Where’s Team Starmer?
Sir Keir Starmer has a lot to offer. He is credible as the waiting Prime Minister, which is more than can be said for his two predecessors. He seems competent, thoughtful, consistent, honest and honest, which are not any noticeable strengths of our current Prime Minister. Granted, he’s quite boring and a bad speaker, but the general voters think pretty positively of him; In six of the seven polls in December, his net ratings were slightly positive.
One thing he understands is that the task of bringing Labor back to power is a marathon, not a sprint. He was cautious, too cautious about committing to certain guidelines or even an identifiable political positioning. This is understandable – there won’t be an election until around 2024, and a lot can change between now and then – but the risk is if you don’t define your own image, your opponents will define it for you. We saw this in Labor’s position on the EU trade deal: the only two messages voters got was that Starmer vaguely supported the deal and that the Labor Party was divided over it. That is not good enough for a party that wants to form the next government.
Of course, his job is difficult. He inherited a party that had completely lost its marbles, and even now the toxicity of corbynism and the associated taint of anti-Semitism is a problem for him. Election math looks daunting, as outlined in Alastair Meek’s recent PB article, and Scotland is no longer supplying dozens of Labor MPs. In addition, by the time of the next election, Labor will not be in power for about 14 years. Many of the seasoned characters have left. The institutional memory of how you win elections, how the government works, and how convenient it is to be ready to govern has already faded. Starmer’s own political experience is relatively limited.
This is the same problem Blair faced until 1997 and Cameron until 2010. The way they handled the problem should be central to Starmer. In both cases there was a close-knit inner core around the Führer, supported by highly visible shadow ministers who were dedicated to the goal of regaining power. Blair’s team has put a tremendous amount of work into systematically identifying Labor’s electoral weaknesses and diligently addressing them. In all aspects of politics and staff, they worked together to gain credibility and impose their own narrative as a viable alternative to the incumbent government. The Mandelson and Brown “shrimp cocktail offensive” (launched by John Smith) helped neutralize the critical weakness that Labor saw as anti-business and uneconomical, and “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is weakness for law and order. A crucial component was the draconian news discipline imposed by Alastair Campbell, which ruthlessly reiterated the message that Labor had changed and that could be trusted. Cameron and Osborne have deliberately copied this approach: there was a clear overarching theme in modernizing the Conservative Party, and a lot of work was obviously done in both politics and presentation.
In both cases there was a core group of members of the shadow cabinet as well as a trusted group of SPADs, pollsters and political think tanks working together to present a waiting government.
The most important thing is that this was teamwork. I don’t see anything like it in Labor today. Even considering the difficulties in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the shadow cabinet is almost invisible. A survey by the Survation / Labor List found that 21% by Labor Party members despite the importance of these roles, had never heard of the shadow home or education secretaries. And they were Labor members! There also doesn’t seem to be a loyal Starmer team acting behind the scenes in support of the leader and as a trusted sounding board. He looks lonely, running his election marathon, and making a personal impression, but without the team support it takes to win in 2024. Where are the equivalents of Brown, Mandelson, Campbell, aided by Jack Straw, Robin Cook, David Blunkett and the other New Labor numbers?
It’s not enough to showcase a credible PM waiting and rely on the current lot to be unpopular. The job has to provide a credible government waiting. Starmer needs a trustworthy core team working on the narrative choices and creation, and making sure they are on the air frequently, presenting the opposition alternative. He should also make better use of those who have experience of winning elections and governing. Perhaps most urgently, he must replace his shadow chancellor. Amazingly, he has managed to find someone even less convincing than Corbyn’s choice of John McDonnell.
Above all, he cannot win the next election alone. If he continues his campaign as a lonely marathon, he will be overtaken by a noisy and enthusiastic Boris battle bus.
Richard Nabavi is a long-time PB employee and a former Conservative Party member.