After Batley and Spen, Keir Starmer is drinking in the second chance saloon | Andrew Rawnsley

Labour’s wafer-thin win gives its leader a bit more time to prove he can turn things around. It’s an opportunity he can’t afford to squander

One of the things about Sir Keir Starmer that has caused rising alarm among people who are his friends is what one of them calls his “lack of urgency”. The Labour leader has talked often to colleagues about being in a “long game” to turn around the party’s fortunes, while being apparently oblivious to the immediate threats menacing him. Perhaps this is because the QC, who came to the job after a long career in the law and only a relatively brief time as an MP, didn’t grasp the distinction between the rules of the courtroom and the very different ones of the political cage fight. Perhaps it was because his early successes in the job bred some complacency about just how difficult it is to be a successful Labour leader.

Since the new year, he has been losing the incessant and visceral battle for attention, confidence and results, a struggle that is waged every month, every week, every day, every hour. As his poll ratings withered, the media increasingly defined him as a loser. A defeatist gloom was setting in among some in Labour’s ranks while others schemed, and with a bold lack of secrecy, for his removal.

“It was getting dangerous for Keir,” remarks one member of the shadow cabinet. Another goes so far as to say that Labour’s close shave in the Batley and Spen byelection has been “a near-death experience for Keir and I hope it makes him realise he has to be different”.

Governments usually lose byelections. Oppositions are expected to win them, especially when the contest is for a seat they already hold. So scraping a victory in a West Yorkshire seat that has been Labour since 1997 would normally be cause for a shudder not a celebration. The gales of relief from the vicinity of the Labour leader and his supporters underline how rocky it was looking for him in advance of the result.

He was fortunate in the energy and tenacity of the Labour standard bearer, Kim Leadbeater. The only major party candidate who was local, her emotional bond with the constituency was strengthened by being the sister of Jo Cox, who represented the seat until she was murdered by a white supremacist.

It also assisted Labour that the party’s operation was much more impressive than it was in the Hartlepool byelection. Sir Keir can take some credit for initiating this. I have heard a lot of praise from Labour MPs for Shabana Mahmood who replaced Angela Rayner as national campaign chair in the Labour leader’s reorganisation in the wake of the Hartlepool defeat. “She’s razor sharp and hard as nails,” says one admiring colleague. Ms Mahmood and her deputy, Conor McGinn, are widely credited with instilling more discipline and effectiveness in Labour’s organisation and messaging. One MP who spent a lot of time campaigning in the constituency says: “The Labour machine sprang into action in a way I haven’t seen for years.”

The significance of this byelection is not that it is a triumph achieved, but a catastrophe averted. “It avoids a disastrous sequence of events for Keir,” observes one member of the shadow cabinet. The Corbynite left had been rather too obviously willing a Labour defeat, even if that meant adding another Tory MP to Boris Johnson’s tally, in order to generate a crisis around Sir Keir’s leadership. Andy Burnham was happy to tell anyone who asked that Labour had his phone number if the party wanted a new leader. Some anti-Starmer MPs and trades unions were pushing for Ms Rayner to launch a challenge, a notion that the deputy leader did not exactly disavow with every fibre of her body. If Labour had lost this byelection, hard on the heels of the drubbing in Hartlepool, Sir Keir would have been framed in an even more doomy narrative. He would have spent months fighting to keep his job, which would have been debilitating and a turn-off to the public even if he managed to survive.

“He’s been granted a respite,” comments one Labour MP. If a reprieve is all it turns out to be, he will soon be under pressure again. He needs to turn this breathing space into a turning point. That depends on him having a plan that spreads confidence that Labour’s fortunes will turn for the better. He also needs the flair, the chops and a team around him to carry it out. Talk to a dozen Labour MPs about what he should do to exploit this second chance and you will get at least 13 different opinions. Some of his original backers think he needs to be much more ruthless about punishing disloyalty. One of those who wants to see a tougher leader emerge from this contends: “In the short term, he needs to fully assert his authority over the shadow cabinet and deal with people who have been briefing against him and plotting against him.”

There is an appetite among Labour MPs for a much more muscular approach to taking on the Tories. To some generally supportive colleagues, Sir Keir has too often confused not wanting to sound unpatriotic or querulous during a national emergency with not going in hard on the government in any area. “He’s got to be much sharper and more systematic in his attacks on the government,” says one shadow cabinet member who laments that Labour has been too cautious about exploiting opportunities to pounce on and hammer ministerial scandals and blunders. “He’s got to be much more aggressive about how the Tories are failing the country.”

The most common criticism, to be heard from all wings of the party as well as many voters, is that people don’t know what Labour stands for. Sir Keir made an early decision to define himself in terms of what he is not, devoting particular effort to repeating that he is not Jeremy Corbyn. While that was a necessary first stage of his leadership, there’s a consensus that he needs to move on to the second step of telling the country who he is. This does not mean producing reams of policy at this stage of the electoral cycle. It does mean conveying some sense that he has a clear political project allied to a coherent strategy for executing it. The pandemic and the restrictions it has imposed on campaigning have provided some excuse for Sir Keir’s struggles to achieve connections with the public, but it is not an alibi that will serve him for much longer.

“We’ve got to get much better at landing blows on the Tories, and give clear and compelling reasons why people should want a Labour government,” says one member of the shadow cabinet. There is a plan for Sir Keir to go on a “summer tour” of public meetings around the country. This will be officially about promoting Labour policies and ideas for the future. Unofficially, it will be used to test which offers, themes and messages have the potential to resonate and which are duds which should be discarded. Finding out what works with voters and what doesn’t is entry-level politics, but it is basic stuff that Labour has not been much good at recently.

Every Starmer-sympathetic MP I have spoken to, and many of the Starmer-sceptic ones as well, agree that his speech to this autumn’s party conference is taking on a critical importance. The conference stage is always a big moment for opposition leaders, because they get many fewer opportunities than prime ministers to grab the attention of the public. The imperative for this one to be a success is intense because he has yet to deliver a proper conference speech since he became leader. Last year, he stood at an isolated podium in an empty room speaking into cyberspace. “He’s really got to land his conference speech,” says one Labour frontbencher. “He’s got to get up a big narrative with some striking policies that speak to his themes.”

Another agrees: “He’s got to land the conference speech with the six o’clock news. He’s got to land it with the people who watch the six o’clock news. He’s got to come out of the conference looking stronger. I hope his team are already working on that. What you don’t want is people coming away from conference saying, ‘Wasn’t Andy Burnham good at that fringe meeting? Wasn’t Lisa Nandy brilliant when she spoke?’ ”

A wafer-thin byelection win in a seat Labour already held is no proof that Sir Keir has what it takes to beat Mr Johnson. It does offer him a fresh opportunity to address the anxieties about his leadership and persuade people that he is a man with a plan. He has been given extra time that he cannot afford to squander.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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Andrew Rawnsley

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