The Guardian view on Starmer’s Labour: time to take on the Tories

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<span>Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Britons usually eat more than 10m turkeys during the festive season. If the country were to run short of the yuletide bird then that may be the crisis to crystallise for voters Boris Johnson’s leading role in letting down the public. Mr Johnson has gone to extraordinary lengths to deny his complicity in failure. Yet his fingerprints are all over recent upheavals: the panic buying of petrol, the empty supermarket shelves, working people facing steep cuts in benefits. Leaving the EU has allowed the government to make mistakes and Mr Johnson has embraced this freedom with gusto. During Covid, British lorry drivers failed to get the message about a Brexit dividend of wage hikes and left their jobs. Ministers have been forced to ask European workers to make up the shortfall and save Christmas for the country that claimed it no longer needed them.

No one ought to believe an inveterate liar. The fact that many Labour voters who backed Mr Johnson still give him the benefit of the doubt lies at the heart of Sir Keir Starmer’s electoral problem. The prime minister dodged the blame for his catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic by spinning it as a story of vaccine success. In a crisis, there are two narratives in play at the same time. One is that a country is about to go off the rails. The other, Mr Johnson’s preferred oratorical territory, is that this is an opportunity to wake up a nation’s potential.

Labour’s conundrum can be encapsulated in its educational divide. The party holds a majority of the constituencies with both the most and the least graduates. A market exists for a stinging critique of Mr Johnson’s competence but also for Mr Johnson’s claim to fight against an establishment that has let the country down. Sir Keir needs a message that is both combative and hopeful. The prime minister’s lexicon, such as “levelling up”, is designed to ​​facilitate claims of political success not deal with the real challenges. Overlaying a map that showed communities with the lowest healthy life expectancies with one highlighting the borders of the “red wall” would find they aligned closely in 2019. It seems that will still be the case when the next election comes.

Sir Keir has a short window to pin responsibility for the overlapping crises of the pandemic, the economy, social justice and the climate on to Mr Johnson. That will require an analysis of why the economic model shaped by Mr Johnson and his predecessors is in deep trouble. The Labour leader has dusted off some crowd-pleasing policies from the past, such as ending tax breaks for private schools. But Sir Keir seems unwilling to see the pandemic as a political turning point. This decision may be a costly mistake. Having conference delegates vote for public ownership of energy companies hours after Sir Keir said he would not bodes ill for his leadership. Sir Keir’s writ does not extend to his ambitious deputy, Angela Rayner, who attacked Mr Johnson in terms that the Labour leader was uncomfortable with but unable to do anything about. He has begun his week looking like a king without a court, at odds with leading figures on the left such as Ed Miliband on nationalisation and those on the right such as Rachel Reeves on the issue of taxation.

Covid has denied Sir Keir opportunities to connect with voters. The Labour leader has not helped himself by wasting time by fighting, and losing, an internal battle over how the next leader is elected. Labour faces existential implications if it suffers a historic fifth election defeat. Sir Keir must know that more is at stake than just his own leadership this week.

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