In politics, one of the benefits of winning – and being in government – is that your successes are there for all to see. The downside, of course, is that so are your failings. Our current Government has enjoyed some successes over the last year or so and has certainly worn its failures on its proverbial sleeve. But this week, knowing as we all do what the Government has been up to and not up to over Christmas and New Year, we will focus instead on Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Sir Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership at a time of crisis – for his country and for his party. And he won it with a positional, intentional strategy of absence. Yes, we know about his father’s toolmaking and his mother’s love of donkeys. Yes, we know about his career in human rights law (and, to a lesser degree, his career at the CPS as the cops’ lawyer). But we were told little, in truth, about his positive beliefs or his perspective on the world. And since then… we have learned little more.
This may be strategically correct when it comes to wooing the millions of voters that the Labour Party has so carelessly lost over the last decade. There is little evidence that – this far out from an election, at a time when we are all locked in our houses and frightened by a plague – the British public is desperate to understand the niceties of Starmer’s views on tax, spending, welfare or warfare. And those members of the voting public who have noticed Keir at all do seem to rather like him – if also to see him as a somewhat distant and wooden figure. But this practiced quietness is also a source of frustration and resentment within Labour – and not just on the Left.
Last week, Starmer gave what he billed as a ‘landmark’ speech. He talked about family and the Labour Party’s commitment to families, which was nice. It got a bit of pick up and seems to have secured the Labour Leader a sinecure as a weekly columnist with the Telegraph for the foreseeable (I mean, a Telegraph column worked out well for Boris so why not?). What it did not do was whet the appetite in any of the Labour factions for clarity about what sort of Labour Starmer seeks to lead. It did not spell out his vision of the political economy that he sees as delivering for the families he holds so dear. Not cutting Universal Credit in May is a tactic, it is not a strategy and it is not a vision.
On the Right, Labourites want to see Starmer move his party quickly and ruthlessly to the centre ground on these questions. On the Left (for those who are not simply invested in Starmer’s failure) the desire is to see Corbynism but without either Corbyn or antisemitism. Some members of the frontbench have been making moves to try to add some definition. Louise Haigh, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary – for example – made a splash this week with her celebration of the Good Friday Agreement. This cunningly encompassed both an attack on the current Government’s abandonment of its unionist credentials and a tribute to the achievements of the last Labour Government – to the consternation of some on the Left.
For the leadership, though, there seems to be zero hurry to satisfy or disappoint either side. Keir Starmer is a tantric politician.
As we say, perhaps this is correct in electoral terms. Let the British public become accustomed to you. Don’t frighten the horses. Plough on slowly and surely and bank the little wins when you wrong-foot a shambolic and increasingly ridiculous Government. But for all that, Labour is not pulling decisively ahead – not even when people are dying as a (at least partially) result of Government policy. Bobbing along is survival in that it is not drowning. But bobbing along won’t get you anywhere fast. And there has to be a danger that, once all of this awfulness is behind us, the public look at Labour and its much vaunted ‘new management’ and ask what the positive purpose of voting for them actually is.
Starmer needs to find a way to emerge from the shadows and pull the spotlight to himself and his party. And he has to work furiously to ensure that should that spotlight shine and should he manage to grab our attention that what we see is something purposeful and attractive. Not being rubbish is better than being rubbish, of course. But if you want to be Prime Minister then – usually – you actually have to be good.