Labour gives Keir Starmer strong mandate to face battles ahead

Dan Sabbagh

Sir Keir Starmer’s victory, winning 56.2% of the vote in the race to become Labour leader, is almost on a par with that of Tony Blair in 1994, when he won 57% of the vote, and Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, when he took 59.5%.

It represents a clear internal mandate, after an interminable contest which began quite literally in another political era, for a candidate who ran an undramatic, error-free campaign that successfully emphasised his long experience as a lawyer involved in every major Labour cause for a generation.

Winning the Labour contest, however, will quickly seem like the easy part. The political scale of the task facing Starmer is extraordinary. The three polls taken since Boris Johnson ordered a national coronavirus lockdown place the Conservatives at 54%, 54% and 52% respectively, miles ahead of Labour on 28%.

David Cowling, a polling expert, said the Tories were recording “their highest voting intention figures since polling began in the UK in the late 1930s”, although there are stray polls that have had the party at similar levels in the late 1970s.

In more recent memory, the governing party is hitting levels of support not seen since just after Blair won by a landslide in 1997. And this week YouGov reported that the British public had given the government a positive approval rating for the first time since May to October 2010, just after the election of the coalition.

Some of this is lingering post-election honeymoon period, the normal popularity of a newly elected government. Some of it is because Labour has simply been absent from the battlefield due, until now, to its lack of a leader with an internal mandate – although there has already been internal criticism that Starmer has been too quiet on coronavirus thus far.

The numbers may be eye-catching, but in other ways the current polls need not be taken too seriously. The coronavirus crisis is a rare political reset moment, like the 2008 financial crisis, allowing Labour to speak up for what should be its core values: community, solidarity and public service, as embodied by the NHS.

It also finally moves the national conversation away from Brexit – exploited, of course, so successfully by Johnson. Come 2024, the date of the next election, the issues facing the nation will probably be different: how we allowed so little margin of error in our health service, social care, food supply and economy that meant the country came to crisis within days.

That, though, is a long way off. New leaders are always given a chance by the public to establish themselves, and if they do well, reset the image of their party. Even among Labour voters, according to YouGov, more think Jeremy Corbyn changed the party for the worse than not by 36% to 27%.

Starmer’s forensic skills will undoubtedly help him pick apart the government’s problems over virus testing and long-term financial help for people left behind by the government’s various rescue packages – although his legal talents were not enough to defeat the government over Brexit.

Conservative backbench MPs are jittery, fearful that there could be a swift backlash against the government if restrictions continue for long without an end in sight. The growing impatience in Italy shows that government support could evaporate quickly, although the early irritation as shown by some hostile Daily Telegraph front pages is coming largely from the right.

Above all, Labour needs to present a positive picture – build a diverse, dynamic team; end the sectarian squabbling that made the party so unattractive to voters; deal once and for all with the issue of antisemitism – before looking beyond the current crisis to propose an alternative vision for a stronger, healthier Britain. Electing Starmer gives the party a chance to do that.