You have to hand it to the anonymous Conservative MP for a “red wall” seat who told The Times: “There is concern among colleagues that if we win Hartlepool, Starmer might quit – and that would be a shame for us.” That is high grade psychological warfare.
It goes against conventional expectations management, which would be to play down the Tories’ chances in the elections on Thursday. Simone Finn, the No 10 deputy chief of staff, for example, told a meeting of political advisers on Friday that the Tory candidate was unlikely to win the Hartlepool by-election. “Not all in the audience were convinced,” reported Katy Balls of The Spectator, and “others said it was demotivating”.
How much cleverer to play on Labour’s fears that Keir Starmer is not quite the vote-winner they hoped. Labour members had had enough of a vote-loser who made them feel good about themselves, so they were prepared to put up with a technocrat in a suit as long as he delivered the votes. But if he fails to deliver, what has the party got left?
The prospects for Labour are not great. They could well lose Hartlepool, fail to win the West Midlands mayoralty and stay in third place behind the Scottish National Party and the Tories in Scotland. A new analysis by Patrick English of YouGov suggests Labour is likely to lose local council seats to the Tories all over the north and Midlands. The party may even lose control of the Welsh government. Labour may make sweeping gains in local elections across the south of England, but those would be a poor consolation for losing more of the working-class Leave areas known as the red wall – a trend that Starmer made it his mission to reverse.
In national opinion polls, Labour does not look like a government in waiting. Some partisans revived old jokes about “I’ll wait for Survation” when a poll from the company last night put the Tories just one point ahead of Labour, but that was just one poll. Two other polls carried out at the same time, by Number Cruncher Politics and YouGov, put the Tories nine and 11 points ahead respectively.
No, the polls are not “all over the place”: they show random sample variation. The rough rule for polls is that you would expect the vote shares of the main parties to be within three percentage points of the underlying figure 95 per cent of the time. That means that one poll in 20 might be further away, but in fact both YouGov’s 11-point lead and Survation’s one-point lead could be within that range. There is a separate question about whether the “underlying” figures are accurate, but the average of recent polls suggests a Tory lead of about seven points.
All of which suggests that there will be a lot of muttering about Starmer’s leadership next weekend (one complicating factor is that counting will be slower than usual because of social distancing, so the results will be declared over several days). Objectively, Labour will be in a better position than it ever was under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – with the huge and significant exception of those few weeks of the 2017 general election campaign. There will be good reasons for every Labour setback: the Tories should have won Hartlepool at the general election (the Brexit Party split the Leave vote); the Great Class Inversion, by which the Tories are becoming the working-class party and Labour the middle-class party, is showing no sign of slowing down, five years after the EU referendum vote that triggered it, and is still working its way through to local elections; Scotland is a different political universe.
Beyond all that, national politics is dominated by coronavirus. The success of the vaccines and the easing of the lockdown are the main things that people care about, and they are going well. British people don’t like giving politicians credit for anything, but they are prepared to give Boris Johnson a grunt of approval for the way things are going.
Against such tides, Starmer can only try to retain as much dignity as possible and remind people that he is available if needed. The vaccine euphoria will pass, and politics will be about other things. That will allow Labour to make further progress, but it doesn’t guarantee it.
I am still reading Alastair Campbell’s diaries of the 2010-15 period and it is striking how many of his worries about Ed Miliband’s leadership find echoes in Starmer’s. At the beginning of 2013 Campbell wrote Miliband a long memo saying most of his shadow cabinet “could walk down any street in the country unrecognised”; “in so far as they are visible, they are almost always reactive”; and “there is a sense of managerialism rather than politics to the operation”.
The one big difference between then and now is that the party is not haunted by the feeling that it chose the wrong leader. The corollary of the weakness of Starmer’s shadow cabinet is that there is no alternative leader sulking in South Shields (David Miliband eventually stood down as an MP in 2013) or being “tricky” as shadow chancellor (Ed Balls still had an eye on the top job).
It is remarkable that the most credible candidate to replace Starmer is not even an MP: Anas Sarwar, the new leader of Scottish Labour, is one of very few in the party with credible leadership qualities – and even he is struggling to reverse the party’s decline in Scotland.
That is why the Tory MP pretending to be worried that Starmer might quit was making such an effective point. Starmer is easily the best leader the Labour Party could have at the moment – but, looking at the alternatives, that is not saying much.