As the second anniversary as Labour leader looms, Starmer’s MPs accept he has yet to ‘seal the deal’ with voters.

By Paul Waugh

Chief Political Commentator – Inews

April 2, 2022 6:00 am(Updated 11:34 am)

Keir with Camden Labour Council Candidates at Camden manifesto release

When Sir Keir Starmer was first told on Monday evening that police fines were imminent for those involved in Partygate, his instant reaction was telling. “For Johnson?” he asked.

The Labour leader’s main focus was whether the Prime Minister would be personally, finally, nailed for the biggest scandal since he entered No 10. When told that it was unclear if the PM was among those in Downing Street to receive a fixed penalty notice for Covid law breaches during lockdown, his brow furrowed.

In PMQs on Wednesday, buoyed by Tory backbenches now behind him over Ukraine, Johnson didn’t look or sound like a condemned man. Surviving relatively unscathed from Starmer’s twin attack lines on Partygate and the cost of living crisis, he left to the resounding cheers he wanted before MPs headed off for their Easter recess.

And with the polls steadily narrowing since Putin’s invasion, and local elections in May looming, it is Labour MPs who are getting jittery again. Some ask the same two questions: Is their leader the unluckiest in the job in modern history? Or is there a deeper weakness in his failure so far to connect with the voters?

Nearly two years to the day since Starmer won his comprehensive victory in the Labour leadership contest, many of his shadow ministers, aides and MPs remark on just how far the party has come. From more than 20 points behind, they’re now regularly ahead. On the economy, on who would make “best PM”, Labour’s numbers have been transformed.

Ben Nunn, who was Starmer’s director of communications until last year, points out the progress. He said: “What Keir had to do to get back into power is what Kinnock, Smith and Blair had to do over 14 years – but in the space of four of five years.

“The scale of it was massive. We shouldn’t forget Labour had its worst result since 1935 and now he’s polling on course for a government. He’s done a fantastic job turning things round.”

One current aide puts it more bluntly: “We were left in a shit pit in 2019 thanks to Jeremy Corbyn.”

On Tuesday at the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), Corbyn’s name wasn’t mentioned once. “That’s the first time since Keir became leader that has happened at an NEC,” one of those present said. The party was told that membership was now stable at 430,000, with more new members joining after a long period of exits by Corbyn supporters.

The meeting heard how the backlog of complaints of misconduct, including anti-Semitism, had now finally been cleared. Some 10,000 cases had been cleared in seven months, meaning the party has a “clean slate” for the start of its new independent complaints process.

The NEC also approved new cash for training of election campaign organisers. A senior adviser to Starmer said: “Four years ago the party machinery was about to spend nearly £1m on a music festival [‘Labour Live’] for its leader. Four years later, the NEC announced we’re spending £1m on training organisers for on the ground campaigning for a general election and the long term of the party. That’s how far we’ve come.”

MORE FROM POLITICS

More than 8 million people reject offer of Covid-19 booster despite record infections04 April, 2022Boris Johnson to unveil new dawn for nuclear energy but Cabinet split over wind farms03 April, 2022Boris Johnson’s energy strategy will only lead to more fights ahead03 April, 2022

Crucially, because of fewer rows between Left and Right members, the meeting was shorter than usual. Veteran former Cabinet minister Margaret Beckett had a joke that “the shorter the NEC meetings, the closer Labour is to realising it has to win general elections”.

The meeting did approve the “proscription” of three left-wing groups, an act that some critics felt was a distraction. Some on the Left also felt similarly dismayed by Starmer’s threat to suspend MPs who had signed a “Stop the War” statement criticising Nato over Ukraine. In the end, all of them pulled their signatures.

“When I read his op-ed [opinion article in a newspaper] about Russia and Ukraine, I couldn’t believe it,” one former insider said. “I thought, ‘Am I having a stroke? Has Keir Starmer just written something about Stop the War – a group nobody has heard of – rather than focusing on what could be World War Three?’ Nobody thought Labour MPs were supporting Putin until Keir started implying they were.”

