When Sir Keir Starmer took on the job of Labour leader in April, it was hard to imagine a more difficult mountain to climb. Not many would envy the herculean tasks of rooting out anti-Semitism, combatting factionalism and overturning a national swing of 7.9%, all while the country faces the biggest public health crisis in a century.
100 days on, a cursory look at the polling suggests Starmer is rising to the challenge. The Labour leader now leads the Prime Minister in some polls, giving Labour’s supporters cause for optimism. However, despite these indications of early success, it is a long road ahead for the Labour Party and Starmer’s leadership.
Successes so far
Starmer vs Johnson: Starmer’s largest success lies in individual leadership compared to Johnson. One could not envision a more different approach to Corbyn’s in taking on the PM, with similarly contrasting results.
Starmer has been happy to take a constructive approach to opposition, sometimes supporting the Government when he felt the right path had been taken. This considered approach has allowed the Government’s shortcomings to expose themselves, without Labour being overly partisan in times of crisis.
With the forced U-turns in areas such as child poverty and the NHS surcharge, it has arguably paid off. It also appears as if Labour will continue to set careful traps in other areas of policy ahead of an inevitable inquiry. This change in approach seems at times to have rocked Johnson in the dispatch box at PMQs.
Personnel and professionalism: Starmer’s new team is a clever one that knows how to work both membership and electorate. The appointment of David Evans as General Secretary will give the leadership a hold on the NEC and the party’s future direction, and he is respected as a campaigner and organiser who can connect with voters. Both him and new Chief of Staff, Morgan McSweeney have significant experience with local Government and believe this is crucial to securing power.
Clare Ainsley is one of Starmer’s most important appointments and will have significant influence in setting the direction of travel for future policy. In her book, The New Working Class, she calls for policies based on values important to the British public, echoing Labour Together’s Election Review which called for policies “rooted in people’s real lives and communities… alongside a robust story of community and national pride.” This has been reflected with the relaunch of Labour Friends of the Armed Forces and Starmer’s renewed focus on patriotic messaging.
Starmer will hope a shrewd team in tune with the public’s needs will give newfound professionalism and direction to the party.
Righting wrongs: Starmer’s first act as leader was to issue an apology to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism within the party and his response to the issue is a key litmus test for his leadership. The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey shows that he has passed his first test with flying colours, being unequivocal in his intolerance of any slip-up. He also ruled out for his frontbench team those who did not sign up to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ 10 Pledges, showing he is taking anti-Semitism seriously.
Another key instance in Starmer’s leadership came in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Having mistakenly reduced the movement to a “moment” he quickly apologised, clarified his position, and announced he would be the first to undertake a programme of anti-bias training. This admission of wrongdoing comes as a stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to apologise for his comments on care homes.
The ability to analyse and criticise himself, plus a zero-tolerance approach to those in his party, may further endear Starmer to the British public in days when they increasingly see little accountability for things that go wrong in Westminster.
Policy direction: Though Starmer was elected on the platform of his ’10 Pledges,’ largely retaining the party’s radical direction of previous years, this has been undermined by the coronavirus pandemic and the Government’s agenda for recovery.
Specific policy announcements have been scarce and there have been internal divisions over school’s policy; the wealth tax, and on the Brexit extension. With Rishi Sunak’s bold recovery programme feeding the Chancellor’s popularity, a clear road map and economic offer for the country should be a priority for Labour.
Internal divisions: Starmer was elected on an offer of unity for the party, but divisions still remain. Some on the party’s left saw Long-Bailey’s sacking and Evans’ appointment as the beginning of a ‘purge’ of the party.
Starmer will have to tread carefully with his response to the outcome of the inquiry into the leaked Labour report on the party’s dealings with anti-Semitism. This response is a key test for how Starmer will handle internal divisions and a wrong move risks stoking the factionalism that has held the party back in recent years.
Messaging and branding: As Labour’s policy positions become clear the messaging around them must also be consistent. Recent messaging around the economic recovery seemed rather confused: ‘Build back better’ and a ‘back to work budget’ both appeared as slogans without one clear message cutting through.
Starmer will also have to work on building his personal profile and branding. Given the Prime Minister’s influence over the public through his boisterous, if divisive, persona, and the rise in popularity of the Chancellor, Starmer will have to find his own ways to engage and excite the public.
Starmer has seen tangible successes through Government U-turns and recent polling, but Labour is still behind on perceptions of economic confidence and alignment with social values as the Government lays out its bold offer to the country in recovery. Laying out clearly their offer for the country, tightening their messaging, and ensuring the party is unified behind these aims should be the next priorities for Starmer and his team in the next 100 days.