Prime minister is only the second most difficult job in British politics. The toughest gig is leader of the opposition. However much trouble they get into, however unpopular they become, prime ministers can always do things. When they call news conferences, the TV cameras will turn up. They can launch initiatives, unveil legislation and engage with foreign leaders and be certain of generating headlines. They have many tools for imposing themselves on the public’s consciousness. Whatever you get up to as prime minister, you are guaranteed an audience.
Leaders of the opposition don’t have that privilege because they can only talk. Whether they are attacking the incumbent, outlining alternative policies or describing their vision of a different country, it is words in the air. And with no certainty that either the media or the voters will be inclined to listen to someone who wields no power.
Only people who have done the job can fully appreciate what a grinding and often unrewarding challenge it is to try to capture the nation’s attention from opposition. When the 1964 election was called, Harold Wilson, then leading Labour in opposition, told a friend that it was a huge relief because he had “run out of things to say”. On his arrival at Number 10 in 1997, Tony Blair expressed the frustration of all of them when he declared: “For 18 years – 18 long years – my party has been in opposition. It could only say, it could not do… Today, enough of talking. It is time now to do.”
The only surefire way for an opposition leader to attract lavish media coverage is to do something embarrassing. Neil Kinnock flicking the Vs at the TV cameras who had recorded him falling over on Brighton beach. William Hague making himself look daft by wearing a baseball cap on a log flume in a misconceived bid to appear modern. Iain Duncan Smith’s painful croak at prime minister’s questions. Ed Miliband’s unequal struggle with a bacon sarnie, which still comes up as Google’s second suggestion when you search his name. Don’t make a fool of yourself. This sounds like a low bar to set until you remember how many opposition leaders have failed to clear it.
Sir Keir Starmer has so far avoided pratfalls of that kind while introducing himself to the public in a generally favourable way. When he became Labour leader, his elevation coinciding with the peak of the first wave of the epidemic, many opined that he would struggle to make himself heard at all. So he has done well to make himself a presence in the public’s mind during the gravest health emergency in a century. It is no mean thing to have achieved the best approval ratings for any opposition leader since Mr Blair was marching towards Number 10.
Yet the epidemic has still had negative consequences for the Labour leader. He is projected to the public through a very narrow lens. Voters see him either attempting to cross-examine Boris Johnson in a sparsely populated House of Commons, where last week Sir Keir made a rare blunder, or standing at a podium delivering a speech to an empty room. This is a problem and one that has increasingly troubled his team. They worry that it is defining him as a remote, passionless and Westminstery figure rather than someone to whom voters can relate on a personal level. One member of the shadow cabinet recently remarked to me: “We need to get Keir out and about. That’s essential.”
We will soon have an opportunity to examine his calibre as a campaigner. It has been confirmed that this May’s elections will go ahead. They will be an unusually large mid-parliament electoral event that will test the Labour leader’s talents as a campaign strategist and provide proof or otherwise that he has the capacity to form positive connections with the public. If he possesses another gear, here will be a chance to show it. If he doesn’t, we will find out.
A lot is at stake in May because the elections postponed from last year will be combined with those falling this spring. Voters will be casting ballots for the Scottish parliament, the Welsh senedd, the London mayor and assembly, seven metro mayors, five city mayors and dozens of English shire, metropolitan, unitary and district councils. There will also be votes for 40 police and crime commissioners. Prepare for the largest test of public opinion outside a general election and the first sample of the national mood since both Brexit and the epidemic.
It will be a strange kind of campaign because it will have to be Covid-safe. No one expects the virus to have been completely eliminated by then, so baby kissing, flesh pressing and other ancient rituals of the campaign trail will probably be forbidden. Labour will be hoping that door knocking and leafleting will be permitted because they have many more activists to put on the streets than the Tories. The Conservatives will seek to exploit their huge investment in social media.
I find quite a lot of relief among Labour people that there hasn’t been another postponement of these elections. “Campaigning brings people together and forces us to look outwards to the public,” comments one longstanding Labour MP. It has been a boost to party morale to have closed the polling deficit of 20 points against the Tories that was inherited by Sir Keir. But you can’t take poll ratings to the bank. Robust confidence that Labour is on the road to recovery needs the evidence that can only be provided by real votes piling up in ballot boxes.
These elections should also be welcome to Labour because they give the party something more important to focus on than silly internal spats about whether or not it is appropriate for their leader to appear alongside the flag of the country he aspires to govern. Short answer: of course it is. If the polls are even vaguely right, there are plenty of places where Labour ought to perform well. There won’t be many bets against Andy Burnham, whose profile during the epidemic earned him the sobriquet “king of the north”, being re-elected as mayor of Greater Manchester. There’s also confidence that Sadiq Khan will be returned for a second term as mayor of London. The stakes are high in the West Midlands where the Tory mayor, Andy Street, won by a margin of less than 1% in May 2017, but has built a strong personal brand.
Labour is sounding most jumpy about its prospects in the red wall battleground. Were the traditionally Labour voters who turned Tory at the last election a one-off loan to the Conservatives to “get Brexit done”? Or is Boris Johnson still hanging on to their support? The contests in North Tyneside and Tees Valley will help inform us. David Cowling, a doyen among psephologists, draws my attention to the newly created metropolitan mayor of West Yorkshire, an area in which 13 of the parliamentary constituencies are held by Labour and nine by the Conservatives, four of them Tory gains from Labour in 2019. That’s one to watch.
The Tories are looking forward to these elections a lot more than they were before Christmas. I talked last week about their hopes of getting a “vaccine bounce”, since when the idea has become widely discussed. Senior Tories think that what one dares to call a “feelgood factor in time for May” may be enhanced if the government makes good on the ambition that all over-50s will have been offered a jab by the time of these elections.
We know that Boris Johnson can front a campaign. He demonstrated that by winning two terms as mayor of London, by being the principal face of Brexit in the referendum and at the last election.
We don’t yet know whether Sir Keir is any good at retail politics. Yes, he won the Labour leadership by a handsome margin, but that was a contest with a highly specialist electorate. In May, he will head his party’s effort in a very different kind of battle, one for the ears and support of millions of voters in England, Scotland and Wales.
“We have to show that we are making progress,” says one member of the shadow cabinet. A strong Labour result will ease some of the creeping anxieties about whether the party is losing momentum while increasing the public appetite for listening to what its leader has to say. An unimpressive performance will exacerbate angst about the party’s prospects and leave the public less inclined to think they need to pay it much heed. In politics more than in most activities, success breeds success and failure foments failure. Sir Keir needs these elections to attract the right kind of attention.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer