As Boris Johnson shakes after accusations of “Partygate” from Downing Street, Keir Starmer’s Labor Party enjoys a healthy leadership in public opinion polls.
Suddenly, Starmer, who has been fighting for attention most of his time at the top, is considered a possible winner. In his New Year’s speech earlier this month, he welcomed Labor leaders who won the election, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Commentators noted that his focus on the party trio of winners showed that he was determined to win. Finally, of course, he set his course.
Of course, Starmer made exactly the same point in his speech at the conference as a leader in 2020, but that was virtual, Covid was furious and the next election was miles away. Johnson attracted almost all the political attention and few noticed Starmer’s references.
Even so, the leadership of Labor in the opposition in the mid-term poll is no guarantee of electoral success. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband enjoyed the bigger ones and neither of them became prime minister. Clearly, Starmer wants to avoid that fate. He could take some limited cues from the only two post-war Labor leaders to win over the opposition: Wilson and Blair.
Although markedly different in character, both politicians framed their large pre-election debates with apolitical caution. In preparation for the 1964 election, Wilson set “modernization” as his theme, with an emphasis onwhite heat technology”. Blair also committed to “modernization” in 1997. Both made a dividing line between the parties “competence against incompetence”.
These are the safest topics of the campaign. Who is for incompetence? Apparently Starmer is now following the same course. In his speech, he proclaimed his three guiding principles, “security, prosperity and respect”.
Wilson and Blair also made the most of public perception of tired, long-standing conservative administrations plagued by accusations of sliminess. Sounds familiar? Amid various scandals in 1962, when Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan carried out an extensive cabinet reshuffle called “Night of the Long Knives”, Wilson, then a rising rising star, said: “The Prime Minister fired half of his cabinet … the wrong half.”
Both leaders used wit as a political weapon. Although less successful as a performer, Starmer was effective in the prime minister’s questions this week, undoing Johnson’s fictional “apology” for gathering at Garden No. 10 which he admitted to attending in May 2020, despite Covid’s severe restrictions.
For opposition Labor leaders, this is an easy task – declaring offensive topics while beating the besieged prime ministers. The challenge is to make their carefully selected big topics sound exciting.
Being an effective opposition leader is an art. They cannot be tried for implementing politics because they are not in government. Instead, they must look as if they own the future only in word and deed. That means being radical and confident. This is even more true of Starmer, given the epic challenges hovering over the next election, from the effects of the pandemic to climate change – not forgetting Brexit.
First of all, the winners of the election stand out for their uniqueness. For those like Wilson, Blair, or Margaret Thatcher, there were no endless comparisons to her predecessors. Indeed, Blair’s break with the past was open. His party became “New” by name.
Starmer must act in a way that ensures that this is one of the last articles to cite past Labor in relation to his leadership. He must be original and expressive in his newly elevated position on the political stage, looking ahead without being defined or stifled by any phase of his party’s turbulent past.
The writer is the author ‘Premieres we’ve never had: Success and failure from Butler to Corbyn