Keir Starmer will seek to assuage growing criticism of his leadership within Labour by kicking off a major policy blitz next week, as the party aims to paint a picture of what it would do in government.
Concerns about Labour’s direction were underlined last week by a leaked strategy document that urged the party to focus on a new patriotic approach, including more use of the union jack. The document prompted some ridicule from MPs and calls for the Labour leader to flesh out his vision for the party and the country in more detailed policy terms.
Starmer is expected to set out some key planks of a future Labour government’s economic policy in a speech on Thursday, one of a series of interventions the party hopes will also raise the profile of his shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, before the budget on 3 March.
An immediate focus will be financial support for business – particularly the hospitality sector – which Starmer will highlight has taken on unfeasibly high debts during the Covid-19 crisis. Members of the Labour frontbench are also to be given more of a visible role, after the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, delivered a high-profile speech on government cronyism and wastage this week.
A number of other keynote speeches are planned in the coming weeks, including from the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, and the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds.
One Labour source described the strategy as “showing a bit of ankle”, but said Starmer would begin to transition into the role of a more combative opposition leader as the vaccine programme started to alleviate the immediate public health crisis. “That means we can start to focus on the bigger picture stuff and talk about systemic change,” the source added.
Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, said the past year had been about “pressing the reset button” and that voters would begin to see a more passionate side to Starmer.
“Still waters run deep. My own sense of Keir is that he’s very passionate about his politics and what he believes in and what he wants to achieve,” she said. “He’s not someone who’s going to shout and holler, and be offensive, or cry on someone’s shoulder. But it runs deep, what he believes in.
“He’s said we can’t go back to business as usual and he will know his challenge is now to set out what that looks like. But he couldn’t do that in an environment where people didn’t trust us. You need foundations on which to build.
“If you look at great Labour victories – Attlee, Wilson, Blair – they all came at a time when things needed to change. They gave an optimism that things would change, but also the credibility that they were the people to do it.”
Another shadow cabinet minister said they had been frustrated about not being able to rally a better defence of Starmer amid criticism over the leaked document to the Guardian. “You can’t coordinate a big fightback while everyone is in their separate cities. Keir is still a figure who is unknown – and there is plainly frustration he has not exposed his own personality and vision. That is something that you will see he is about to do,” they said.
One shadow minister added: “I think there has been a feeling we have toed one side of the fine line in supporting the government through a pandemic and [that] we need to start stepping firmly over the other side of the line. And Keir says he agrees with that.”
The flak taken by the Labour leader has come most notably – but not only – from the left of the party, and has included a number of high-profile rebellions. Several rebels have expressed feelings of being misled by Starmer’s leadership campaign, which, they said, had a more leftwing agenda closer to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s.
“It’s not universal, but there is definitely a sense that this is not what we signed up for,” one leftwing MP said. “Government incompetence gets pretty boring. There’s an element of Covid determinism, which is, let [Boris] Johnson make a mess of this, and we’ll look competent and reap the benefits. It hasn’t panned out.”
Another senior staffer said: “It does feel reminiscent of the Ed [Miliband] era – it’s a bit of a blancmange.”
There are also fears among members on the party’s right, many of whom bristled at Starmer’s decision to vote for Johnson’s Brexit deal.
One said: “We are facing a very difficult fight over the next few years, where the Tories are going to spend lots of cash in seats they won, stick a picture of the MP next to a bypass or bridge with a grinning Boris on the leaflets and say: ‘The Labour MP never got this done in 20 years, look what a difference I’ve made.’ I’ve not heard a single answer to how we combat that.”
One of Starmer’s close aides, Anneliese Midgley, who previously worked for Unite and for Corbyn, is to head over to Labour headquarters to work on campaigning strategy one insider describes as “to get the party machinery working more closely with the leadership’s political strategy”.
Staff at the Southside HQ in London face a challenging runup to the local elections and a more widespread need to keep party activists motivated when they cannot campaign or canvass because of the pandemic.
Though private polling before the elections, which are scheduled for 6 May, has been mixed – described in briefings as abysmal in some places – there are chances for Labour to make some symbolic gains, including the high-profile West Midlands mayoralty.
Whatever the criticism of the leaked “flags and veterans” strategy that drew some derision, advisers are determined there must be a broader push to appeal to voters who have previously voted Conservative.
Polling at the moment shows Starmer has mainly been highly attractive to former Liberal Democrat voters in southern seats. “We might get to Blair levels in the south of England but not win back enough seats to get us a majority,” said one insider.