What would politics look like if Starmer’s plan was working? Like it does now | Rafael Behr

It feels as though a line has been crossed. His own party is cautious, but Tories are pretty sure he is heading for No 10

The Labour party is so haunted by old defeats that it can barely look victory in the eye. Conservatives are more familiar with winning and so quicker to see it coming for the opposition. If you are shopping for conviction that Keir Starmer will make it to Downing Street, visit a Tory. Labour trades in caveat and caution.

Even with 20-point leads in opinion polls, opposition confidence is muted. Thursday’s byelection in Chester reflects the national trend. No one expected Labour to lose the seat, but the Tories barely even turned up to contest it. Their vote share was the lowest it has been in the city since 1832.

The Conservative fall is so much more spectacular than Starmer’s rise that observers tend to discount the latter in explaining the former. Not long ago, Boris Johnson bestrode the stage, hogging the limelight, while the Labour leader lurked in the wings muttering lines for an audience that wasn’t paying attention.

Now Johnson is gone. Liz Truss self-combusted. Rishi Sunak governs a divided, disoriented party. Starmer could probably have slept through October and woken up in the lead. Strokes of luck that big induce fear of fortune swinging back the other way.

But it would be unfair to cast the Labour leader as an empty vessel catching votes shed by the Tories. Unloved governments can always be bolstered by reviled oppositions, as Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated.

Starmer’s ruthless burial of Corbynism was the first sign that he was serious about winning. That he did it having promised continuity with his predecessor’s agenda is treated as a betrayal by the left, but the swerve was not premeditated. The repudiation was no less surprising to Labour MPs who had agitated against the Corbyn regime and scorned Starmer’s collaboration with it.

They heard his pledge of parity among all factions as a flinch from the hard choices required to get out of opposition. Starmer was suspected of soft left sentimentalism – the indulgence of hammer-and-sickle militancy that flows from romantic solidarity with anyone who marches under a red banner.

The Labour leader was not kidnapped by Blairites and frog-marched away from that initial position. The direction of travel was dictated by resolve not to lead the party into another defeat. The drive to win goes deeper than any policy preference. “He means to be prime minister,” one converted frontbench sceptic told me a few months into his leadership. “And God help you if you get in his way.”

That fixity of purpose was hard to discern at first, partly because normal politics was submerged in the pandemic and partly because Starmer was still learning the basics of political craft. He was elected to parliament in 2015, making him much less experienced in Westminster and Labour party machination than most of his shadow cabinet.

New elected Labour MP Samantha Dixon, left, and party deputy leader Angela Rayner in Chester on Friday.
Newly elected Labour MP Samantha Dixon, left, and party deputy leader Angela Rayner in Chester, 2 December 2022. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

The shallowness of those political roots is still sometimes seen as a weakness. Starmer is said to be too lawyerly, fussily prosecuting the Tories for professional negligence when he should be sermonising them into oblivion with visions of a brighter Labour future. Even loyal supporters concede that he is not a gifted orator and that his stilted style is a barrier to affection with voters. But affection is less important than respect. As a political operator, Starmer has followed a steep learning curve out of a deep hole. Also, Britain’s experience of misrule by Boris Johnson devalued flamboyant loquacity and grew the market for professional steadiness and unflashy competence.

Sunak is competing in that space, too, but draped in a Conservative legacy too soiled with chaos to be laundered with a mild managerial style. As a former Downing Street adviser puts it: “There might not be much in it between Rishi and Starmer, but then voters look over their shoulders at who heads a rabble of mad bastards.”

The answer is not Labour. That also testifies to organisational rigour behind the scenes. The central grip on the party machine is decried by the radical left as a tyrannical purge, but appreciated by most MPs. They have more time to canvass voters when their days aren’t consumed with internal party strife.

Campaigners on the ground in Thursday’s Chester byelection say they were reaching people and in places that did not seem available to them a year ago. The Tories notice it too. Conservatives with small majorities are preparing their CVs in expectation of unemployment. Some have already decided to stand down.

