Keir Starmer is more likely than most people in Britain to be prime minister, but the odds are still stacked against him. Most opposition leaders fail to reach Downing Street. The ones who make it tend to start with more than 197 MPs. That will be Labour’s tally if, as widely expected, the party loses the Batley and Spen byelection on Thursday.
Starmer’s route to No 10 is arduous by any historical measure. He has to repair a fractured electoral coalition or discover a new one. He needs a message that works in heartland seats lost to Boris Johnson in 2019 and also in places that have been Tory since 2005 or longer, while simultaneously unseating Scottish Nationalists. He has less than three years; probably two. It would be easier to imagine him completing that mission if he wasn’t going backwards.
The leader’s allies caution against extrapolating any national lessons from Batley and Spen, which is an unusually fractious contest. The normal electoral calculus has been thrown off by George Galloway, a practised electoral carpetbagger, who arrived with the explicit purpose of undermining Starmer’s authority. But vulnerability to sabotage is not much of a defence. If Labour looked like a party on the up-and-up, an opportunist such as Galloway would not have fancied his chances. Vultures are drawn to carrion.
Batley and Spen is different to Hartlepool, the formerly safe Labour seat that swung hard to the Tories in May; and both are different to Chesham and Amersham, the Tory seat that went Liberal Democrat two weeks ago. The dots are not easily joined, except as a sequence of Labour excuses, which is not the traditional prelude to general election triumph. MPs and activists report deep malaise. The party brand is broken, they say. Voters are either unable to say what Labour stands for or are persuaded it stands for people not like them.
That is the accumulation of sour smells emitted under a succession of leaders (or pumped towards the electorate by Tory campaigns). It is the feeling that Labour wastes other people’s money; that it conspired against Brexit and sneers at leavers; that it is embarrassed by the opinions of people whose votes it nonetheless expects as some kind of historical tribute. Most worrying, say veteran MPs, is the absence of any argument on the doorstep. The hot disappointment expressed over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership indicated at least a flame to be rekindled. Now they find cold ashes of contempt.
Starmer is not the cause of those problems, but there is a vagueness about him that doesn’t help. The dominance of pandemic news explains why the opposition leader has not been heard, but not why he has so little to say. There have been speeches that no one hears, but those of us who do seek them out for clues about Labour’s direction are not better informed.
Even to an attentive audience, Starmer has nothing memorable to say. His boldest action was probably withdrawing the whip from Corbyn after the former leader refused to apologise for belittling the scale of antisemitism in Labour. The subsequent backlash cowed him into a mistrustful truce with the left. That disappoints the rival faction that hoped the exile of Corbyn heralded a purge of Corbynism.
Starmer did nothing to cultivate that expectation in the leadership contest. His unofficial campaign slogan was “unity in ambiguity”. He criticised the 2019 manifesto for offering too much policy, but would not say which parts should have been discarded. It was a shrewd way to secure a mandate from a membership that was substantially recruited under Corbyn. But it implied an oath of continuity that no incoming leader should swear to a predecessor, least of all one who led the party to historic defeat.
Starmer is stranded somewhere between his party’s romantic attachment to its recent past and the urgent electoral requirement to prove that Labour has changed. Beneath that dilemma lies a repressed and more fundamental disagreement between those who would reluctantly dilute radical socialism because voters don’t like it, and those who reject it as wrong in principle. Is the plan to reform capitalism or abolish it? Should Labour even have a leftmost boundary, keeping out Marxist revolutionaries and people who defend terrorism on the grounds that imperialism is worse?
That is a fight the party’s moderates should have had when they tried to unseat Corbyn in the summer of 2016. Instead, Owen Smith trouped from hustings to hustings largely agreeing with the man he claimed was unfit to be prime minister. The result of that bungled challenge, fortifying the incumbent, is well remembered across the party. It is a reason there is unlikely to be a challenge to Starmer in the aftermath of another byelection defeat, despite whispered threats.
There is a shortage of compelling alternatives. Starmer’s popularity ratings have taken a knock since the end of last year, but he still has more prime ministerial bearing than anyone else on the Labour frontbench. And there are always available fantasies of a sudden change in the political weather. Boris Johnson’s leadership looks scandal-proof right now, but he might be one vast public abomination away from implosion. There are economic headwinds that could blow the Tories off course, and divisions that might plunge the government into civil war, thereby allowing Labour to defer its own internal reckonings.
But that leaves Starmer a prisoner of strategic caution. He is always tacitly negotiating his positions with the passionate minority that has strong views on what it means to be true to the left, and taking his eye off the voters who don’t care. He is addressing the country with his back turned so he can still face the party. That is the price he pays for making unity the purpose of his candidacy to lead. Labour unity is not a principle that means anything to most of the public. And its value decays to nothing when there is confusion over what everyone is supposed to unite around.
The likely trajectory is a purgatory of semi-loyalty, with disappointed MPs complaining about the direction but not offering any alternatives. Of course, the last thing the Labour leader wants is a challenge. The road to Downing Street is hard enough without stopping to fight the party along the way. Then again, that is one detour successful opposition leaders have found themselves taking. And without such a battle, Starmer seems condemned to be voiceless. Unless some crisis comes along that forces him to say aloud what he really believes, it isn’t clear how else we are supposed to know.