A Starmer ally hit back. “He could have appeased them but he wanted to grip the situation. He wanted to firmly root out any hint that Labour hadn’t changed since Corbyn gave Russia a free pass on the Salisbury poisonings. I can tell you that every one of those MPs would have been out of the party if they’d not retracted.”

The incident highlighted just how prepared Starmer now is to take on anyone associated with the Corbyn era. But some think the row was needless. “I don’t even think it’s Blairite; it’s Mandelson-ite. A lot of the old Blairites look like they’re on the left compared to some of those around Keir now. That’s not necessarily about policy, but about the atmosphere within the party.”

Getting in shape

On Wednesday, Gordon Brown addressed the Shadow Cabinet via Zoom for a special meeting to discuss his work helping the party on constitutional reform. He opened by joking that it had been “a long time” since he had last spoken at a Shadow Cabinet (in fact, it was 25 years ago, when New Labour were on the eve of winning power in 1997). “I hope the next time I address you, it is as the Cabinet,” he said. One senior frontbencher said: “It was such a morale boost having Gordon say that.”

The main focus of many around Starmer is to get the party in shape for the next election. Elections and campaigns director Morgan McSweeney visited Germany’s SPD to learn how Olaf Scholz won power and Washington, DC to learn from the Obama and Biden teams. Links with Labour’s sister parties in Norway and New Zealand, which also have successful PMs, have also been strengthened.

“We have still got work to do to be ready for an election, but at least we now have a functioning machine. We have a grid, target seats, really basic stuff that wasn’t there in 2019,” one senior figure said.

McSweeney, who worked on Starmer’s leadership campaign, is part of a team that includes veterans of the Blair and Brown governments. Chief of staff Sam White (former Treasury aide to Alistair Darling) and communications director Matthew Doyle (former Blair adviser) are key figures, as are policy chief Claire Ainsley and strategy director Deborah Mattinson.

Matt Pound, a key figure in the centrist group Labour First, has been the leader’s head of political organising.

Next week, Pound will get a bigger role at the party’s HQ, becoming senior adviser to general secretary David Evans. In a few weeks’ time, he’ll be joined by a new ‘Director of Attack and Rebuttal’, another echo of the Blair era, when New Labour hounded John Major’s Tory party in Opposition.

But although there is a renewed emphasis on digital campaigning and targeting voters, some MPs and Shadow Cabinet ministers think that Starmer is becoming too reliant on the focus groups led by Mattinson.

“The one thing Deborah is famous for is being Gordon Brown’s focus group guru. Well, Gordon lost,” said one MP. A party staffer added: “They’re relying on focus groups, rather than serious research and analytical data to make targeting decisions.”

One Labour insider who has crunched public opinion data thinks the Tories are actually on course to win the next election with a small majority because Labour is failing to see the popularity of key issues, such as tackling corporate greed.

“Her work is all qualitative, but we need quantitative data on what people care about,” they said. “If you do that, you see the people of this country think they’ve not had a fair shake. That should be our number one issue.

“The Tories are saying ‘the Labour party wrecked this country, we are sorting that out, we delivered Brexit and we got immigration down’. And the data shows people like that. So we need to respond by convincing people of the Labour offer, not just pandering to Bob from Burnley in a focus group.”

Mattinson’s defenders say she has brought an in-depth knowledge of the Red Wall voters who switched to the Tories in 2019. One senior official said: “Deborah knows these voters inside out. Believe me, it’s so refreshing to hear from people what they really think. There’s no such thing as a wasted focus group. And there’s this myth they direct us; they don’t, but they are very useful.”

Starmer himself never stops telling his staff that his mission is to win power. A key moment for his supporters came last year when he was asked by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg if he preferred “unity or winning” and he said “winning”.

Privately, staff say that he often says how much he loathes his official title. He says that while he “is beyond proud” to be Labour’s leader, he doesn’t want to be Leader of the Opposition. “That’s why he won’t be celebrating the second anniversary on Monday, he’ll be out campaigning in London for the local elections.”

Starmer has also worked with his general secretary to repair Labour’s shot finances, especially after huge legal bills were run up in the wake of the anti-Semitism allegations. While links to trade unions continue to be crucial, there’s a notable drive to get money from private donors in business.

