Labour’s Leader Struggles to Emerge From Boris Johnson’s Shadow
LONDON — If Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to one extreme with his pithy 2019 election slogan — “get Brexit done” — the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, has gone to the other.
Ahead of Labour’s annual conference, which began this weekend, Mr. Starmer penned a policy statement designed to showcase his beliefs that ran to more than 11,000 words. Despite that novella-like length, it is unlikely to compete with the best-sellers.
Serious, competent but lacking charisma, Mr. Starmer is a mirror image of Mr. Johnson, a polarizing politician renowned for phrasemaking and showmanship rather than steadiness or a firm grip on policy.
Yet when Mr. Starmer speaks to Labour members in the English seaside city of Brighton this week, he badly needs some pizazz — both to raise his profile and to explain the agenda of a party that suffered a crushing election defeat in 2019 under its previous, left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
“If you put Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson together they would be the ideal politician,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University. But after a lackluster year, Professor Fielding said, Mr. Starmer “has got to communicate his sense of purpose and what the point of the Labour Party is under his leadership in post-Covid Britain.”
“It’s an existential question he has to ask himself, to answer and then communicate,” Professor Fielding said.
No one doubts the intelligence, seriousness or competence of Mr. Starmer, a former chief prosecutor who worked his way from a modest start in life to the highest echelons of the legal establishment.
But some think he is not savvy enough politically, while others accuse him of picking internal fights to underscore his opposition to the Corbynite left. Those include a dispute over changes to the voting system for future party leadership contests that would probably have stopped a left-winger from getting the top job again. That plan caused sufficient anger within the party that Mr. Starmer was forced to put forward a watered-down version instead.
Yet the more telling complaint is that he has simply failed to make his presence felt in a way that showcases the party’s positions or enhances its standing with the public. Nor, critics say, has he exploited Mr. Johnson’s numerous setbacks.
Elected last year following Labour’s catastrophic 2019 defeat, Mr. Starmer has spent much of his leadership detoxifying a party whose image was marred by persistent infighting over allegations of anti-Semitism. That culminated in the suspension of Mr. Corbyn, who remains excluded from Labour’s parliamentary group.
That focus on interparty turmoil, along with the 80-seat majority that Mr. Johnson’s conservatives enjoy, has relegated Labour to the role of an onlooker in Parliament — so much so that Mr. Johnson brazenly broke a vow and raised taxes this month without fear that Mr. Starmer and his colleagues could do much to take advantage of it.
Perhaps mindful of the need to confront the Conservatives more aggressively, Mr. Starmer stepped up his criticism this weekend, telling the BBC that there had been a “complete lack of planning” by the government over the shortage of truck drivers that has Britons anxious about the delivery of fuel and goods.
In terms of election strategy, Labour faces a huge challenge. In 2019, it lost a clutch of parliamentary seats in its former strongholds — the middle and north of the country — as working-class voters warmed to Mr. Johnson, with his pro-Brexit agenda and willingness to wade into culture wars.
That left Mr. Starmer with the unenviable task of winning back those traditional Labour voters behind the so-called “red wall” without alienating anti-Brexit supporters in big cities like London, where the party’s support is increasingly concentrated.
His bad luck is that the pandemic has dominated the media agenda, keeping the government at center stage and giving it a megaphone to trumpet its leadership role, whether merited or not.
During the early months of the Covid crisis, the prime minister floundered, initially resisting lockdowns then having to reverse course, and Mr. Starmer outperformed Mr. Johnson in their head-to-heads in Parliament. The government’s effective vaccine rollout revived the Conservatives’ fortunes, but that effect has now faded and Britain faces an uncertain winter, with the effects of the pandemic difficult to predict. Still, Mr. Johnson is polling reasonably well for an accident-prone leader in the middle of his term.
Critics on the left say that Mr. Starmer’s camp has opted for platitudes and shied away from distinctive left-of-center policies to avoid offending any electoral group.
“They thought that Starmer is Biden and Johnson is Trump, and that Johnson would self-destruct,” said James Schneider, a former spokesman for Mr. Corbyn. “The difference is that Biden is a hugely more appealing figure to the American public — he has an everyman appeal.”
When Labour lost an election for a vacant parliamentary seat in northern England in May, Mr. Starmer suffered another self-inflicted setback with a botched reshuffle of his top team. He appeared to blame his deputy, Angela Rayner, for the defeat, stripping her of a key position, but he was forced to retreat in the face of a backlash and eventually gave her more responsibilities.
A full-blown leadership crisis was averted when Labour unexpectedly went on to win an election in another northern constituency, Batley and Spen, in July.
But there may be challenges to Mr. Starmer’s authority as he prepares to take on Mr. Johnson in a general election that must take place by 2024 but is expected a year earlier. One Labour member on the ascent is Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, who has raised his profile during the pandemic.
Others in the party are still committed to Mr. Corbyn’s hard-left agenda and remain angry about Mr. Starmer’s push to change the voting system. It also wants Mr. Corbyn reinstated to the parliamentary group.
The worry for more moderate Labour supporters is that they may be seeing a repeat of the leadership of Ed Miliband, who, like Mr. Starmer, came from the “soft left” of the Labour Party, but who lost the 2015 general election.
Tom Baldwin, a former spokesman for Mr. Miliband, said that he believed Mr. Starmer could win and that he could well be an effective prime minister. But he was also critical of his lack of a convincing message and his focus on internal battles, which he said “are not going to help us reconnect ourselves to voters.”
“I would prefer if the Labour Party were having a conversation with the country about the country,” Mr. Baldwin said.
Mr. Starmer’s supporters say voters will become disenchanted with Mr. Johnson in light of his broken promise not to raise taxes, and that the government will fail to deliver on his pledges to bring prosperity to neglected parts of the country.
Once “normal” politics resumes after the pandemic, voters will ultimately warm to Mr. Starmer, they argue. Though he prefers to talk about policy rather than personality, Mr. Starmer spoke movingly about his upbringing in a recent interview with Piers Morgan.
Still, his personality is very different from that of Mr. Johnson, and most analysts believe his best tactic is to lean into his strengths, hoping that voters are drawn to a man who exudes stability after years of political turmoil.
It is also critical, political analysts say, that Mr. Starmer give voters a clear reason to support the Labour Party.
“He’s got to find a message, he’s got to be able to communicate that message and to be able to sell it, and he’s not done any of this so far,” Professor Fielding said. “Competence isn’t enough.”