Why isn’t Starmer 20 points ahead?

4 March 2021

Tony Blair on the Radio 4 Today programme on November 11 in 2017 said that Labour should be much further ahead in the opinion polls, suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn was not capitalising on the problems facing the government.

The two latest polls this week show Labour is either 7 or 8 percentage points behind the Tories. This is under Keir Starmer, who Blair totally supports.

We have had over 130,000 deaths, the highest in Europe and the worst economic decline of the main industrial nations. A majority still thinks the Tories have mishandled the pandemic and there is growing unease about the practical impact of Brexit. Individuals are already losing out with online purchases, TV streaming abroad and loss of free movement. Businesses are suffering from increased non-tariff barriers to trade.

Starmer has generally had a positive presence in the mainstream media with praise for him being ‘Sir anti-Corbyn’ and being calm and forensic in his constructive opposition to the government. He has total control of the party’s leadership structures, removed the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, accepted all the positions on antisemitism of the Jewish Board of Deputies, suspended many local left leaders and prevented a democratic selection of Labour’s candidate for the Liverpool Mayor, barring three experienced women in the process.

Big and smaller business has been assiduously courted. More and more flags have been displayed whenever he speaks. Britain, British and our nation are words that saturate all official statements. And yet… he is still trailing by a significant margin and is further behind when it comes to being Prime Minister and having economic competence. Even people within his leadership faction are showing signs of unease. What has gone wrong? Here are five reasons why:

1. How Labour has responded to the pandemic

Many pundits have suggested correctly that Johnson is currently benefiting from a vaccine bounce. Clearly, the vaccine rollout based on NHS structures supplemented by volunteers has been a success – the only thing it has not got wrong. Even the German press has been looking enviously at the data on vaccination rates. Although Kate Bingham, the leader of the programme, is another Tory chum, on the law of averages some of them have to be half competent. Her decision to source a wide range and be lucky enough to have two that got the first approval meant Britain did get a head start. Once you also mobilise the NHS and the huge goodwill of volunteers then you can be successful. After over a year of off and on lockdowns and so many of our family, friends and neighbours hit, sometimes fatally, it is entirely natural and human for people to feel better about things.

However, this reaction might have been very different if Starmer and his team had gone on the offensive from the beginning about the complacency, mismanagement and sheer callousness of the Tories. They should have stood up to their murderous ‘herd immunity’ strategy, their lack of concern about the lack of PPE for front line staff and their refusal to shut down early enough because it was going to affect their business friends. The starting point for a Labour opposition should have been to recognise that austerity and class inequality meant that the pandemic did not hit everybody equally. Working-class Black, women and disabled people were significantly more affected. We were not all in this together. People were infecting others because taking time off work was too costly with the lowest sick pay rates in Europe and incredible bureaucratic obstacles to receiving the government’s additional payments. Labour took up the paltry and patchy support for those isolating much too late.

The uplift to Universal Credit excluded those, particularly large numbers of disabled people, who have not transferred to that benefit and does not anyway compensate for the increase in the cost of living, that the poorest, especially those who have been homeschooling have been experiencing during the pandemic. The Labour line parroted by the whole front bench was constructive opposition. It was always focussed on competency rather than attacking the political and class basis of the disastrous government policies which have deepened existing inequalities.

The Labour line parroted by the whole front bench was constructive opposition. It was always focussed on competency rather than attacking the political and class basis of the disastrous government policies which have deepened existing inequalities.

The opposition basically bought into the Tory narrative of a Chinese pandemic that came out of nowhere that was completely new and very hard for governments to deal with. They ignored the warnings of environmentalists that devastating zoonoses are an inevitable result of our broken relationship with the rest of the natural world through industrial agriculture, destruction of biodiversity, trade in wild animals and the massive expansion of air travel.

The response of the Tories has been to hobble from one crisis to the next, covering their errors by invoking the idea of a national crisis with a national effort to overcome it. So Starmer’s timid criticisms were lost in people accepting the national effort epitomised by Captain Tom walking up and down his garden to raise money to help the NHS. No wonder it is easy for Johnson to benefit from a vaccine bounce, people are not going to remember and understand the reasons behind the huge death toll and chaotic management if the official opposition never made any effort to explain them.