Defeatism makes Sunak’s job harder. MPs who are sure they are doomed have no compulsion to loyalty. Those who think they may save themselves prioritise nimbyist peeve in their constituency over the government’s agenda. What is left of the moderate Tory tendency is already thinking about how to rehabilitate the brand in opposition. The Brexit hardliners and Trussite libertarians are too consumed with rage against the dying of their revolutionary light to form a strategic view of the future.

Labour MPs find Tory fatalism too excessive to be reliable as a guide to what will actually happen at the next election. The volatility of recent years makes any trajectory feel uncertain. There is still too much accident and too little inspiration propelling Starmer’s project for his party to enjoy the journey. His steady plod towards Downing Street strains the patience of activists who see a big poll lead as capital to spend on a more radical mandate.

It isn’t just the orthodox socialists who are frustrated. Pro-European liberals crave a tilt back towards the single market, but party strategists are firm on this point. The effort to coax Brexit supporters back to Labour is working, they say, but only just. The bridge would collapse under any suspicion that Starmer’s real destination was Brussels by way of open-door immigration.

Take stock of what is happening here. When parts of the Labour tribe are restive and there is no surge of national enthusiasm for the leader, it is tempting to conclude that his advantage is ephemeral and not his own work; that a donkey wearing a red rosette could trample the Tories in their current state.

But that conflates cause and effect. Starmer’s technique of denying the Conservatives easy targets, refusing to be the enemy they want to fight, is one reason why they are giving up. His single-minded focus on winning is not perfumed with charisma, but that doesn’t mean it lacks potency.

There are ways to account for Labour’s lead without giving Starmer the credit, and anyone can list ways an opposition leader might be better. But it is also easy to imagine the scenario where a worse leader squanders the present advantages. What evidence might show that Starmer was actually good at his job? How would politics look if he had a plan and it was working? It would look as it does.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist


Rafael Behr

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
This senseless lawsuit could bankrupt the Labour party and let the Tories win again | George Monbiot
The party should be focused on this terrible government. Instead it is fighting costly legal battles, says Guardian columnist George Monbiot

George Monbiot

15, Feb, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
A Labour win is now looking likely at the next general election, but at what cost? | Nesrine Malik
If the party loses its integrity and will to change the country along the way, it will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, says Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik

12, Dec, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Johnson’s Tories seem to defy reality – but Labour’s ‘realistic’ politics isn’t working | Andy Beckett
Effective politics promises to change who has power, not just manage it more competently, says Guardian columnist Andy Beckett

Andy Beckett

20, Aug, 2021 @3:25 PM

Article image
‘It’s the economy, stupid’ says the US campaign slogan. Starmer would do well to learn it | Anne McElvoy
The Labour leader must be clear about how he’ll succeed where Tories have failed, says Anne McElvoy, senior editor at the Economist

Anne McElvoy

26, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Starmer doesn’t have to follow the Tories on immigration to win – he could be more humane and still reach No 10 | Maya Goodfellow
It’s not enough just to be against a punitive Rwanda policy. Labour must be ready to change the script on migration, says writer Maya Goodfellow

Maya Goodfellow

29, Dec, 2022 @4:34 PM

Article image
The Tories have had a poll disaster – so why are we talking about takeaway curry? | Gaby Hinsliff
Beergate has helped Boris Johnson get through what should have been a perilous weekend, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

08, May, 2022 @2:51 PM

Article image
The Tories may be tempted, but this is no time to declare peak Corbyn | Matthew d’Ancona
The local election made it clear that the Labour leader is a man rather than a shaman. But what to do with this knowledge, asks Guardian columnist Matthew d’Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona

06, May, 2018 @5:08 PM

Article image
It should be Super Thursday for local elections but London still holds the reins | Rafael Behr
Local and mayoral elections feel all too ceremonial, because real power always seems to lie elsewhere, says Guardian columnist Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr

31, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A union renewed, two-party politics revived: is this the new Restoration? Sunak and Starmer hope so | John Harris
In their own different ways, the two leaders dream of a return to ‘normality’ – but that’s what got us into this mess , says Guardian columnist John Harris

John Harris

26, Feb, 2023 @1:13 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the Chester byelection: a victory that poses questions for Labour | Editorial
Editorial: Sir Keir Starmer does not have a story of how he could better deal with this economic emergency. A mandate for change will need one


02, Dec, 2022 @6:02 PM