UK Labour leader Keir Starmer sets outs a “New Chapter for Britain”, February 18, 2021 (PA)

Heading the opposition party in the UK is no easy job. As Tony Blair said, “They can speak but they cannot do. Yet an opposition leader must always give the impression of momentum and purpose.”

For Keir Starmer, the task of bringing the Labour Party back to a stable political footing, let alone close to power, has the extra challenge of assuming the post in the midst of a global pandemic in April 2020.

Initially, the new Labour leader walked the tightrope capably. He showed the constructive approach expected in the greatest national crisis since World War II. At the same time, he was hailed for forensic performances questioning Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, pointing to the many failures in the government’s response to Coronavirus as evidence of its “incompetence”.

Starmer was acclaimed for strong leadership in confronting the issue of anti-semitism within Labour, while Johnson was ridiculed for his refusal to sack his right-hand man Dominic Cummings for breaching Coronavirus restrictions. By the summer Starmer had a net satisfaction rating higher than that of any opposition leader since Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. He reversed the Conservative Party’s 27-point lead in only six months, taking a small advantage during a moment of national solidarity and becoming the voters’ choice for Prime Minister.

But Starmer’s star dimmed after the summer. Accusations of “Mr Hindsight” started to stick: was Labour offering any significant alternatives to the Government over protection of the country? There appeared to be no answer, as Labour largely supported much of the actions taken by the Government and only criticized specific elements of implementation.

Unsurprisingly, the challenges over incompetence have failed to land recently as Johnson was able to claim a triumph in the vaccine rollout. With the promise of near-normal life by late June, the Conservatives have a solid lead over Labour in polling and Starmer’s satisfaction rating has taken a dive.

So has Starmer’s competence narrative run its course?

See also Slouching Towards the Irish Sea: How the Johnson Government Chose Brexit Failure
Brexit, Vaccine Nationalism, and the Future of the UK

Shaping the Narrative

Starmer’s emphasis on competence was based on the many errors of the Government in handling of the pandemic, with the UK’s death rate among the highest in the world and reaching #1 in January 2021. But the vaccine salvation has blunted that narrative.

The Labour leader also anticipated the damage and chaos from an ill-prepared Brexit departure from the European Union on December 31. That has been seen in the sharp fall in UK trade with Europe — more than 40% in January — supply disruptions that have put the future of the Irish island in doubt, and the prospect of a Scottish quest for independence.

Still, the Government is riding for now on its ability to secure a deal, even a far from desirable one. The immediate Brexit issues have been relegated below the pandemic’s headlines, and a further safety net is that many in Great Britain — including the voters targeted by the Tories — may not care much about the situation in Northern Ireland.

Starmer’s “competence” may depend on a revival coming from further Brexit damage, especially if this returns to the center of attention as the pandemic recedes.

The EU has launched legal action against the UK over the Johnson Government’s unilateral suspension of customs arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In light of the official figures on export decline, Labour has begun a more assertive approach. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow International Trade Secretary has accused the government of irresponsibility, saying that the lack of an economic impact assessment “makes no sense whatsoever”.

However, Labour will have to be skilled in contending with the Government’s ultimate defense: Blame the European Union.

To deal with the Government’s division, Labour must point to the real-life consequences that Brexit is having on lives and livelihoods of Britons. It must not only remind the public not just of the government’s inability to secure a better deal, but put forth workable solutions.

Up to now, the furlough scheme of Chancellor Rishi Sunak has cushioned the Coronavirus blow to jobs and incomes, sustaining support for the Government. But that scheme cannot be sustained indefinitely — when it ceases, even with a gradual wind-down, high levels of unemployment with little income support are likely to follow.

Beyond Divide and Rule

To escape trouble, the Johnson Government has continued the divide and rule of its campaign for the December 2019 election. It turned social and racial issues into feigned concern over a “war on statues”. It returns again and again to the European nemesis. And when National Health Service staff responded with upset to a derisory offer of a 1% pay rise, Ministers pitted doctors and nurses against other workers who have lost their jobs.

But the divisive power of the culture wars is not as great in the UK as in the US. Recent polls indicate that the British public are more united than is often suggested, with animosities that supposedly exist manufactured by prominent columnists of a certain type. So if Starmer can fix other issues with Labour’s electability, he may have more space than expected to pursue a social justice agenda. Indeed, the new Crime and Policing Bill presented Labour with a good soundbite for the debate – pointing out how the legislation did more to protect statues than women.

Starmer knows that it is crucial for Labour to win back support of more culturally conservative working-class voters. Among the oft-cited reasons for the collapse of the party in 2019 was voter perception of Jeremy Corbyn as un-patriotic.

Starmer is right to avoid getting involved in these debates where possible. But he cannot let the Tories define patriotism on their own terms, so he and Labour have to present a focus on British values and the Union. This has risks: a lack of perceived authenticity on the one hand, and that of putting off some on the “left”. To deal with this — as well as to get to the fundamentals of “competence” and public services — Starmer should make the case that true patriotism is not just pride in what is good in your country, but also a desire to fix what is broken.

Starmer suggested this direction in late February in a high-profile speech: “The terrible damage caused by the virus to health and prosperity has been made all the worse because the foundations of our society have been weakened over a decade.” He described “care homes…overstretched hospitals and GP surgeries…schools with ever-growing class sizes…an economy so insecure that millions of people can’t afford to isolate and where the lowest paid have been amongst the most exposed”. And he accused Chancellor Sunak of merely “papering over the cracks” in the Government’s budget.

The Labour leader must continue this holding of the Government to account over their manifesto pledges. Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” must be supplanted by his failure to follow up the proclamation of “levelling up”. He must hold the government to its promises of 50,000 new nurses and 20,000 new police officers. He must use the assessment of the leading tax and spending thinktank, The Institute for Fiscal Studies, that Britain could be headed for a new era of austerity under the Government’s actual spending plans.

In the past, Labour has faced claims that it cannot be trusted with the economy. In the present, it faces the animosity of the right-wing press. Beyond this, its diagnosis of problems with the UK and the Government is contorted by opponents into shame about Britain.

So Starmer must get beyond the description of a country hampered by years of Tory rule. He has to present workable solutions. And he has to get back to the core message that put Labour into office in 1945 and in 1997: that at a time of great challenge, a better society rather than a divided society is possible.