In an example of Starmer’s personal approach, after a public campaign visit to Birmingham Erdington before polling day, he went to a hotel for a private drinks reception with 30 local donors to thank them for helping fund the campaign. Instead of using central campaign funds, the entire by-election was underwritten by donor cash – giving donors a tangible impact for their money.

One insider said: “Our fundraising is always going to be different to the Tories. You’re not going to see Labour auction off a five-a-side game with Keir to a Russian oligarch. Our priority is to diversify our funding base so we have support from small, individual donations and also the six-figure donations, in addition to that solid support from trade union members.”

But just as the vaccine bounce for the Tories masked Johnson’s wider weaknesses, has the Partygate bounce for Labour masked Starmer’s?

After being stuck on Zoom calls for almost two years, Starmer is now able to meet more voters in person following the lifting of Covid restrictions. The impact on not only building personal relationships within the party but also in getting feedback on the doorstep has been invaluable.

The pub test

However, some Tory MPs think that – contrary to Labour’s narrative – the more the public sees of the Labour leader, the more they’ll see him as a metropolitan politician who wanted to Remain in the EU. Worse, they’ll realise he can’t articulate what he stands for.

“He fails the pub test,” one Tory backbencher said. “I’d be much more worried if Lisa Nandy or Rachel Reeves was their leader. In an election campaign, Starmer will be their Theresa May; you’ll see how bad he is at it. Like her, he has no change of gear; he’s so monotone.”

Most of Starmer’s colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet disagree with that. And one aide says: “People joked about Sadiq Khan going on and on about him being the son of a bus driver, but it worked. We need the same thing, but with Keir known to the public as the guy who locked up terrorists and criminals [when he was Director of Public Prosecutions].”

Still, one former aide worries about his media performances. “When you see him privately up close, you see the real Keir: he’s funny, really sharp, really smart,” they said. “But when he goes out there on the media, he’s like a rabbit in the headlights. It’s frustrating and it’s sad, and I feel a bit sorry for him. He seems to just lack that confidence you need.”

One shadow minister said that the party’s problems over trans rights was typical in that it started with a stumbling performance from Starmer on LBC on Monday, but had to be rescued by Wes Streeting and Rachell Reeves later in the week. “You need to get people in a room and hammer it out. Then you say, ‘what is the line, what is the Q&A?’”

A shadow cabinet ally adds: “I think he’d admit that on some things, he’s still a work in progress. Curiously he’s the person that looks most like a career politician, given that he’s not a career politician. But he’s got better at being able to make clear political decisions.”

There was a backlash against his “boldest” moves – to withdraw the Parliamentary whip from Corbyn and from his decision to push rule changes on leadership elections – but they were worth it, the frontbencher said. “The fact that he’s been forced to manage any fallout has given him confidence for the next time it happens.”

The bigger worry for some MPs is not a lack of personality but a lack of policy vision. “People don’t necessarily like Boris, but they are asking ‘why should we vote Labour?’” one said.

“You do have to have a vision that excites people because you’ve got to make them excited about a ‘time for change’ election. Otherwise, better ‘the devil you know, the status quo’, can win as well. If the name of the game is majority government, which it should be, then he’s going to have to up the excitement factor.”

A senior aide disagrees. “He’s a really effective conversationalist, the General Election has to be built around that. I would take his numbers on ‘trust on defence’, ”trust on crime’, ‘trust over the economy’ over a ‘sense of excitement’ every time.”

Finding the big offer

The party knows it has to develop a “big offer” on areas like childcare, crime and education, as well as its flagship cost-of-living policy of a windfall tax on big oil and gas firms. The main pitch at the next election will be why Labour can get the economic growth the Tories have failed to provide since 2010.

“Lack of growth is the reason for austerity, for the cost of living crisis, and we have to unify our message around that,” one former staffer said. “It speaks to Tory incompetence, on top of their corruption and treating themselves differently from the rest of us.”

Allies also point out that the polling on Partygate shows how Starmer is more in tune with the public than the PM. When the Met Police opted to open an investigation in January, Starmer walked into his office and made plain how furious he was on the voters’ behalf.

“It was more than anger, it was guilt too. People feel like they should have broken the rules – after all, if the PM could do that for a party, surely they should do it to visit a dying relative? It struck something fundamental in him. He believes in probity, in institutions telling the truth. It offended him to his core the way the public had been betrayed.”

One ally adds that Starmer had also played to his strengths as a former lawyer.

“He’s learned how to read Boris Johnson in PMQs. Because you are so physically close in that chamber, he can tell when Boris isn’t comfortable, and doesn’t believe in his own answers. It’s a bit like poker, he has worked out his ‘tells’.

“When he got Johnson to acknowledge [in January] that breaking the ministerial code is a resigning matter, he knew he had laid a trap that wouldn’t spring for some time. I remember him coming back to the office and saying ‘we are onto him and he knows it’.”

Starmer also played a key role in persuading Christian Wakeford to become the first sitting Tory MP since 2007 to defect directly to Labour.

Although some critics believe the timing of the defection backfired because it forced Tory rebels to rally around the PM, Starmer allies say the strategic aim was achieved. “Our aim was to cause maximum damage to them as possible. If Tory MPs don’t have the balls to get rid of Johnson over Partygate, that is actually good for us on the ground in their seats. Johnson limping on is a reminder of everything they’ve done wrong.

“Having Christian at the launch of our local election campaign in Bury is gold dust for us. Having a Brexit-backing 2019 MP is potent for us in saying we are the party who can deliver this better than the Tories. It also shows we are a broad church.

“The fact you can have Christian Wakeford and Ben Bradshaw [a vociferous former supporter of the Remain cause] in the same party is good for us. It shows we are like Britain, which is not 99 per cent Leave or Remain.

“It’s also about Keir himself. He is not a tribal politician. He genuinely wants to represent everyone.”

Crashing the PM’s party

It was Starmer who made the big call to demand Johnson’s resignation over Partygate. “We’ve always resisted saying when the PM should resign, for the obvious reason that once you’ve done it there’s no going back. People on Twitter think he should resign over everything, but Partygate was on a different level even to Cummings and Barnard Castle,” one aide said.

“We were having the philosophical discussion on the pros and cons and it was Keir who said ‘this is ridiculous, we can’t not call for his resignation now we know the police are investigating, he’s clearly misled Parliament’. It just showed how important it was to him.”

A senior aide added that polling showed the public’s trust in Johnson has been so broken by Partygate that even the Ukraine rallying-round effect was muted.

“The public have made up their minds; they don’t care about the details of this or that party, they know Johnson didn’t follow the rules that they did, and then tried to lie about it. What is so unusual, and why Partygate is so implacable, is that the experience the public had was universal during Covid, where everybody made collective sacrifices.”

A frontbencher said: “What you see is what you get with Keir. He’s evidently a decent bloke, he’s honest, he’ll work bloody hard to make life so much better for the people of this country. Most of all, he represents the future, not the past.”

A Shadow Cabinet minister added: “If you think about everything Keir has had to put up with, and how little ‘normal’ politics has been operating, he’s made enormous progress in his two years. Just imagine how much more progress we can make to get what we all want: a working majority to kick out this tired Government.”

One party veteran said that Starmer had shown in his reaction to Partygate how different he would be as PM from Johnson, and it was a lesson that he could use for other events between now and the election.

“It isn’t actually policy that the public remember before elections that changes things, it’s about how politicians use events,” they said.

“Tony Blair made his name with his reaction to the murder of James Bulger [when in 1993 Blair blamed a ‘broken’ society for the toddler’s killing and developed his ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ soundbite]. He turned that into a story about the sort of country he wanted and the sort of politics he believed in. You need to take an event and make a narrative out of it.”

And yet those closest to Starmer have also picked up something worrying for Labour about Partygate. In the Birmingham Erdington by-election last month, the party saw a swing from the Tories in one of its highest ‘Leave’ voting seats in the country. But there was something on the doorstep that struck the party. “What we saw happen was the voters who were angriest about Partygate stayed at home,” one senior figure said.

“They were really angry and very, very cynical that none of us made a difference. We need to convince them that we will make a change to their lives. We’re making progress but that takes time.” With soaring inflation this year making a general election now likely to happen in 2024 rather than next year, Starmer has a bit more time. But not much.