2020 has not been short of challenges. Covid-19, the ensuing economic fall-out and the final stages of Brexit have been playing out. By and large, the government has proven unequal to the challenge. That is not just my opinion, but that of the public at large. Just 34% of the public were satisfied with the government’s handling of Covid-19 in the last YouGov survey on the matter and 52% of the public disapprove of the government’s record to date with just 27% approving.
Yet the Conservatives are still polling well ahead of these numbers, hovering around the 40% mark in the polls. Why?
Polling intention is always a reflection of the options available. Given how poorly the government is rated on a free-standing basis, we should start from the assumption that the opposition is offering an even poorer alternative.
Is that right? In head-to-head ratings, Sir Keir Starmer gets consistently better satisfaction ratings than Boris Johnson. Even in the “Best Prime Minister” ratings, in which the incumbent is always heavily favoured, he has often outpolled Boris Johnson. So it’s not about the way the leaders present themselves.
Leaders, however, must take responsibility for their parties’ performance and in polling numbers at least Labour have yet to take advantage of the Conservatives’ ineptness. What’s going wrong for Labour?
Now, you might well argue that Labour has a lot of bad history to shake off, given how appallingly unpopular Jeremy Corbyn was by the time of the 2019 general election. I agree: the critical segment of the public needs to be satisfied that Labour have washed that man right out of their hair before it will consider going on another date. And Sir Keir has spent much of the year doing exactly that. The stand against anti-Semitism and the ejection of Jeremy Corbyn will have done him no harm in that regard.
Still, Labour have a lot more persuasion ahead of them. And Jeremy Corbyn was a symptom not just a cause of Labour’s problems. Before he had become leader, Labour were already seen as metropolitan and middle class, with the psephological movements that you would expect as a result. Simply not being Jeremy Corbyn is not going to be enough for Sir Keir. He has to find a story to tell the country.
So far, he hasn’t tried. He has acted as a commentator on events, opining on the government’s handling of Covid-19, on Black Lives Matter and on the government’s economic choices. He has tactically ducked the culture wars that Boris Johnson has tried to stoke on, for example, Brexit and overseas aid. He has made penetrating observations about the morality of the government and about its competence, observations that the public have heard and broadly accepted.
His team has followed his lead. Annelise Dodds pulled apart Rishi Sunak’s spending priorities this week. Emily Thornberry brutally exposed Liz Truss’s disingenuousness about the trade deal with Japan. Labour are doing a good job of showing the Conservatives are governing chaotically and shoddily.
And yet in polling terms that is proving so far not to be enough.
Sir Keir may be right about the government. But what is his alternative? What is his pitch for the nation? What is his theme? The country is being rocked by multiple crises and he is kibitzing rather than sat at the table.
He needs to build his criticisms into a coherent theme, not of a lawyer’s objections to the current strategy but as part of a wider alternative strategy that Labour are offering to the nation. Can anyone articulate what Labour’s prospectus is, even in broad terms? Could Sir Keir do so himself?
At some point Sir Keir is going to need to tell us not just who he is not, but who he is and what he stands for. So far, he hasn’t started. His time to do so is limited.