Voices: Keir Starmer must not become complacent about a Labour victory
In Westminster, you can almost feel the power slipping away from Rishi Sunak's Conservatives.
Every week I have lots of meetings with members of the political, policy and media classes, because – and this is quite the mea culpa – a lot of my day-to-day work happens inside the Westminster bubble.
Thankfully, my job also involves organising and running many focus groups around the country in which I talk to so-called “ordinary voters” (there’s no such thing), and I like to think it gives me a sense of perspective on the national mood, and the ability to spot whether or not it is evolving.
In a change to my normal arena, however, in the past few weeks I’ve been attempting to do the same in the context of my SW1 contacts and discussions, and I think it’s worked. I think I’ve spotted a subtle but important pivot in the way conversations are framed around the outcome of the next general election.
Westminster familiars – journalists, policymakers, think-tankers, spin doctors and the like – have started talking about Labour as inevitably forming the next government. As recently as before Christmas, they would say “If Labour wins...”, but today they say “When Labour wins...”. Similarly, they talk definitively about “the new Starmer administration”, not “if Starmer forms the next administration”.
This kind of thing has happened lots in the past few weeks, in a way it hasn’t before. There is an air of inevitability about Sunak losing and Keir Starmer taking up residence in Downing Street.
You might say this is an obvious consequence of the polling – and you would probably be right. For months now, poll after poll has pointed to 2024 being less a general election and more a coronation. The prospect of Conservative annihilation is a real possibility. The momentum behind Starmer became even more irresistible after Nicola Surgeon’s resignation, which many believe significantly increases the possibility of a stronger Labour comeback north of the border.
It’s only natural that, in this context, many of those beavering away in literal and metaphorical proximity to the House of Commons would have their heads turned. This is fantastically illustrated by the way David Cameron’s former business tsar Paul Drechsler flipped his support from Conservative to Labour in these pages last Monday.
But that’s not my point. My point is that this change in attitude will soon spread out of the meeting rooms of Westminster, and into the popular media, social media and mainstream politics. It will be seen in the way that Starmer’s every utterance is analysed for meaning; the pictures chosen for newspapers are subtly more authoritative; the footage selected on the news at 10 carries a little more grandeur. This process is the exact opposite of what happened to poor Ed Miliband and his bacon sarnie in 2015.
You could see this beginning to happen in the extensive and respectful way that the media covered Starmer’s trip to Kyiv on Thursday and his meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky.
The fact is, the trappings of power are beginning to move towards Starmer. As a result, voters will begin to see him as a sort of prime-minister-elect rather than a leader of the opposition.
This matters today because it will reinforce his polling lead, and it will matter even more in the future because “ordinary people” will soon feel relaxed about casting their ballot his way in the voting booth. They will feel like they are going with the flow; with the inevitable. 1997 was long before I was actively involved in journalism or politics, but I am told this is exactly what happened before New Labour’s landslide.
The only danger is that all of this seeps into the minds of the operation around Starmer, and even Starmer himself: the idea that it is his destiny to simply saunter into government.
Before his totemic victory, it is said, Tony Blair refused to let himself believe that Labour was the favourite. Staying on a campaign footing was everything to him – he could not afford to be complacent, and he could not allow the electorate to believe he thought he was entitled to an election win. All the noises we hear from inside Labour HQ indicate that Starmer understands this all too well.
But as the soft power of political deference begins to collect around Starmer, he must also harness its energy, be relaxed about the idea that he is a prime-minister-in-waiting, and present himself to the world in that way. Voters must be allowed to feel that his elevation is the most natural thing in the world; a procession, even.
And yet somehow, simultaneously, he must not look, sound or behave like he takes any of this for granted. This is the tightest of tight political tightropes he is walking. One misstep and there’s a political knife-fight waiting below.