It was never going to be an easy year. Keir Starmer took over as Labour leader after a devastating election for his party – that turned the “red wall” of historic Labour supporters in the North of England blue, and lost the party 60 seats across the UK.
Back then, his challenges were clear: win back the heartlands and unite an electorate deeply divided over Brexit, all while organising a party that was split over a years-long anti-Semitism row.
One year in, a single issue has prevailed over all others. Starmer took over one week into the country’s first national lockdown, just as Covid pressed pause on any other political discourse. And in spite of the Tories’ perceived poor leadership throughout the pandemic, Starmer has struggled to find his voice as opposition leader; he is yet to cut through to a public that wants the government to succeed in curbing the pandemic above all else.
Polls suggest that voters still don’t know who Starmer really is. In the run-up to 2024, he will need to bring together voters across regions and economic classes and unite his own party. But if he is to win the personal battle with Johnson – a duel that will probably define an election – he will also need to start showing the public what he stands for.
Starmer v Corbyn
“Elections are as much about the internal morale of political parties as they are perceptions of the wider commentariat and the wider population,” says former Conservative MP and electoral analyst Lord Robert Hayward. This much was true for Labour in 2019; the worst loss for the party since 1935 followed years of internal rows over anti-Semitism, which were presided over by former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey in June 2020, after she retweeted an article that contained what Starmer called “anti-Semitic conspiracy theories”, was his first message that he was ready to stamp out the legacy of anti-Jewish racism in his party. Several months later, when Jeremy Corbyn questioned the findings of a damning report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission over Labour’s anti-Semitism, he was suspended from the party by general secretary David Evans.
Corbyn was reinstated to the party but has still not had the whip restored and currently sits in parliament as an independent – for some Starmer’s stance is seen as resolute, for others a divisive attack on the left.
The upcoming local elections in May will be the first indication of Starmer’s real standing as a leader – both within the party and beyond. Until then, polling data gives us an indication of the public mood.
Much like the party itself, 2019 Labour voters are divided over Starmer: 35 per cent of this group have an unfavourable view of him, according to YouGov. It’s a statistic that speaks volumes about Labour’s internal divide, but experts don’t necessarily think that this will scupper Starmer’s chances in the long run.
“I think there’s a very decent chance that these people who maybe don’t like Keir Starmer would hold their nose and vote for him [in 2024],” says YouGov’s associate director of political and social research, Adam McDonnell. Alternatives to Labour, such as the Green Party, have struggled with first past the post in previous elections, so voters who are reluctant to choose another five years of a Conservative government may have nowhere else to go.
Lord Hayward agrees – and says the same is true for the internal tussles between party members. “My view is that it will settle down,” he says. “Over a period of time, they’ll become more antagonistic towards the Tories, and therefore they’ll all live with the Labour leadership, even if they aren’t wildly enthusiastic about it.”
Overall, “not being Jeremy Corbyn” may even be Starmer’s greatest strength. “Anybody who came into that role was going to have an easy task with a distinct section of the population,” says Lord Hayward.
The divisive Corbyn – who had the lowest satisfaction rates of any leader since the 70s – also failed to unite the party on Brexit, alienating mostly working-class Leave voters and Remainers across Scotland and major cities alike. The data suggests that Starmer might be an appealing choice to 2019 Liberal Democrat voters (in fact, he is currently more popular among them than he is Labour voters), but he has far to go to win over 2019 Conservative voters.
Starmer v the red wall
It’s hard to overestimate the scale of the task for Starmer. Labour must secure an additional 123 seats in order to win a majority in 2024; such a victory would represent the biggest swing since Blair’s 418-seat win in 1997.
Labour’s northern heartlands – the so-called red wall – made headlines for a reason when its constituencies overwhelmingly swung Tory in 2019: 63 per cent of the seats that Labour needs to win in 2024 are in the North, Midlands and Wales.
In 2019, Brexit played a part in the frustrations of red wall voters, most of whom voted to Leave and felt frustrated by Labour’s obstinacy on the topic.
Labour lost 50 seats in the “red wall” heartlands in 2019
But Labour’s problems in the North certainly did not start and end with Brexit – or Corbyn, for that matter. “There was a sense that Labour had been moving away from those voters for a long time,” says Deborah Mattinson, pollster and author of Beyond The Red Wall. The party had neglected the lion’s share of its voters, most of whom are working class, by taking for granted their vote. “There was a sense that the party had become owned by snooty graduates from London who looked down on these red wall people,” says Mattinson.
This is reflected in the data. “Social class and social grade are no longer good indicators of how you vote,” says McDonnell of YouGov. In 2019, people across all social grades were more likely to vote Conservative; age was the better indicator of voting patterns.
