Deputy Culture Editor – Theatre
As Johnson is losing support with every fiasco, from Cummings to Covid, could a more electable Labour leader finally topple Tory Britain?
Some will have read one of the Daily Mail’s more pathetic and poorly-researched stories in past months, the one that claims Sir Keir Starmer is a hypocritical multi-millionaire. This claim was based on the discovery of the acres of land owned by the Labour leader. The land was, in fact, a donkey sanctuary for Starmer’s late mother. Clearly, nothing scares and bemuses the tabloid press more than genuine acts of altruism.
But see this not as the depressing mark of infantile journalism but as the inaugural mud-sling at a new threat to Tory domination in Britain. Perhaps, even the first gunging of Britain’s next Prime Minister. Certainly, Corbyn had his fair share of dishonest reporting with three-quarters of newspaper stories failing to accurately outline his policies and views.
Why might Starmer see the success Corbyn and his supporters got further away from with each election? Firstly, the election (most likely in 2024) will not hinge on Brexit as strongly as it did in 2019. It will play a major role but there won’t be the clear “vote Tory for Brexit and vote Labour for anything but a clear, immediate Brexit” that we saw previously. This drove many loyal Labour supporters who were also pro-Brexit to give the Tories one of their biggest majorities ever. In fact, as opposition, Labour will be an attractive alternative to all the suffering and mismanagement during Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, the unprecedented economic and human costs of which the Conservatives will struggle to shift the blame for.
Right around the globe, the hardships of catastrophe and the bumbling apathy of right-wing demagogues could see their demise; Trump, Bolsonaro, and Putin could all be ruined by falling approval ratings and calls for reform.
There wasn’t a day that passed in Corbyn’s leadership he wasn’t called unelectable. Although weaponised by right-wing publications and parties, the adjective holds some truth. According to Ipsos MORI, Corbyn had one of the worst approval ratings for decades in 2019. This is largely due to the perception of him as an anachronistically far-left figure; past support for Irish Republicanism and a reluctance to systematically address/apologise for antisemitic forces within the Labour party did not suggest a future leader of the UK.
Corbyn gambled with his voters: the ideal of the Labour voter changed from working-class families to university-educated millennials, and for good reason. Exhaustive and expensive manifesto promises on free tuition and broadband failed to win over decisive voter demographics in 2019. Labour was never going to lose support among left-wing activists and students but did lose the faith of thousands of traditional Labour voters and with it dozens of seats especially in heartlands like Wales and the North of England. Years of policy and campaign neglect turned Labour’s red wall blue. Corbyn had an image problem that made him easy to smear, regardless of any reasonable and progressive policies. He and his supporters looked like a cabal of divisive absolutists, out of touch with the average voter and unable to offer strong opposition let alone strong government.
Starmer doesn’t have the same publicity deficit as Corbyn. Speculation on what breed his personal politics is exactly is without much evidence presently, but Starmer is certainly not a far-left option unable to appeal to the vast majority of UK voters who are not working-class and not far-left ideologically. Neither has he shown a desire to bring the Labour party as close to the centre as Blair/Brown. A campaign focused on moderate, popular reform could rebuild Labour’s voters. Starmer has pushed for tax-avoidance investigation, austerity reduction, and NHS spending so far, with his policies becoming more popular as a result of recent circumstances. The most progressive policy agenda in the world would mean nothing if it can’t win elections, so the dirty idea of “compromise” might have to be played with.
It’s easy to claim moderation and a professional image could fix Labour’s electoral failures, yet many also believed that Corbyn would bolster Labour support by taking it back to the left. The proof lies in the polls. Corbyn and Miliband consistently ranked below their Conservative opponents, Starmer has, for the first time, ranked above Boris Johnson. Another Ipsos MORI poll found that the Labour party has regained much of its lost favourability since Starmer’s leadership election, while the Conservatives saw theirs plummet. Evidently, it takes the most inoffensive Labour leader, contrasted against the most offensive Conservative leader, to give Labour the edge with the UK’s silent majority.
If Starmer can continue to rebuild Labour’s image whilst Johnson destroys the Conservatives, we might see an end to over a decade of Tory rule – but not without a popular and unifying manifesto for change, effective campaigns to key voter demographics, and a Labour party with the confidence in the government of the British people.