Decent, competent, cautious, but Starmer still has to prove he can inspire victory | Gaby Hinsliff

The Labour leader is doing well in the polls, but it’s time he laid out a political credo that makes him electable

After grief comes a time to heal. After loss comes acceptance. And after even the messiest divorce a willingness to move on eventually comes.

But it’s not something that can be rushed, as Keir Starmer is discovering. However long we have known it was coming, Britain’s final break-up with the EU still feels like a bereavement for some. Yet there was no time for mourning in the Labour party. A ticking parliamentary clock forced the opposition to choose between voting for the only form of Brexit deal available or taking the electoral consequences. By asking his party to back the deal, Starmer was, in effect, inviting a grieving widow to move on with the body barely cold.

The revolt in parliament reached beyond the usual suspects, despite some bruising arm-twisting. Outside it, many natural Starmer supporters are dismayed. What happened to the hero of the battle for a second referendum, the man who said that he’d argue for the return of freedom of movement? Now Labour’s position seems to be that there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Starmer would not, he confirmed, seek to rewrite the deal if he gains office. For some, that was more shocking than the vote itself. Laura Parker, the former Momentum co-ordinator turned Starmer cheerleader, tweeted that she was “beyond words”. But others have plenty. “It’s all tactics, no strategy,” says one senior Labour MP. “Keir and his people are not political and they’re making increasing missteps because they don’t have an analysis about where they ultimately want to get to.”

Yet, as with Labour’s decision to expel Jeremy Corbyn over his response to damning findings on antisemitism, what the party finds painful or perplexing is often a whole lot easier for the electorate. After four interminable years of arguing over Brexit, too many have simply had a bellyful; an Opinium poll finds even Remainers wanted MPs to vote for the deal by a margin of 50% to 19%, with Labour voters splitting along similar lines. Some will have been motivated by fear of no deal instead, but the Tories’ promise to just “get Brexit done” also resonated with people sick of living with uncertainty or simply beyond caring.

They may soon start to care very much, of course, if their own lives are upended by the unfurling economic consequences. And at best, we face years of haggling over issues left unresolved by this skeletal agreement. Britain can no more simply agree to “move on” from all that than from the pandemic.

But that’s not quite what Starmer meant. Labour will still have bones to pick, but as his shadow cabinet colleague Rachel Reeves said in closing the debate, the aim is to stop re-litigating the past and start “thinking about tomorrow”; to deal with reality as it is, not brood on what might have been. Her boss seeks to move on less from Europe than from the endless divisions and toxic ghosts of his party’s recent past. But move on to what, exactly?

When Deborah Mattinson, the BritainThinks pollster whose deep dives into Leave-leaning areas are read increasingly closely in the leader’s office, asked her focus groups late last year which animal Boris Johnson resembles, the answer was a sheep. Voters saw him as hapless, herded first this way and that, always with someone else nipping at his heels. But Starmer was an eagle, circling high in the sky. That beats being a sheep, obviously; eagles are powerful birds. But they’re also seen as remote and calculating, hovering perpetually out of reach. Who could know what an eagle really thinks? And therein lies his problem.

It’s a rookie mistake to confuse political pragmatism, or the willingness to do what is necessary to win, with absence of conviction. As Tony Blair used to joke, when urged to drop all that stuff he said just to get elected, he’d explain that it was worse than that: he actually believed it. He didn’t ditch clause IV or seek to reform education because it polled well, but because those were genuinely his instincts. Sometimes, especially on Europe, he was and is the opposite of pragmatic.

But where Blair did compromise with the electorate, it was usually for a reason: pragmatism with a purpose, securing consent in return for clearly identified progressive gains. He could, at least in the early days, lead the party beyond its comfort zone by convincing them the journey would be worth it. But we don’t yet know what it is Starmer burns to change. What drives him, excites him, but also sets him apart from anyone else in contemporary politics?

Nobody expects a full-blown manifesto. But he must now develop at least one idea that defines him for voters, shows his party that uncomfortable compromises lead somewhere worth going and that is recognisably something Boris Johnson wouldn’t do. The latter has always struggled to identify what Brexit is for, exactly; we know he wants to be free, but what he plans to do with that freedom is more of a mystery. Starmer’s issue is that it’s obvious he wants to win, but not what that might be a victory for.

Was voting for Brexit really a winning move? His willingness to swallow what the SNP MP Kirsty Blackman called “this steaming mug of excrement” will hurt Labour in Scotland, but help in the Leave-voting northern towns it’s desperate to regain from the Tories. Focus group work in these “red wall” seats concluded that, to win them back, Labour had to show it recognised Leave had won. Even abstaining would have looked too eagle-like – always circling, never actually landing. Starmer’s choice looks very much like that of someone expecting to be judged chiefly in this May’s bumper local elections on progress in red wall areas.

He may well find it harder now to criticise any future fallout from Brexit, with the Tories bound to crow that it’s what he voted for. Some Labour rebels even see echoes of the war on Iraq, where the Liberal Democrats ultimately benefited from a brave but initially unpopular decision to oppose it from the start. If one day the country does decide this was a terrible mistake, Labour can hardly claim to have said so all along.

The blunt truth, however, is that day may not come. The hideous economic fallout from Covid will make it harder to identify any distinct impact from Brexit. And Leave voters have a powerful incentive not to look too hard, given this is something they chose for themselves, against the advice of almost the entire political establishment at the time. Perhaps the most pragmatic argument for accepting defeat over Brexit, though, is the one Starmer tactfully didn’t advance – that the war was actually lost a year ago when Jeremy Corbyn led the party to a thumping defeat, giving Johnson a fat majority for whatever deal he wanted. When the deal finally landed, Corbyn himself abstained.

It’s easy to forget how far Labour has come in a year. Starmer has built a reputation for decency and competence and his personal approval ratings now trump Johnson’s even among red wall voters. His cautious approach to the pandemic has built bridges with older voters too, who tend to be pro-lockdown; having lagged 23 points behind the Tories when Starmer took over in April, Labour is now consistently level-pegging. Yet that no longer feels quite enough, with some MPs concerned that Johnson may finally be starting to get his act together after a disastrous year.

No deal has been avoided and Downing Street is calmer since Dominic Cummings departed. Covid is raging out of control again, but vaccines still offer hope on the horizon. And there are ominous signs of an emerging political strategy to strangle any Labour recovery at birth.

A redrawing of constituency boundaries, making a Tory general election victory easier, is back on the agenda. Rishi Sunak is raining money on red wall seats in a suspiciously targeted fashion and while Labour will say it’s too little too late, a Conservative party willing to spend is a new and disconcerting enemy. Some MPs have begun to fear that their new leader is a nice guy but no match for an opponent very willing to play dirty and running out of time to define himself. Keir Starmer ends the year less on a high than on a plateau. We’ll soon know if his ultimate flight path is upwards or plummeting back to Earth.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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Gaby Hinsliff

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