The latest poll still shows people are critical of the Tories overall handling of the pandemic but have given a majority thumbs up to the roadmap out of lockdown. Since there has been little hard political opposition to the Johnson government, it is not surprising that this majority disapproval does not translate into majority support for a Starmer government. More worrying the momentum now appears to be shifting so the earlier unease is smothered by many of us getting vaccinated and the prospects of meeting family and going on holiday again.

Labour even managed to antagonise one of its natural constituencies by refusing to properly support the teachers when they forced Johnson into a U turn over opening the schools before the current lockdown started. Starmer kept going on and on about the priority of getting students into schools despite evidence that the infections had gone up with schools being open. Teachers are exactly the sort of demographic that would be attracted away from Labour to the Greens or Lib Dems.

2. Labour’s partnership with business does not automatically win more votes

Anneliese Dodds made a major speech extolling Labour’s support for business, how working with business will bring social progress. It was supposed to signal a break with Corbyn’s more critical approach. In fact, the official policy led by John McDonnell defined this partnership to some degree in similar terms. Labour should not go on the attack against the corner shop, hairdresser or plumber. It needs to make clear that it is for structural change which means challenging big economic operators that really control our society – Amazon, the Murdoch media, Tesco or JCB. The undifferentiated notion of business presented by Dodds fails to identify the systematic nature of capitalist relations; the way big business is always trying to drive down costs in order to create more surplus value. Many of the current industrial disputes are about fire and rehire policies. So you cannot just idealise a partnership with all business. This approach has been exposed by the debate on raising taxes in this week’s Budget.

Rushi Sunak leaked that corporation tax – one of the lowest in Europe – may be raised and that tax threshold is frozen. Labour immediately said they were opposed. Following vigorous dissent inside Labour, including from his own team, this was been modified with Dodds envisaging the possibility of raising corporation tax during this parliament. The Tories will raise taxes, not for redistribution but to pay off the deficit and to help the restructuring of capitalist business in the recovery. Even traditional Labour held onto the idea that you need to raise taxes to change things for the many. Starmer’s team is even dropping this baggage.

It is unclear how this approach will win back the perception that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy. It looks like Labour is not interested in finding money to pay for all the furloughing and other costs. Most people at the moment actually agree with increasing taxes on the rich and on business so how can opposing tax increases win you more support today. Do the working class in red wall seats disagree particularly with this? It has come to a sorry state when Labour puts out official propaganda quoting the ‘independent IMF’ as being against increasing taxes. When has the IMF ever been independent or on the side of working people?

3. Retreating from radical policies can lose votes

In its dash to embrace what it considers to be the views of so called ‘red wall’ voters who left it for Brexit Labour has retreated on a number of policies that it thinks does not run well with this demographic. So John Healy made a big speech about increasing military spending and having a non-negotiable position on Trident and nuclear disarmament. This takes him to the right of the multilateral disarmament line that is Labour official policy. At the same time, the ambitious Green New Deal has been pared back. Not voting against the spycops bill and the immunity for soldiers war crimes are other backwards moves to appeal to what is seen as red wall views.

It is no surprise that we are seeing a Green party rally as polls give them consistently 4 to 5% of the vote. Many Labour activists are voting with their feet and leaving or putting their activism into cold storage.

It is far from clear that pro-nuclear war and pro-militarist sentiments animate the hearts and minds of the majority of people in those red wall constituencies. Such retreats lose Labour votes among other demographics – particularly younger voters. It is no surprise that we are seeing a Green party rally as polls give them consistently 4 to 5% of the vote. Many Labour activists are voting with their feet and leaving or putting their activism into cold storage.

