Keir Starmer: One Year On

Featured image: Chris Boland via Flickr. Image license found here.

On 4th April 2020, Sir Keir Starmer was elected as the leader of the UK Labour Party and, as such, Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition. His promises of unity within the party, continuation of Corbyn’s radicalism and a general air of collectedness meant that he seemed to be the best candidate for the job. The Labour membership agreed, handing him 56.2% of the vote in the first round of the leadership election, defeating Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in the process.

Throughout his first year as Labour leader, two sides of a rather divided coin have developed: the argument that Starmer is doing the best he can, and the argument that his leadership has been shambolic. In some regards both of these arguments are somewhat true, but these black-and-white opinions have led to very opinionated clashes within the Labour Party itself and in the broader labour movement. It is thus pertinent to explore what Starmer has done right in his first year as leader, and where he could possibly have made better choices, taking more decisive and appropriate action.

Even if one opposes Starmer, it has to be said that one of his biggest strengths lies in the way he applies himself in Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, he referred to Boris Johnson’s Conservative government’s response as “serial incompetence”, stating that a more comprehensive plan is needed to tackle the virus effectively. Many people have praised Starmer for this; the government has often been either too slow to respond or have taken inappropriate measures, the Leader of the Opposition has been able to highlight their failures across the despatch box.

Starmer at PMQs | via Parliament UK on Flickr. License available here.

For many, however, this is where Starmer’s leadership qualities end, as many of the decisions he has made in the past year have resulted in a massive decrease in Labour Party membership. Before Starmer became leader, Labour had just over 550,000 members eligible to vote in party processes. After he suspended his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, over his response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) antisemitism report, membership fell to around 496,000. The exit of many Corbyn supporters from the party may represent the unpopularity of this decision with party members; in their eyes, Corbyn’s response was quite justified.

For the purpose of context, after the findings of the EHRC’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party were published, Corbyn said that - whilst he regretted that a change in process was not implemented soon enough - the problem of antisemitism was “dramatically overstated for political reasons”, both by his opponents and the mainstream media. For many people, especially Corbyn supporters, this rang true, as not so much a word had been said the tabloids, such as the Daily Mail or The Sun, about Boris Johnson’s many allegations of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia and prejudice. The Prime Minister had even written a novel in 2004, entitled Seventy-Two Virgins, where the narrator refers to Jewish oligarchs controlling the media. None of this, Corbyn’s supporters would point out, was mentioned by major media outlets, perhaps contributing to the electorate’s negative opinion of the former Labour leader and, subsequently, Labour’s defeat in 2019.

Starmer, however, clearly felt little sympathy for this perspective, and suspended his former leader from the Labour Party in October of last year. This was met with widespread criticism from Labour’s more leftist sects, with many in the party calling for his reinstatement. In the end, Starmer reinstated Corbyn as a Labour member, but not as a Labour MP. Even to this day, many traditional Labour supporters are either turning away from the party, or consistently calling for Corbyn’s reinstatement as a Labour MP. Whether you agree with Starmer’s or Corbyn’s views and actions on the situation, Labour’s response to the EHRC report hardly smacks of the unity promised by the current leader.

Starmer and Corbyn | Image: Jeremy Corbyn via Flickr, license found here.

A further criticism of the Labour leader is that he hasn’t been consistent enough when it comes to fighting against corruption, whether that is in the UK’s central government or its devolved nations. During the tumult which recently took place in Scotland’s political scene, with Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, Starmer asserted that Sturgeon should resign as Scotland’s First Minister if she was found to have broken ministerial code.

Whilst an honourable argument, it seemed that he was not being consistent with his view. For example, when Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was found to have acted unlawfully over COVID contracts by a High Court judge. Starmer defended him, affirming that he did not believe Hancock should resign over this fiasco. Many Labour supporters were outraged by this, as it hardly provides the credible alternative that Starmer is looking to build Labour into.

With all of this going on in the UK’s political climate, as well as the Conservatives’ successful rollout of COVID vaccines, it is not difficult to see why Keir Starmer’s Labour Party are not polling perhaps as well as they expected to, approaching the end of Starmer’s first year as leader. However, rather than take ownership for what many describe as poor decisions, a lack of clarity on his actual policies and his inconsistency over ministerial code and corruption, a rumour circulated that Starmer planned to sack his Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, as it was speculated that he believed she was not conveying Labour’s vision clearly enough. For some former Labour voters, this rumour and then backtrack on Starmer’s part only shows his unwillingness to take responsibility for the actions he has taken as Labour leader, preferring instead to pass the buck onto his colleagues.

Recently, on Easter Saturday no less, Starmer also visited Jesus House in London, a church well-known for displaying homophobic views, and its support of conversion therapy: a practice which many want outlawed. Many in the LGBTQ+ community described it as a betrayal, with some even saying that they would not vote for him in an election. Some say this blunder further illustrated Starmer's incompetence, given that then Prime Minister, Theresa May, was lambasted for visiting the same church in 2017, something Starmer and his team surely should have been aware of. This may be likely to hurt his already bleak prospects of becoming Prime Minister: according to Britain Elects on Twitter, the Conservatives hold 45% of the electorate’s support, with Keir Starmer’s Labour lagging behind at 36%, hardly an endorsement of the Labour leader’s first year of work.

Overall, as Labour look to leave Corbyn’s leadership in the past and focus on their future, Starmer could be compared to Neil Kinnock: a figure who could steady the ship after a crushing electoral defeat to the Conservatives. This, however, brings up two valid points. The first, that Kinnock never won an election, so Starmer may never become Prime Minister. The second, that if Starmer is a Kinnock-like figure in this situation, Labour could see a return to Blairism, a notion hated by many within the current Labour membership, and which, last time, ended in an unnecessary and damaging Iraq War which cost many thousands of innocent lives.

Starmer still has time to recover Labour, perhaps to the membership size that it had under Corbyn. He also has another three years to recover Labour’s polling figures until the next General Election, and will surely set himself on this task straight away. This would take determination, more clarity on policy and a continuation of his effectiveness in PMQs. Many in Britain question, however, whether Starmer has it in him to change tack, after a rather lacklustre first year in office. He will certainly have to win a lot of people back if he is to eventually make it to 10 Downing Street.