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Talking about Keir Starmer in focus groups is actually quite tough. People don’t find him easy to discuss. They don’t hate him – in fact, they rather respect him – but they don’t get animated by him.
More often than not, people will quickly – and often unintentionally – change the subject to Boris Johnson. He is so much easier to talk about. These days, it is not in positive terms: they are furious with him and about him. Loathe him as very many people do, the prime minister is still a much easier talking point than the leader of the opposition.
For a couple of years now, Starmer’s supporters (among whom I count myself) have told us that voters will learn to love him “once they get to know him”. But I now have my doubts.
Voters do now know the Labour leader – or at least they are fully au fait with him being on the evening news, and thankfully no longer confuse him with Jeremy Corbyn – but they remain a long way away from head over heels.
Much was made over the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the famous New Labour landslide and let’s just say, Starmer in 2022 is not exactly Blair in 1997. And yet, where once this might have depressed me, I am no longer so sure that this is a problem – at least if Starmer and his team play it right.
We live in very, very serious times, and voters know it. Normal voters feel like the country is being buffeted from one crisis to the next. Where once the idea of having a comedian as leader, one with a little esprit de corps, might have seemed fun, it doesn’t anymore.
I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a groundswell of support from voters, tired of endless bungling and furious about Partygate, in favour of the grown-up in the room, one with thought-through and sober policies that might help make the country a better place to live in.
Right now, with Covid hopefully becoming a thing of the past, this should of course include policies to tackle the cost of living crisis and rocketing energy bills. This is the first thing on everyone’s lips in focus groups – even middle class ones – when you ask focus group participants about the problems facing the country. And right now, it doesn’t feel like Boris and his government have the first idea what to do about it.
But not far behind is the rise of crime and antisocial behaviour. People feel, rightly or wrongly, that the streets are not safe anymore. And again, the government doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do about it: its best idea is to re-employ all bobbies on the beat that it has slashed since 2010. As a former director of public prosecutions, Starmer really does know his stuff when it comes to law and order.
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This Conservative administration is increasingly perceived as a government overseen by a clown who has run out of ideas. The contrast with Starmer is a very real opportunity: but only if the ideas are there.
“Boring” could prove to be Starmer’s friend, but only if his team gets the plan right and sells it well. If people are going to be persuaded to lend their vote to the ex-lawyer in a suit, then they’re going to have to know why. And it’s not going to be because they feel like he’d be fun to have a pint with.
This week’s local results will not tell us much – if anything – about Starmer’s chances of pulling off a win at the next general election, even if they are bad news for the Conservatives. Luckily he (probably) has two years to sort out a plan that people think might fix the country.
The parallels with 1997 might not be there, but there’s a chance that 2024 might just feel a bit like 1945.
Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First