Is victory within Labour leader's grasp?

·6-min read
Keir Starmer is in prime position to win the next election – if he can solve his party vision problems
Keir Starmer is in prime position to win the next election – if he can solve his party vision problems

THE Scottish Conservatives are an under-appreciated bunch. When times are fraught and uncertainty abounds (see Putin's speech for your latest batch of nightmare scenarios), Douglas Ross and his troops can always be relied upon to provide an amusing distraction.

After Mr Ross’s stellar turn earlier in the year as a human pretzel, U-turning and turning again over his support for then UK party leader Boris Johnson, the Scottish Tories have now cheered us up with what must surely be dubbed “Mitty-gate”.

On Monday, Mr Ross introduced the party’s new head of research, describing him as a former “senior political adviser” to ex-Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy. Er, don’t think so said Mr Murphy, who tweeted that he had “never knowingly met this guy let alone employed him in any role, ever”. Awkward.

Hardly smacks of ruthless, election-winning efficiency, does it? All governments dream of an inept opposition, and vice versa. Boris Johnson was every Christmas and birthday gift rolled into one. As Labour heads to Liverpool for its party conference, starting on Sunday, it should feel itself fortunate to have Liz Truss in place.

Ms Truss is something of a two-for-one bargain. Not only is she capable of being spectacularly wrong in her own right, slashing taxes, backing unlimited bonuses for bankers, generally punting trickle down economics even when it has been shown time and again to be a crock, she calls to mind the divisive figure of Margaret Thatcher while doing so. Hard to see what more Labour could want from an opponent.

Also in Labour’s favour is a summer of strikes, some of which have improved workers’ pay and conditions while other disputes continue (next stop for the rail strikes is October 1, the day before the Conservative conference starts in Birmingham).

Despite the disruption, and the Government playing the Project Fear card about 1979 and the winter of discontent, the public has appeared generally supportive of strike action, for now at least.

Maybe it is the cost of living crisis. Perhaps it’s the fact that food banks now outnumber branches of McDonald’s. Whatever the reason, unions are increasingly regarded as “a good thing”, or “not as bad a thing as we thought”.

Some union leaders have even been found to talk a lot of sense, and do it well.

The internal party problem

For these reasons and more, Labour should be looking forward to fighting the next General Election.

Not complacent, not taking anything for granted, but quietly confident that it can reverse the disastrous result under Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet the Labour Party that gathers in Liverpool does not seem like an organisation that is entirely comfortable with the new wardrobe provided by its leader, Sir Keir Starmer. For some, most of them on the left, the tie is too tight, the shoes pinch, and the colours are all over the place (what shade will the backdrop be this year?).

Then there is the national anthem, the singing of which will open the conference. It is the first time in years this has happened, and there is said to be nervousness in some quarters about the response to God Save the King. Will there be booing or a boycott?

That singing the anthem is even an issue says something about the relationship between Sir Keir and a section of the party. It looks like he is once again setting a test, and those who do not pass will be sidelined or sacked, as Sam Tarry, the shadow transport minister, was when he defied a previous ruling not to join picket lines. It will be fascinating to see what kind of reception Mr Tarry gets in Liverpool. Ditto Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

Every party wants an election winner for a leader. With Labour it usually takes a long time to find one, and the process involves a certain amount of nose-pinching, and much agonising, along the way. But when needs must the lads and lassies will fall into line. Tony Blair was a huge “ask”, the biggest in memory (and weren’t the doubters ultimately right about him?).

Blair had such a wide appeal to the middle ground, the place where UK elections are won or lost, that it simply had to be him. Gordon Brown just did not have it. Fine for a Chancellor, but alas not Prime Minister material.

It is difficult to estimate where Sir Keir stands in the affections of his party or the electorate as a whole. He leads opinion polls, but not by huge margins, and he is certainly nowhere near where Tony Blair was at this point in the electoral cycle.

Many on the left remember what Sir Keir promised when he ran for the job, including the nationalisation of key industries, only to see him step back from such a move. No money left for that when there is the NHS to fix and social care to sort out.

The Labour leader has an advantage over many politicians in that he once had a “proper job” as Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales. He comes across as credible enough premier.

The vision thing

The team around him, however, are largely unknown outwith Westminster. Where are the Robin Cooks, the Margaret Becketts, the Gordon Browns, the Jack Straws? Tony Blair, as egotistical as he was, at least recognised that the public wanted to see a team around him.

Blair also had an engaging personality. He came across, as he once described himself, as a “pretty straight sort of guy”. Sir Keir is undoubtedly an upright sort, the kind of neighbour you would ask to hold a spare set of keys. But I doubt he would pass the beer test. That would be a long hour in the pub. Not that such things are make or break, but they do matter in the greater mix.

There is something else missing with Sir Keir, call it the vision thing. What does a UK led by a Prime Minister Starmer look like? Where is it going? What does it want to achieve? He has written about himself, and others have written about him, and yet he still comes across as an unknown quantity, particularly in Scotland, which he needs if he is to stand a chance of making it to Number 10.

This year’s party conferences could prove crucial for all the main party leaders, none more so than Sir Keir. He has a lot more to prove in Liverpool besides his party’s patriotism.