Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s new leader, has made a smooth start wooing British voters.
In his former career the leader of the UK’s official opposition was indeed a successful defense lawyer in human rights cases, knighted subsequently for serving as Director of Public Prosecutions. Now he’s restoring Labour’s fortunes after a disastrous election and leads Boris Johnson in the polls. On important metrics such as “capable leader,” “sound judgment” and “more honest than most politicians” he beats the prime minister by a large margin. Labour is also running neck and neck with the governing Conservatives.
Every Wednesday in the House of Commons, Starmer picks apart Johnson’s bluster with forensic precision. He supports most of the government’s emergency measures to clamp down on the coronavirus, but denigrates the prime minister’s performance as “not serious” and “not up to the job.”
These are common charges. Johnson’s defects are all too apparent in his handling of a complex crisis that has confounded more capable administrators. Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary to three former prime ministers, abandoned political neutrality last week to criticise him for “overpromising and underdelivering.” Johnson appears “to lack a clear strategy” and “defers to medical scientists at the expense of behavioural and economic experts,” O’Donnell concluded.
If politics were a Hollywood courtroom drama, Starmer would be looking forward to a triumphant conviction. But can he win over the real jury that matters: the voters at the next general election? The Conservative government still has a thumping 80-plus majority and more than four years to put its house in order. If Johnson gets a last-minute trade deal with the European Union and toughs out the winter health crisis he can retrieve his position.
The opposition also starts with one major electoral disadvantage. It is caught between the hammer and anvil of competing nationalisms in an increasingly dis-United Kingdom. Scottish and Welsh independence parties have decimated Labour’s traditional electoral base and in England, where 85% of UK voters live, the party’s last leader, Jeremy Corbyn, lost the patriotic working class vote to the Tories.
Starmer was named after Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, a fiery Scot, but his party, once dominant north of the border, now trails a distant third in polls there behind the ascendant Scottish National Party and the unpopular Conservatives. Many psephologists believe it’s almost impossible for Labour to form a Westminster government without SNP support. The Tories appear to have a natural majority in England.
The last time Labour let it be known that it intended to form a UK government with SNP support, English voters bridled.