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Paul Vallely: Keir Starmer has a steep hill to climb

08 December 2023

But it would be a mistake to underestimate him, says Paul Vallely


Sir Keir Starmer gives a speech at a conference hosted by the Resolution Foundation at the QEII Centre in central London, on Monday

Sir Keir Starmer gives a speech at a conference hosted by the Resolution Foundation at the QEII Centre in central London, on Monday

SIR KEIR STARMER is dull, uninspiring, and lacks vision — or so it has been widely said. Almost half of the voters of the UK were unsure what the Labour Party stood for under him, pollsters claimed last year. But, in the past few days, the Labour leader has given them something to think about.

He appeared statesmanlike in his interaction with the Greek Prime Minister, in contrast with Rishi Sunak’s histrionic snubbing of the European visitor. And Sir Keir looked distinctly prime-ministerial at the COP28 summit, where he pledged — after Tory back-pedalling — that an incoming Labour government would restore the UK’s reputation as a global leader on the green agenda.

Next, in The Sunday Telegraph, the house journal of Conservative activists, he praised Margaret Thatcher as a visionary leader who, like Tony Blair and Clement Attlee, had had a “mission” and a “driving sense of purpose”. He lauded her determination to “drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism”.

This was, predictably enough, a red rag to the Labour Left, who recalled that Thatcher also laid waste to working-class communities, sold off the nation’s council houses, and ended the cross-party consensus that bound Britain together as One Nation.

It’s easy to see why Sir Keir is trying to woo Tory voters. Pollsters can talk about the inevitability of a Labour government, but he knows that he has a steep hill to climb. Labour has just 198 MPs to the Conservatives’ 350. To win a majority, Labour needs to gain more seats than the 145 that won the Blair landslide in 1997. Tory voters must not just stay at home, or vote for Nigel Farage. He wants some Tories to switch to Labour.

It would be a mistake to underestimate him. When he took over, Labour was miles behind in the polls. Today, the party has had a poll lead for two years. Under both Liz Truss and Mr Sunak, the Conservatives are twice as unpopular as they were when Boris Johnson was ousted. Sir Keir has completely transformed the Labour Party by administering what he this week called “a course of shock therapy”.

He has prudently trodden a cautious line on Brexit, immigration, and the economy, setting up — at the prompting of his chief of staff, Sue Gray — an internal “star chamber” to grill shadow ministers on their policies, to ensure that they are fiscally watertight and will appeal to voters. He may, of course, yet be tripped up by his support for Israel, since a large swath of his supporters want him to condemn publicly the unconscionable killing of so many innocent Palestinian children.

The Labour leader suffered a major rebellion over this stance: ten of his frontbenchers have quit, and 46 other MPs have defied him and called for an immediate ceasefire. In the last election, 65 per cent of British Muslims supported Labour, but that support has halved, according to polling by Savanta. About 15 Conservative MPs in England and Wales hold margins that are smaller than the number of Muslim voters in their constituencies, according to analysis by the Financial Times.

Sir Keir hopes that this will change before polling day. In any case, he knows, elections are not won by the Opposition; they are lost by the Government.

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