The challenge today is clear: “Labour needs to come back to being the party of the working class,” says McDonnell. The party is likely aware of this, and has taken steps to erase an elitist image. A leaked strategy last month revealed Labour’s plan to return to patriotic, family-centric values, calling for “the use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc [to] give voters a sense of authentic values alignment”.
According to Mattinson, patriotism is a step in the right direction. “If you don’t love your country, people in the red wall will never love you,” she says. But it’s not enough on its own – both because it might not be credible, and because “if you go head to head with the Tories on patriotism, I think you’re unlikely to win”.
“Labour has to find an expression of its own brand of patriotism,” she says, “and that hasn’t happened yet”.
An upcoming byelection in Hartlepool, in the North East of England, is a crucial barometer for the party’s standing in the red wall. Labour held the seat in 2019, but lost 15 per cent of its vote share in the process. The Brexit party, meanwhile, saw a 26 per cent swing in its favour.
Many fear the constituency may soon sever its ties with Labour for the first time in 60 years, following the recent resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill over allegations of sexual harassment. With the Brexit party no longer in the picture, the Conservatives now pose a significant challenge to Labour.
Losing another seat in the heartlands one year into his leadership might spell trouble for the Labour leader. A Tory win would show clear signs of weakness in Labour’s current strategy.
After Blair’s landslide victory, it took the Tories three elections to claw their way back from defeat. Labour will fear that winning back the heartlands may be an equally slow process. After all, says Mattinson, voting Conservative in the red wall for the first time was a huge decision for voters whose families have been supporting Labour for generations. “There’s quite a lot invested in that turning out not to be a really dumb decision,” she adds.
Starmer v Johnson
Mattinson cites Brexit, elitism in the party and the economy as factors that contributed to the collapse of the red wall, but calls Johnson “the final piece in the puzzle”.
“He gave people a licence to vote Tory,” she says. “There is a sense, with his slightly haphazard manner, [that he’s] very authentic.”
Ultimately, much of the election will come down to the character of the two party leaders. Johnson’s likeability is one of the only traits that has stayed consistent among pollsters throughout the pandemic, according to YouGov. Meanwhile, his figures for strength, competence, trustworthiness and, in particular, decisiveness, have all plummeted. The numbers remain low – most recently netting -48 for decisiveness, for example – but a successful vaccine programme is seeing a steady increase in Johnson’s overall figures.
Starmer far outstrips Johnson on overall favourability, and across all other trends, but that isn’t enough to suggest that he is the more appealing leader of the two, or that the path to 2024 will be an easy one. While his net favourability is positive, a relatively small percentage of people actually answered the question – many others said they didn’t know what they thought about him. Those same YouGov figures suggest that 37 per cent of those polled are unsure about Starmer’s competence, and 42 per cent of his trustworthiness.
Overall, pollsters still favour the Conservatives for 2024. “This can be attributed to the positiveness around the vaccine rollout and to the drop in number of cases,” says McDonnell, who adds that Rishi Sunak’s recent budget announcement was well-received and saw a spike in support for the Tories.
“As an opposition leader, it’s very, very difficult to challenge,” he adds. Starmer struggled to oppose a budget that was very much in line with previous Labour economic policies, or sensibile lockdown decisions.
This, really, is Starmer’s central dilemma. Amid the chaos of the pandemic, he has struggled to make his voice heard – and it is very hard to get the balance between constructive opposition and forensic criticism.
Fifty-two per cent of Britons also say they know very little or nothing about Starmer at all, according to Ipsos MORI – those same numbers are 14 per cent for Boris Johnson.
A key reason for this is Covid – but it’s not the sole factor. Starmer is another Labour London leader, says Lord Hayward, who may struggle to make himself relatable to voters across the country. Johnson continues to have a personality that appeals to both the London elite and also to working class voters.
Lord Hayward also hastens to add that “polls are just that – they are opinion polls”. Based upon those numbers alone, Rishi Sunak would be the clear contender for 2024 – he far outstrips both party leaders on all satisfaction counts. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in the fortunate position of telling people that he will ensure they will still get paid throughout the crisis.
Starmer has time to become a vocal opponent. There is the hope that the health crisis will clear, and the party can start taking a stance on issues that matter. The economy will become crucial in the run up to 2024, for example, particularly when the government must start paying back its debt.
If he wants to be taken seriously, Keir Starmer must take “a clear first step along the road of regaining ‘Labour territory’ in the upcoming local elections,” says Lord Hayward. But it will be a long road to Downing Street. Once the fog of Covid has lifted, we’ll be able to see just how many obstacles remain ahead.