international analysis and commentary

How the Labour leader struggles to capitalize on Boris Johnson’s Conservative party’s disarray

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After months of speculation and scandal, Boris Johnson has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. While he hopes to continue as prime minister until the autumn, the fact is inescapable: the Boris Johnson era is all but over.

 

Read also: The World According to Winston, sorry Boris

 

For the Labour opposition in the UK this is a golden opportunity. Yet for all of prime minister Boris Johnson’s problems, there is still a question mark over Keir Starmer’s own leadership credentials. The RMT trade union leader Mick Lynch has urged Starmer to “think about where the Labour Party is going.” “He’s got to come out with some policies that show he’s on the side of working people,” Lynch said on Sky News on 19 June 2022.

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer

 

For Keir Starmer to make a cut through, he needs more than integrity and competence – he would need an inspiring plan. There are important and urgent topics to address, including climate change and charting the economic road map post-pandemic and countering the cost-of-living crisis. But whether Starmer can forge a new consensus, and find a new political settlement, depends on whether a significant number of voters rate good governance and leadership above politics as entertainment.

On 24 June 2022 Labour won back Wakefield – a “red wall” seat in Yorkshire which it held between 1932 and 2019 – with a 12.7 percentage point swing on a 39% turnout. That was the first Labour by-election gain from the Conservatives since 2012 and if the same swing were replicated at a general election, the party would win a majority.

The Liberal Democrats won Tiverton and Honiton with a staggering 29.9 percentage point swing from the Tories on a 52% turnout. In a scathing speech directed straight at the Prime Minister, winning candidate Richard Foord said that “everyday Boris Johnson clings to office he brings further shame, chaos and neglect,” adding that he is “unfit to lead,” before urging him to resign. Foord now sits on a comfortable 6,144 majority. This is the third shock by-election defeat for the Tories at the hands of the Liberal Democrats during the past 12 months, following Chesham and Amersham (16,223 majority) June 2021 and North Shropshire (22,949 majority) in December 2021.

Keir Starmer is a decent person but is unable to communicate clearly enough to the electorate about Labour’s programme and vision for government. He is hampered by the reality of a very hostile Tory supporting media which will attack every Labour policy no matter how well thought out and practical in helping reverse Britain’s decline. For today’s social media-driven environment, Starmer has a very wooden personality or is seen as ‘boring’ as the right-wing media has labelled him. In fact, he comes across as the competent lawyer which was his professional career but not as a politician. Starmer is often indecisive and lacks a clear political philosophy of his own. Some fear he lacks the common touch and the charisma to win over the public.

Personality aside, Starmer has made some serious mistakes in policy, such as the Labour party’s recent self-imposed silence on Brexit. This amounted to nothing other than a betrayal of those who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 and renders hollow any claim that Labour is looking to govern for the whole country. Brexit is not going well. A YouGov poll in May found just 17% were prepared to say it was. Sixty-seven percent of voters and 48% of Leave voters think that Brexit has increased their living costs, while almost no one thinks it has improved living standards. Just 28% of voters (40% of Leavers) think Brexit is actually “done” as the Conservatives promised it would be at the last election.

On 4 July 2022, in a speech at the Irish Embassy in London, Starmer put forward his own three-word slogan “Make Brexit work”. Labour’s exact arguments remain, to say the least, vague. Keir Starmer clarified that a future Labour government would not return to the EU or re-enter the single market or customs union. It was as clear and unambiguous as such a pledge can be. But Labour, like the Conservatives, does not have a strategy for Brexit. A strategy would require a focus on new sources of economic growth to compensate for the fall in trade. The rationale of this policy seems to be to appease the Brexiteers by sticking with the status quo of the calamitous reality of Brexit.

Making Brexit work would mean making Brexit less damaging. There is plenty of evidence that former remainer and leaver voters are starting to identify Brexit as a cause of some of their economic problems and as something that is personally affecting them. Starmer’s speech was very light on detail how to improve relations with the EU which means first building constructive dialogue and trust. It lacked a vision, coherence and any more developed UK-EU strategy necessary for a productive partnership.

 

Read also: Britain’s new relationship with the EU: politics of resentment

 

The only chance of Starmer heading the next government is through tactical voting with mainly the Liberal Democrats. The problem the two opposition parties may encounter is that the UK electorate may not be convinced by any of the parties. Integrity and competence are not enough to activate a disillusioned voter base. Starmer and the Labour party need to call out the damaged Conservative government for their untruths and incompetence and be willing to fight hard and have a clear plan of action for government.

In contrast, Mick Lynch, secretary general of the RMT, has emerged from the left as a media communicator par excellence. He has been very effective in interviews with the TV media which is generally hostile to trade unions and taken to task conservative politicians because his key messages about his members’ needs have been very clearly delivered. Lynch has succeeded where Keir Starmer has struggled to communicate Labour policies to the electorate in a convincing and self-assured manner.

The actual achievements of Johnson’s government are limited. Brexit has not been a success, the Covid strategy of the government was confused and had some of the worst outcomes for the economy and one of the highest death rates among the leading developed countries. The union of the United Kingdom is in worse shape than ever with a lack of trust and the feeling that the perceived English populist nationalist government does not really care about Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales where the Conservatives are not in power.

Starmer has suggested after the Wakefield by-election that Labour has now claimed the centre ground and has shown it can win. That reading has a whiff of naivety and wishful thinking about it. Probably the Liberal Democrats would be considered more of a centre party than Labour. Starmer must be aware that the only way he can win the next general election is by having an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats who could gain enough seats to make them a viable coalition government partner.

Keir Starmer’s attempt to distance Labour from the UK rail strikes in June 2022 ran into difficulty after several junior shadow ministers and the party’s leader in Scotland defied his edict to stay away from picket lines. There seems to be a clear lack of political intelligence on his part. The strike has been caused by conservative mismanagement of the economy. The Bank of England has contrived over a long period of time to keep interest rates low to boast asset prices which benefits capital owners. This is a missed opportunity by Labour to ally themselves to most of the populace that is suffering with low wage growth and the cost-of-living crisis.

Starmer seems unable to communicate in an authenticate manner and clearly enough with people through the TV media. He is not showing sharp political rhetorical skills in debate or in interviews. Four out of ten Labour supporters say they do not know what Keir Starmer stands for, according to an Ipsos poll for the Evening Standard, as he comes under growing pressure to lay out his vision for Britain. Among the wider public the figure rises to 53 percent, which compares to 38 percent for ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband in April 2015 and 51 percent in August 2013.

Starmer’s prevarication over supporting trade union actions is due to his advisers’ fear that a summer of industrial unrest may be blamed on Labour. Starmer has yet to present a coherent strategy on the economic and political problems faced by the UK or indeed any substantial domestic policy.