Labour’s problem

In its current state, Labour appears to be a party in turmoil, constantly being pulled in either direction by the centre- and further-left factions of their members

Sir Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn represent two distinct sides to the Labour Party. Photo by Getty Images.

— 4 minute read — by Will Jones

Perhaps Labour is a victim of the short-term memory of the politically disengaged; no doubt the Conservatives’ pandemic failings have been swept under the rug of the newly renovated Downing Street flat by the tremendous vaccination programme. Or, more harshly, maybe the opposition are failing to capitalise on one of the worst cabinets in history.

In Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party had a leader that closely aligned with their core values: social justice, community, reward for hard work, decency, and rights matched by responsibilities. Whilst he proved popular with the people that believed in his vision for a society that worked ‘for the many, not the few’, it became clear that this was not a vision that the population wanted to actualise.

Within the echo-chamber of these supporters though, Corbyn came to embody these values so wholly that he somewhat became the Labour Party itself. Thus, when he left the leadership position in Spring 2020, many felt he metaphorically took those values with him. These same supporters have emphasised their lack of satisfaction with his successor – Sir Keir Starmer – who they would argue doesn’t exhibit the key elements of Labour that Corbyn demonstrated.

What is Keir Starmer up to over a Brexit extension?
The current Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer. Photo by Getty Images.

The lack of success for Labour in recent years arguably resides in a division within the party. Whilst one set of members want the party to follow the Corbyn vision and retain their socialist values, others want to alter their image, adopting more centrist policies in a bid to win back the voters lost in 2019’s general election. Following an investigation into anti-Semitism within the party, Corbyn’s suspension from Labour at the hands of Starmer makes it abundantly clear what path the latter is to follow. As the intra-conflict plays out in the tabloids and broadsheets, the two-dimensional face of the party has made it difficult for Starmer to put his stamp on Labour. Whilst a course of action is necessary, it appears as though it hasn’t even been plotted yet.

In last month’s local elections, Labour experienced major losses in previously ‘Red Wall’ areas. The Tories received approximately 12,000 votes in Hartlepool when Britain went to the polls in December 2019, and more than 15,000 in this week’s byelection – continuing the wave of Conservative gains in predominately working-class areas. The Conservative victory in Hartlepool was significant; Jill Mortimer won a seat that, since its creation in 1974, had been in Labour hands. A winning margin of 23 percent was also alarming.

Naturally, people don’t always vote for the same party, but the volume of the populace that are casting their vote for the Conservative Party in Labour strongholds is enough to call into question the validity of Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership. The problem clearly extends beyond the marmite character of Jeremy Corbyn.

Council results by English region - the Greens have gained everywhere and Labour have lost everywhere. The Conservatives have gained everywhere other than the South East
Labour lost a significant number of council seats across England. Graphic by BBC.

It is also worth noting that the official opposition tend to perform well in mid-term elections. People frequently vote against the incumbent government as a means of showing distaste towards the work of their current term. Let us be frank – in the May elections there was considerable ammunition to attack Johnson’s Conservative Party, yet it remains as unused as the Trident missile system.

Instead, Labour have seen gains in the suburban south-east, where the cost of living tends to be higher and employment figures tower in comparison to the north. Despite losing seats to the Green Party, Labour are still favoured by – for want of a better description – the middle-class, suburban left. This is where Corbyn supporters will attack Starmer; what truly remains of Labour’s roots and ethos if they’ve lost working-class backing and, instead, more closely appeal to the above?

The places where Labour recorded important victories were seats that had very little to do with Keir Starmer. In Wales, Mark Drakeford – whose notoriety has soared during the pandemic – led Welsh Labour to a resounding win. Similarly in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham’s personable and affective approach to governing saw him reinstated as the city region’s mayor. These examples serve to show what Labour can do when in power, but perhaps indicate that whilst individual Labour politicians prove popular in their respective localities, Starmer’s leadership is yet to resonate with vast swathes of the population.

Andy Burnham hints at third Labour leadership bid | News | The Times
Andy Burnham has become a popular figure in the Labour Party, not just in Manchester. Photo by Reuters.

Starmer supporters would argue that the lack of instant success is the result of pro-Corbyn MPs and members not backing the aims of their current leader. In retaliation, Corbyn supporters would argue that the aims of Starmer are so bland, generic and un-Labour that they encompass almost everyone, but directly appeal to no-one.

Whilst the national crisis scenario of the pandemic has hampered Starmer’s ability to oppose the government, his opposition to their “sleaze” has been fairly gentle. When he does attack the government, it rarely manages to penetrate the public conscience.

Instead, staying silent on issues that Corbynites are vocal about – such as trans rights – has disillusioned the left. Calling the Black Lives Matter protests “a moment”, in so doing dismissing the campaign’s importance, also frustrated members. Starmer probably recognises that these are issues that have to be dropped from the immediate agenda if Labour are to win back in their heartlands; although people aren’t necessarily anti-woke, the majority of the population put less emphasis on these issues than the Twitter discourse would have you believe. When you have an electoral mountain to climb, it is natural that some Corbyn-era stances will be sacrificed – politically for the better, socially (probably) for the worse.

The disappointing May results could be the wake-up call Sir Keir needs. His first major appearance on Life Stories with Piers Morgan was well received. He broke down when speaking about the death of his mum and exhibited a good-humoured nature throughout the interview. For a politician that has been criticised for his lack of tenacity, this appearance will have transported him into a more personable realm.

Keir Starmer opens up about troubled relationship with father in emotional Piers  Morgan interview | Evening Standard
Starmer has been praised for his appearance on Life Stories with Piers Morgan. Photo by ITV.

Even though Johnson has garnered a bizarre cult of personality, the next general election is scheduled for 2024, so Starmer has time to overturn the deficit and break the illusion that the former is a natural leader doing the best for his country. A united Labour under a Keir Starmer that reflects on the failings of his first year in charge, still has time to become a real political force – if intra-party conflict doesn’t sabotage that too.