Keir Starmer always had a mountain climb and the covid-19 crisis has made his task even tougher. But, argues Joff Wild, writing Labour off at this stage would be a mistake
The government is presiding over a mounting coronavirus death toll, many ministers seem completely out of their depth, Keir Starmer is beginning to provide considered and serious opposition, so why aren’t the headline numbers in the polls even hinting at a change of mood?
The two most recent show nothing much happening and a Tory lead on or around 20 points. On the far left, that is regarded as confirmation that Jeremy Corbyn was cruelly done by and that replacing him with Starmer was a huge mistake. On the right, meanwhile, many see the current huge gap in voting intention as confirmation that the Tory ascendency is here to stay. As you’d expect, I am not so sure.
For me, things are so stable because most people are not experiencing the worst of the covid-19 crisis. Unless you, a member of your family or a friend has been seriously ill – or, God forbid, has died – you have not suffered the full horror of what is unfolding. Instead, it is largely hidden away in the nation’s care homes and hospitals. You can see the headlines, watch the TV pictures, but you are not actually living it.
The interactions that the vast majority have with the crisis revolve around restrictions on their ability to go out, to see friends and relations, to get to work and/or to get the kids to school. Those are all significant hardships, but they are completely understandable, so for most people what the government is doing makes sense. On that basis, if you voted Tory in December, why would you change your mind just a few months later? Add a rally round effect and you get to the polling numbers we currently see.
That’s why I have always thought that what happens after the crisis is going to be what really matters politically. It’s at that point that the government is going to have to make incredibly tough decisions that will have consequences for millions. By contrast, now is the easy bit. There was no real choice but to introduce a lockdown. Huge packages of financial aid to business were the only realistic option. Sure, there can be arguments around timing, scale and delivery – and there should be – but the central strategy is one that all the polling shows most people quite rightly agree with.
In normal circumstances, Keir Starmer’s election would have delivered him a great deal of publicity. It would have led the television news, interviews with him would have been front page stories; his purging of the left from the shadow front bench, his reaching out to the Jewish community, would both have received much greater coverage. For obvious and completely understandable reasons, they have not. Tough luck, Keir, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Starmer’s job now is to build the case for Labour as a party of serious opposition against the backdrop of a crisis that no-one could have predicted when the leadership race began. He must hold the government to account for the decisions it has already taken and will take in the future, while ensuring Labour looks like an alternative it has not been perceived as for years. Starmer needs to point out the government’s failures and lodge it in people’s minds that Johnson leads a group of second-raters who are just not up to the job, while offering broad support for the strategy the government is pursuing. It’s a tough task.
But what the polls are also telling us is that it may not be an impossible one. Just look at Starmer’s own numbers compared to Corbyn’s, look at how approval rates for the government’s handling of the crisis are coming down. The foundations are being laid, no more, but it is a start. Given the circumstances, there is very little more Labour could hope for.
The party’s standing has been deeply damaged by the choices it has made over the last decade. It is going to take time to turn things around. Luckily, that is the one thing that Starmer does have. What I believe is that with him in charge Labour now has a chance. I never did before. That is a good thing – for Labour but, much more important, for the country.
Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW