In the contest between the lawyer and the showman, the showman is winning

By David Osland

Tony Blair’s unhappiness at the modest five or six point opinion poll advantage enjoyed by Jeremy Corbyn back in November 2017 inadvertently generated Labour Twitter’s best-known catchphrase.

Under any other leader, Blair argued, Labour’s lead would stretch to 15 or even 20%. Corbyn supporters were quick to turn those words ironically back against the subsequent incumbent, and not without justification.

On Blair’s logic, Labour’s polling against a mendacious and corrupt Tory government, making an ever-more transparent hash of Brexit and endlessly failing to turn levelling-up rhetoric into anything Britain’s ‘godawful’ places might actually notice, should now be of Pyongyang proportions.

It’s anything but. While it varies from poll to poll, it generally stands at a surprisingly slim six to eight points on a good day; as of yesterday, it was down to just two. Must try harder, as teachers used to write on my school report cards.

That edge is so slender as to almost defy rational explanation. After all, a decent mid-term poll lead for the main opposition is a given in British politics.

Kinnock, Miliband and Corbyn all had far happier showings during their tenure, only to see ephemeral ascendancy eviscerated in the course of the next election campaign.

But it gets even worse than that. Embarrassingly for Keir Starmer, he sits behind Boris Johnson – the only British prime minister found to have committed a criminal act while in office – on the ‘best prime minister’ metric.

Numbers as disappointing as this should be cause for despondency for all Labour supporters, irrespective of factional leaning, and are clearly a legitimate topic for objective assessment. We need to discuss why we are where we are, and how we get to someplace else.

The most commonly canvassed explanation, at least as far as national newspaper columnists are concerned, is so-called Long Corbyn. This hardly washes as an excuse.

Whether you subscribe to the notion of the inherent toxicity of Corbynism or not – and I obviously don’t – we are now well over two years into Starmer’s stint.

After two years, a leader has to take responsibility for a party’s performance. Had Corbyn blamed defeat in 2017 on Long Milibandism and the diminution of Labour’s vote north of the border, for instance, only ridicule would have ensued.

Added to this, Starmer’s number one theme throughout the entire period has been precisely the furious scramble to distance himself from his predecessor, right up to withdrawal of the whip.

So what else could be the explanation? Some of Labour’s unreconstructed 1990s crew see the crux of the matter as insufficient Blairism. They seem to forget that we are not in Kansas anymore.

With hindsight, the New Labour years may look like good times, but in an era that necessitates choice between heating and eating for many, little yearning for Blairism redux seems palpable.

Besides, the financial crisis, Brexit and the return of stagflation were all turning points. New Labour innovations such as bank deregulation and Private Finance Initiiative procurement were co-creators of the context of Britain’s present problems, and doubling down a quarter of a century on would not work, even if the demand were there.

Instead, most of the left maintains that Labour is suffering from excessive timidity. Many policies from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos were individually popular, and just need more persuasive salespeople, or so the theory runs.

Starmer needn’t even advocate Corbynism without Corbyn. Just some sort of recognisably solid social democratic thinking, some sort of offer of meaningful change that could easily be sold on the doorsteps of Birmingham and Blackpool, and all the other places for which Tory ministers can scarcely conceal their contempt.

Starmer is currently writing a book on his political philosophy. But if his Fabian pamphlet last September is anything to go by, it is unlikely to venture beyond mild platitudes.

If some of Starmer’s unnamed ‘closest colleagues’ reportedly struggle to know what he stands for, what chance does the electorate stand of working it out?

Then there is the contention that Starmer is untrustworthy. The main evidence here is the ten pledges on which he built his leadership campaign. Starmer has admitted with perhaps disarming frankness that he no longer considers himself bound by them.

The downside of this ‘look, I only lied to a bunch of gullible Trot dupes to get the job’ approach is that it will feed widespread cynicism about politicians as a whole. If those promises can so easily be ditched, why take any subsequent promises seriously?

Finally, there is Starmer’s lack of charisma, an observation that has transcended cliché to reach the status of truth universally acknowledged.

Even his cheerleaders concede that he would not command the adulation of the Glasto crowd if he ever got as far as the pyramid stage. Or to put it another way, nobody rewrites the lyrics of White Stripes stadium anthems in his honour.

Unnamed senior party figures have even unkindly compared him to a wooden plank, the Sunday Times reports.

This needn’t be a decisive drawback. John Major proved that the unexciting can win parliamentary majorities. But factor in everything else, and it clearly isn’t helpful.

Starmer was a socialist as a young man. My best case scenario would be that his engrained easy demeanour springs largely from a surfeit of caution. Have we really lost all glimpse of the young crusading lawyer who worked with Wapping and P&O Dover strikers in the 1980s? It’s a pity, if so.

The rejoinder of his supporters to the charisma by-pass charge is that it doesn’t matter and could even work for him. After an extended period of frat boy government, they insist, Britain is craving a period of dull administration.

Part of me wishes this were so. The latest round of opinion polling seems to indicate otherwise.

In what Laura Kuenssberg famously billed as a contest between a lawyer and a showman, the showman is winning. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

If there is a real Keir Starmer inside those curiously coloured mid-blue suits, it’s time for him to stand up. If there isn’t, the chances of him ever leading a Labour government look increasingly poor.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Keir Starmer. Author: Matthisvalerie, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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