With Tories stealing some of Labour’s best clothes, Starmer needs a change of gear

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

How dull can an opposition party be and still command the kinetic energy to win an election that requires a swing of up to 13 percentage points? Especially as the haul of seats it would need for an outright majority – given its dreadful losses in England in 2019, the SNP’s troubled but hardy grip on Scotland and the fact of fewer Welsh MPs being returned to Westminster – approaches the 145 gained by Tony Blair in the 1997 landslide.

Elections do not always vindicate early predictions. Much can happen between now and the election deadline of January 2025 (which effectively means going to the polls in the latter half of next year) that makes yesterday’s “impossible” look like tomorrow’s “told you so”. It would, however, be unwise for Labour to rely, as one of its sharpest advisers on strategy succinctly puts it, on “Tories being crap and Labour being a bit less crap”.

As the leaders bounce around the country in the run-up to May local elections, which provide a large sample test for the “Rishi revival” and the dogged “Starmer army” push to secure the political frontline, the risk of this strategy haunts the opposition for good reason. The government is emerging from a period of despair and self-destruction to stage a small but not insignificant “creeping comeback”. When Rishi Sunak addressed Tory peers last Monday, it was, as one pointed out, the first time the Lords had heard from a leader who was not embroiled in a major quarrel, crisis or constitutional stand-off in several years.

Campaigning in the north east last week, Sunak sounded excited about fixing potholes in Darlington.

The hum of approval for the steadiness on display after last year’s Trussogeddon disaster sees modest ripples in the broader polling – the Politico poll of polls shows the Labour lead presently slipping gently downwards from 20 to 18 percentage points. But what counts more this far from the national day of political reckoning is the direction of travel – and how firmly Labour can hold on to a sense of momentum and refine its image of a fresh and effective force ready to govern.

Starmer will need to show voters he has the skills to lead from the front on matters beyond the niche or the internal

Isaac Levido, a veteran of both rough-and-tumble Australian politics and the 2019 Johnson race, now advising Sunak on his campaign strategy, talks of the “narrow path to victory” for the Tories. Labour, looking at the polls, the exhaustion of the Tories and, most of all, the woeful economic and household-income backdrop, sees a highway towards a possible majority. But it is not without obstacles that need a clearer approach to avoid the race tightening into one between two fundamentally similar, decent leaders and a comparison of technocratic skill that, for all the government’s recent chaos, Labour cannot bank on winning.

The failure of Neil Kinnock’s 1992 election campaign is seared on the party’s mind and with it a fretfulness over how Keir Starmer will withstand the heat of the “long” election campaign, which starts about a year from the polling date – so very soon. Starmer himself bristles at the “boring” tag. In some ways, he presents himself as the “chairman” to Rachel Reeves’s front-footed stance as the Labour CEO – the steady beat of leadership. He will need to show voters that he has the skills to lead from the front on matters beyond the niche or the internal. While the uprooting of the hard left is a huge internal achievement that has taken considerable legal nous and organisational slog, the hard fact remains that the main opposition party is not judged on whether it can get its own extremes in order, but on whether the leader looks like he could convincingly occupy the prime ministerial role and can articulate a cure for low growth and poor public services (partly a consequence of underfunding, but often also by design and practice – a less comfortable area for the centre left). It also needs to deal with unfairnesses in society without unbalancing an already volatile business environment, struggling with fierce global competition and the backwash of Brexit.

On the first point, the Labour leader is a much improved performer but still a lugubrious presence. It is a fine line between dealing with serious times and national worries and not looking like a misery guts. As one fellow Labour lawyer puts it: “How could he spend so much time in court and still sound so plodding?” The answer of course is that Starmer is a smart and dedicated lawyer-turned head of the Crown Prosecution Service. But to land well in the nation’s living room or at PMQs and become a figure the public is happy (or at least not irritated) to have around is a different matter. Tone and voice issues cry out for a coach. For all the benefits of authenticity, the best “improvers” in communication are often those who took their initial weaknesses seriously.

On the substantive issues, Labour is entering the phase where its good ideas get stolen and turned into Tory cover versions, leaving its less thought-through ones to attract Tory attacks. So the windfall tax on energy producers’ profits ended up being imposed at a higher rate by the government after the Ukraine invasion. Ditto on a big package of funding childcare assistance for mothers of young children. Bridget Phillippson, the punchy shadow education secretary who forged this path for Labour, finds herself having written the plank of a Tory manifesto and the closer the Tories move to Labour positions on social issues, the less wriggle room the opposition has without making forbidden extra commitments.

Blandness is habit forming, so Starmerites need to beware caution becoming an excuse for unimaginative initiatives, even when spending is not at stake. A review intended to shore up BBC independence feels, in its current form, like a missed opportunity to think more widely about the Labour approach to public service broadcasting as streaming disaggregates the centrality of the old players and social media wreaks havoc with traditional ideas of impartiality. To replace one set of Brahmin party-aligned figures with another may be an understandable instinct, but it also plays to a suspicion that Labour is loath to think outside a narrow comfort zone and a bit prone to appointing its own cronies from too narrow a Starmer Rolodex.

The net effect, as one shadow frontbencher jokes, is that ‘Jeremy Hunt will remain chancellor under a Labour government’

Most voters of course will be focused on the cost-of-living crisis (not least as a new tax year will see impacts of higher taxes in the lower-middle income scale) and chaos in public services, which make the May local elections and aftermath fertile ground for Labour.

It is the reason the shadow chancellor has had more punishing interview moments since last month’s budget, as both she and Starmer have come under mounting pressure to explain how a Labour government will outpace a woeful Conservative record on growth, if they follow very similar tax and spending plans.

Ambitious ideas like a £28bn yearly spend on green energy solutions and job creation will depend on how much investment a Labour government can drum up, while following Tory spending rules. The net effect, as one shadow frontbencher jokes, is that “Jeremy Hunt will remain chancellor under a Labour government”. At the same time, business and the City still harbour doubts about a figure whose pledges, when he ran for the Labour leadership, were a lot keener on public ownership than profit. That has been nuanced (niftily) into ideas like the state-backed green energy company, which meld public backing with private sector management and experience.

This is not quite as uncontentious as it looks – requiring big influxes of skilled labour from overseas to pull off. The truth of “green jobs” is that many of them will, at least initially, produce more reliance on immigration, which is not a favourite Starmer topic. And as Reeves signalled last week, in refusing calls to support a raise in capital gains tax, a centre-left government will also need to be comfortable with relaxed tax regimes on legitimate profits. It would be unrealistic to ask Labour’s leadership to dwell on more testing points when it has revived a failing political brand and set itself credibly on the road to power. The question will inevitably shift from the classic Ronald Reagan one of whether you feel richer than you did before Conservatives ruled the roost, already answered by most people with a resounding ”No”, to “do you believe this will change under a Labour government ?”

And if the aim is a full-fat majority for bolder national transformation, daring to be dull may not be enough to sway the crowd.

Anne McElvoy is executive editor at Politico