Considering how dreadful Jeremy Corbyn was as Leader of the Labour Party, it’s easy to understand why the elevation of Keir Starmer last year appeared a breath of fresh air – he could hardly have been worse. However, after a strong start, in recent months a sense has developed that his leadership is starting to flag, with public approval heading downwards. Why so?
Unsurprisingly, the Left’s theory is that he simply hasn’t been left-wing enough, with Corbynism minus the anti-Semitism seen as the winning ticket. On the Right of the party, the view is that Starmer simply hasn’t done enough to disassociate himself from Corbynism. Their ideal would be for him to act as a more traditional figure, demonstrating genuine patriotism and a more conservative cultural attitude to win back Red Wall voters.
The problem for Starmer is that he’s not well suited to pursue either strategy. Being an intelligent man, he knows that the British public are never going to elect a party with a far-left social and economic platform, as Labour’s wipeout in the 2019 election showed.
However, neither is Starmer well placed to chase after working class voters through appeals to patriotism and tradition. Even putting his hardcore opposition to Brexit aside, recent Freudian slips, such as bending the knee to BLM and apologising for meeting a priest (unsurprisingly) wedded to traditional Christian theology, has allowed the public to see that he shares very different values to most of Labour’s former voters in the Red Wall.
This is because, at heart, Keir Starmer is a soft left metropolitan liberal. He didn’t come into politics to promote Queen, country and business. His interest in politics was born out of a desire to promote the, legitimate in many cases, interests of minority groups and individuals. No amount of performatively waving the Union Jack or solemnly paying tribute to the Royal Family is ever going to convince people otherwise.
By trying to pretend to be someone he’s not, Starmer risks failing to win back support in Labour’s traditional heartlands, whilst concurrently losing the party support in more liberal urban areas to trendier parties like the Greens.
To try and get round this dilemma, he could try unashamedly committing Labour to his liberal, ‘woke’ world view, whilst retaining a more centrist economic agenda, perhaps even via an alliance with the Lib Dems: finally ending the century long Liberal-Labour split. But with only a limited number of winnable seats likely to reward such a deal, the odds of achieving victory via this path would be slight, and would almost certainly still require a post-election deal with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists.
If Labour genuinely wants to win a substantial victory again on its own, it must decide if it is willing to be genuinely patriotic party – in touch with the world views and values of the bulk of the British people – or not. And if so to commit to that. Because, with one year of Starmer’s leadership having now passed, it is clear that this wishy-washy approach, intrinsic to his leadership, is pleasing no one.