Being Leader of the Opposition is a thankless task in many ways. Critical to success is convincing the country that you and your team are, in effect, a government in waiting. Setting aside personal style and concentrating on substance, Keir Starmer will struggle to transform his credibility until he forces himself to take clear and coherent positions on the key issues facing the country. Four stand out:
The EU. Labour strategists are seemingly petrified and paralysed by the issue of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Starmer’s approach to Brexit is borderline farcical. His only notable speech to business in recent months was at the CBI annual conference. Yet although he spoke for 30 minutes, he ducked the ‘B’ word. Along with his party in parliament, bar the socialist refusniks, he believes in closer alignment, but does not articulate this position. Which is either cunning, cowardice or duplicity. Ultimately, the issue will be trip-wire for him, since he cannot run away from it (and interviews about it) without falling flat on his face. His pollsters may calculate that the clearer his position, the more votes he may cede. However, the reverse is also the case: the weaker his policy position, the weaker his leadership credentials – reinforcing a popular and unflattering perception of him as a politician.
Immigration. This issue is sensitive, and often confuses the economics of migration with the human rights issue of asylum. Blurring the distinction is unhelpful. Starmer is not adding much clarity to the debate. Instead, he is highlighting the operational challenges that come from high levels of demand to resettle in the UK. (Which in and of itself is an interesting fact.) Just as with Brexit, he is avoiding the fundamental issues and fudging policy. On the one hand, he is not supporting the Government’s deterrence strategy (a better name for the ‘Rwanda plan’) and is failing to offer an alternative. On the other, he is very detail-light about the optimum level and skills the country should attract from abroad. He prefers to indulge in denial and play to the unions, rather than address the case that countries can benefit from attracting international labour to raise productivity in the private and public sectors. It is intellectually and politically disappointing, and again smacks of timidity.
Economic Policy. The consolidation in the Autumn Statement presents Starmer with a headache. The UK balance sheet demands some detailed decision-making about how the public sector will be managed over the next parliament. The Labour leader hasn’t been forthcoming yet. Furthermore, he has not yet shown himself to be comfortable with economic policy. The polls show voter scepticism about Labour on the economy. And despite the tumult following the ‘mini-Budget’, voters do not distinguish between the capability of the Conservative and Labour Party ‘to grow the economy’. This damns Starmer and his team. Labour’s economic policy so far includes some semi-plausible fiscal rules and generic claims about value for money. Plus a few Old Labour totems on tax – such as scrapping VAT relief for schools that do not take taxpayers’ money. At best, it is incomplete. In reality, it reveals a growing trend to duck positions on crucial policy issues.
Labour Relations. So far, Starmer has been able to avoid the full glare of the political spotlight on this sensitive matter. Once again, he prefers to address points of process. His policy is to claim that trades unions would not strike but would negotiate if Labour was in power. He has been helped by the fact that popular professions are striking – i.e: nurses, alongside the usual suspects at the rail unions. However, he seems intent on avoiding direct confrontation with the union bosses and has retreated from a row with Mick Lynch and his RMT cronies. His stance has been one of concession. His handling of the key players and policies has been meek and served to remind voters of his remoteness from economic policy.
As Starmer seeks guidance from Peter Mandelson and Tony Bair on how to run Labour in Opposition, he cannot avoid the glaring truth that the latter had a vision and determination to change his party and Britain. This was displayed by his ‘Clause 4’ moment in changing Labour’s constitution, and ran through his policy commitments, such as being pro-National Minimum Wage; pro-EU Social Chapter; pro-devolution; pro a Bill of Rights; and, in effect, anti-Euro. (Although this last policy is a moot point, and appears to have been Gordon Brown-led.)
Trying to mothball a tricky issue is not uncommon, but repeating the tactic on key issues is revealing. It points to a lack of self-confidence and weakness in terms of political strategy and leadership. For Starmer, soundbites will have diminishing returns unless accompanied by substance. Thomas Jefferson said of leadership that ‘in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.’ Defining what he stands for is critical for Sir Keir. He cannot overturn the political avalanche of 2019 by ducking the big issues of this decade. Unless he can make a step-change in 2023/24, these weaknesses in his leadership will be detected and rejected by voters and exploited by his opponents inside and outside the Party.