As Boris Johnson totters in the wake of the Downing Street “Partygate” allegations, Keir Starmer’s Labour party is enjoying a healthy lead in public opinion polls.
All at once Starmer, who has struggled for attention for much of his time at the top, is seen as a possible winner. In his new year speech, delivered earlier this month, he hailed Labour’s election-winning leaders, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Commentators noted that his focus on the party’s trio of winners showed he was resolutely determined on victory. At last, it was implied, he was setting his course.
Of course, Starmer had made precisely the same point in his conference speech as leader in 2020, but that one was virtual, Covid was raging and the next election was miles away. Johnson commanded nearly all political attention and few noted Starmer’s references.
Even so, a midterm poll lead for Labour in opposition is no guarantee of electoral success. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband enjoyed bigger ones and neither of them became prime minister. Clearly Starmer is eager to avoid that fate. He might take some limited cues from the only two postwar Labour leaders who won from opposition: Wilson and Blair.
Although wildly different characters, both politicians framed their big pre-election arguments with apolitical caution. In the build up to the 1964 election, Wilson deployed “modernisation” as his theme, with a focus on the “white heat of technology”. Blair also pledged to “modernise” in 1997. Both made the dividing line between the parties “competence versus incompetence”.
These are the safest of campaigning themes. Who is in favour of incompetence? Evidently Starmer is now following the same course. In his speech he proclaimed his three guiding principles were “security, prosperity and respect”.
Wilson and Blair also made the most of public perceptions of tired, long-serving Conservative administrations that were tormented by sleaze allegations. Sound familiar? Amid various scandals in 1962, when the Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan carried out an extensive cabinet reshuffle dubbed the “night of the long knives”, Wilson, then the rising star of the opposition, declared: “the prime minister has sacked half his cabinet . . . The wrong half”.
Both leaders deployed wit as a political weapon. Though less accomplished as a performer, Starmer was effective at prime minister’s questions this week, demolishing Johnson’s contrived “apology” in relation to the Number 10 garden gathering he admitted to having attended in May 2020, despite heavy Covid restrictions.
For Labour leaders of the opposition this is the easy bit — proclaiming inoffensive themes while battering besieged prime ministers. The challenge is to make their cautiously chosen big themes sound exciting.
Being an effective opposition leader is an art. They cannot be judged by policy implementation as they are not in government. Instead they must appear to own the future with words and deeds alone. That means being radical as well as safe. This applies all the more to Starmer, given the epic challenges that hover over the next election, from the consequences of the pandemic to climate change — not forgetting Brexit.
Above all, election winners stand out for their distinctiveness. For the likes of Wilson, Blair or Margaret Thatcher there were no never-ending comparisons with predecessors. Indeed Blair’s break with the past was overt. His party became “New” by name.
Starmer must act in ways that ensure this is one of the last articles in which past Labour greats are cited in relation to his leadership. He needs to be original and distinct in his newly elevated position on the political stage, looking ahead without being defined or stifled by any phase of his party’s stormy past.
The writer is author of ‘The Prime Ministers We Never Had: Success and Failure from Butler to Corbyn’