Some on the Labour left argue that Starmer should not attack the left so much because it makes it harder for him to win elections since their base is very active. Owen Jones makes this argument and suggests Biden in the US and Sanchez in the Spanish state have achieved more by bringing the left into coalition. He forgets how Biden’s Democratic Party apparatus helped defeat Saunders and the left do not really have much influence in his team. At the same time, Podemos has moved to the right to become a junior partner and left cover for Sanchez. Having fewer feet on the ground is not necessarily a problem for Starmer since Labour has won before with a hollowed-out party(cf. Blair). Nevertheless, it can have some effect on polls and votes if you have a lot fewer people staffing the phone banks or canvassing at the May elections.

4. Stopping all criticism of Brexit won’t win back the ‘red wall’

The order has gone out from Starmer not to mention Brexit. Even a few months ago Starmer gave support to free movement and further back he was a key Labour remainer. His success in the leadership election was partly down to his remainer credentials. As it has been with Labour in the past, this new position will lose its support among remainers and not necessarily win him back the ex-Labour Brexit voters. The way in which Johnson is also using the vaccine to tout British expertise and sovereignty against the errors made by the EU is likely to trump anything Starmer is going to come up with at the moment.

There is an opportunity to win support for Labour by going full out on the practical consequences of Brexit that are emerging more openly every day: businesses forced to lose ‘sovereignty’ by setting up warehouses and bases in Europe to avoid the new red tape and additional costs; the impact on language students studying for a year in Europe and the practical problems for holidaymakers with mobiles and TV streaming –just to list a few. It is very short-sighted because this process is not going to disappear anytime soon, the slowdown of the pandemic is masking its real impact at the moment.

5. Who would you rather have a drink with? Boris vs Kier

It was never very obvious why replacing a north London campaigning leader with a north London barrister and remainer was a masterstroke to win back the working-class voters who switched to the Tories in the last election. At least Corbyn had a bit of a record in supporting working class action like the miners strikes that actually affected such areas. Unfortunately, given how the political narrative is constructed these days, your personal profile does make a difference – unless of course you try and change the forms of politics itself which Corbyn had begun to do. In an interesting article in the New Statesman, Why is Johnson getting away with failure? Martin Fletcher writes:

He certainly possesses some rare skills for a politician. He is larger than life. He has the common touch. He is colourful, charismatic and has a compelling turn of phrase. He is a political chameleon who effortlessly sheds past positions and adopts new ones as the need arises. He is cunning, ruthless and evasive, but he also enjoys what is arguably the single greatest attribute of a successful politician: luck.

Of course in the celebrity/personality media world where politics lives today, these aspects are magnified and if the opposition in front of you is just considered and constructive you can get away with playing to the gallery. Yes, it does not sound like profound analysis but choosing who you might share a drink which is the way a lot of less politicised people (i.e. the majority) look at the world. On this score, Kier does come across as wooden and a bit boring. Boris may be responsible for many needless deaths but he does everything with colour and so incredibly people seem to accept he is human, makes mistakes like us all and gives him some slack. If you add in the way historically a good number of working people have related positively to Bertie Wooster types like Johnson then it is easier to understand how he keeps his ratings whatever happens.

Build a left opposition

Finally, the latest polls do not mean it is impossible for Starmer and his team to recover and even win a moderate Labour government. Covid is not yet over, a public inquiry might change public opinion. Brexit and the economic crisis are both minefields for the Tories. At the same time, the Labour left needs to understand that just having more radical policies than Starmer will not guarantee victory, as we saw in the last two elections.

The disquiet and doubts about Starmer’s leadership do however provide some openings for the left inside Labour. Dodds’ latest shift on corporation tax was surely influenced by internal dissent. Corbyn’s Peace and Progress Project and other left initiatives like the recall conference campaign could still consolidate a substantial activist base. As long as this base draws the lessons of Corbyn’s defeat and builds as much outside as inside the party, Starmer will not have it all his own way. The courts ruled against one of the staff accused of allegedly sabotaging Corbyn’s leadership being given access to the so-called leakers.

Overriding the membership in Liverpool over the Mayoral candidate could backfire on the leadership and there is still the issue of what to do about Corbyn. If he still does not have the whip by the time the general election comes around there is the thorny question of who is the candidate in Islington North.

Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

Join the discussion