In theory, Sir Keir Starmer and his comrades should be feeling chirpy. The opposition Labour party he leads is six points ahead of Boris Johnson’s governing Conservatives, a rating that if replicated at the next general election could make him UK prime minister.
Yet some of Starmer’s closest allies fret that Labour should be much further ahead given the multiple woes of Johnson’s administration. Members of his own shadow cabinet admit to a lack of vision and charisma in their leader. And some colleagues fear Starmer’s commitment to fiscal discipline will block adoption of potentially popular big-ticket polices.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves last autumn announced a “green new deal” involving £224bn in investment over eight years in climate measures to be funded by borrowing. But shadow ministers rarely mention this pledge on the airwaves.
“The Blairites don’t want Labour borrowing more. So no one is really talking about the green deal,” said one Labour MP.
The shadow cabinet was also split in recent months over whether to increase the scale of Labour’s proposed windfall tax on the energy industry as Rishi Sunak drew up his own plans for such a levy. “There was a lot of anxiety about being gazumped expressed,” said one person in the room.
But in the end Starmer and Reeves stuck with their original plan for £6.6bn in extra taxes to cut energy costs. Sunak ended up offering double the Labour package with a £15bn support package for households.
That desire to sound more fiscally responsible is also likely to lead to Labour dropping one of its signature policies from the 2019 general election — the scrapping of tuition fees for undergraduate students — although the details are not yet finalised.
Starmer’s supporters say his fiscal caution is paying dividends: the Conservative opinion poll lead on economic affairs has slumped from 33 points to zero in two years, according to YouGov. That, however, may reflect anger at the government’s handling of inflation rather than being a positive endorsement of Labour.
Senior party figures suggest Starmer needs to loosen the purse strings at the annual conference in Liverpool in September. Some shadow cabinet members are already pitching for billions of pounds of conference pledges on issues such as preventive health and childcare.
Labour cannot afford to be complacent about the scale of its lead over a government that has in recent months been battered by a cost of living crisis and a wave of bad headlines including more than 100 police fines for “partygate” revelry at Downing Street during coronavirus lockdown.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband enjoyed a 12-point lead during David Cameron’s premiership, but still lost the 2015 general election.
And Starmer has his own troubles. He is under investigation by Durham Police over allegations of lockdown breaches at an April 2021 event dubbed “currygate”. House of Commons authorities this week announced an investigation into claims his office was late declaring outside income.
Even his critics admit Starmer has succeeded in his initial task of shifting the party back to the political centre since taking control in April 2020.
Labour went through a four-year experiment with radicalism under former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who inspired left-wingers but turned off many traditional working class Labour voters in the party’s rustbelt heartlands.
Starmer has shifted to a more traditional social-democrat pitch while also decisively clamping down on anti-Semitism among members. But his second task — winning over the general public — is more of a challenge.
Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, contrasts his upright persona and managerial style with the more mercurial Johnson. But he leaves focus groups cold.
This week a “word cloud” from a poll by JL Partners found the most common word associated with Starmer by the public was “boring”, with “bland” and “weak” not far behind.
A poll for Sunday’s Observer newspaper found Johnson leading Starmer by 28 to 26 per cent on who would make the best prime minister.
Victory in the Wakefield by-election next week could boost party morale, but few expect a landslide, even though the northern English city’s former Tory MP quit after a conviction for sexual assault.
By being more patriotic, pro-monarchy and pro-defence than his predecessor, Starmer has neutralised some of the issues that repelled floating voters in “red wall” seats in northern England and the Midlands that Labour lost in 2019. Pollsters Redfield & Wilton this week reported a Labour lead of 10 points in red wall seats.
But even some allies admit Starmer has failed to knit together a compelling narrative of positive change. Under him, 10 slogans have been tried then discarded, including “secure, protect, rebuild”, “security, prosperity, respect” and “a new chapter for Britain”.
“We do have lots of policy. But the problem is that there’s no big theme that ties all those policies together, that would survive contact at an election,” said one senior shadow cabinet member. “We are running out of time to convince the public what Labour would do in power.”
Some shadow ministers believe Starmer is often indecisive and lacks a clear political philosophy of his own. Others fear he lacks the charisma to win over the public.
“He’s just not making any impact at all. During the pandemic we gave him the benefit of the doubt because it’s hard for the opposition to get cut-through in a crisis,” said one shadow minister. “But he can’t hide behind that now. The fact is that he just lacks the common touch.”