17 March 2021

Keir Starmer is flagging – and Leave-voting Hartlepool will be a stern test of his leadership

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Slick, forensic, a voice of sensible moderation – that was the brand being cultivated by Sir Keir Starmer. Already, though, the Labour leader seems to cut a slightly beleaguered figure, running out of steam less than a year into the job. 

Being a pro-Brexit trade union member who voted for the Labour Party in the 2010 and 2015 general elections, I cannot say that I was especially supportive of Starmer becoming leader. While he was the best of a bad bunch, electing a metropolitan former lawyer was an odd choice for a party that had lost so badly to the Tories in working-class, pro-Leave territory. Was Starmer, who represents a north London seat (Holborn & St Pancras) that voted 73% Remain, really the man to rebuild the Red Wall?

Before this begins to read like a hatchet job, it is worth noting that Starmer has shown some signs of robust leadership – not least firing Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow front bench over the Maxine Peake affair. But the latest polling figures from Ipsos MORI make chastening reading.

Since last June, Starmer’s net satisfaction rating has crashed from +31 to -9. And while 52% of Labour voters are satisfied with the job he’s doing, that compares very poorly with the 82% of Tory voters who say the same of Boris Johnson. 

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Starmer is still suffering from his avowed pro-European stances. Not only was he the architect of Labour’s disastrous second referendum policy, but he has also expressed his support on a number of occasions for British involvement in the European Medicines Agency. At a time when Britain is surging ahead with its vaccination programme while Europe looks bitter, sclerotic and erratic, it is Boris Johnson who seems to be the one getting things right, not the EU establishment Starmer is clearly so fond of.

Even the most zealous of EU-enthusiasts can acknowledge that going it alone on vaccines has been a tangible, economically significant and immediate benefit of Brexit. While the Government’s decision-making at various stages of the pandemic has (rightly) been called into question, it is on the way towards rebuilding some kind of competence factor, through the vaccine roll-out programme, just at the time when Starmer’s own reputation for calm assurance has taken a hit.

There’s a longer term problem there too: given that Starmer does not believe in Brexit at all and would gladly see it reversed, why would the public trust him to go in to bat for Britain against a potentially hostile EU? You can bet your bottom dollar that’s a message that Tory strategists will be cultivating ahead of the next general election, whenever that may be.

Of course, he is facing significant political forces that are not of his making. The Tories are successfully consolidating an optimistic pro-Brexit cross-class coalition, while Labour continues to find itself sandwiched between competing cultural tensions. How does it win back working-class former Labour voters in the culturally conservative provinces and maintain the support of socially-liberal metropolitan city-dwellers?

Indeed, there are serious generational tensions even within Labour’s 2019 electorate – with January 2021 ICM polling showing that while 1 in 3 Labour voters over the age of 55 think the UK has a fundamentally racist society, this increases to 2 in 3 for Labour voters aged 18-24. In this sense, I do sympathise with Starmer – any politician would find reconciling such tensions a tall order.

Either way though, there’s no doubt Starmer’s leadership is in the doldrums, and will be even more so if Labour fail to keep hold of Hartlepool in the upcoming by-election. And make no mistake – this is a constituency that is very much in play. In the last general election, Labour was saved by a severe split in the pro-Leave vote between the Tories and the Brexit Party (now rebranded as Reform UK). Even so, the party’s vote share dropped by 15 percentage points

The party must be careful in who it selects: a Corbyn hanger-on or anti-Brexit voice from outside the local area would be absolutely fatal in Hartlepool, It would also send a terrible message to former Labour voters in pro-Leave provincial territory, and a gift to a Tory government which not only delivered Brexit, but has also found renewed confidence with the vaccine roll-out.

Be in no doubt: with Starmer’s personal ratings on the floor, a by-election in a seat that delivered a Leave vote of 70% represents a very stern test indeed, and a potentially pivotal moment in our post-Brexit politics.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent analyst in British public attitudes. 

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.