he sorely lacks. While his PMQs performances have become punchy and polished, he still badly needs to learn the basics of delivering a crisp TV soundbite and a passionate stump speech. Everyone who knows him personally sees his private warmth, but that’s often missing from his media encounters.
The problem was summed up by his pool clip for TV in reaction to the election results. The longer raw feed, shown live on BBC News Channel, was four minutes and forty seconds of rattled, robotic obfuscation that made Theresa May look human. He got across his message that “I intend to do whatever it takes to fix” the “lost trust of working people”. But then he said he would be “changing the things that need changing, that is the change that I will bring about”. It was a word salad with croutons of random verbiage.
At the end, after several refusals to explain what exactly he planned to change – his policy themes, his shadow cabinet – the BBC’s Jessica Parker clearly couldn’t believe Starmer wouldn’t want to re-do the clip. “You happy? We can keep going if you like..” she offered. But he replied: “No, that’s fine.”
Starmer had been candid enough to admit “we have changed as a party but we haven’t set out a strong enough case to the country”, but he couldn’t say what the case would look like. Saying “we” haven’t set out the case suggested a reshuffle of this team, though a culling of his frontbench may jar with his pledge to take personal responsibility for the defeats. Still, there’s no shortage of advice on who should go up and who should go down (as we report HERE).
One old Labour hand told me recently that the job of leader of the Opposition is like that of England manager, in that everybody has an opinion and most think they could do it better. Starmer doesn’t need armchair punditry, podcaster chin-stroking or advice from Twitter. He can’t easily wave a magic wand when struggling against incumbency (Labour doing well in Wales shows how a sitting government can benefit from Covid competence) and long-term fissures in Labour’s coalition.
He can however use the latest flash of lightning to rediscover just why he left the law for politics, and to map out how he will lead his party to power. That appalling “check your values” advice should be turned onto every Labour activist to make them listen to, rather than lecture, the voters. With a powerful mandate from his leadership victory, there’s no likely prospect of Starmer being ousted. He’s going nowhere for now. The danger is that unless he acts swiftly and boldly, his party is going nowhere too.