Disclaimer: This article contains a comment from Jacob Allen that references Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson having not faced each other in Parliament. This was accurate at the time the comment was given, however, since then, Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson have now faced each other at Prime Minister's Questions.
Since Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation following the 2019 General Election, Keir Starmer was elected as Leader of the Labour Party on Saturday 4th April 2020. He has held the position for a month now giving him time to select his shadow cabinet, ease into the role and allow members and the public a chance to see him at work.
As Starmer took office I asked the chairs of Surrey Labour Students what they initially thought about his election and since then I have revisited them to see if their opinion, as well as other students’, have been positive or negative. The reactions from both students and the wider population have been varied since his election, but the general feeling from Surrey Labour Students is one of caution.
Nadya Dimitrova, outgoing co-chair of Surrey Labour Students, explained that none of the candidates’ policies aligned with her own beliefs enough to vote for any of the candidates, including Starmer. She expressed disappointment at the election of “another privately educated, white male”.
“Overall, I believe that the Labour Party has lost its ways and needs to go back to the roots of the [Labour] movement rather than play on Tory strategies.” - Nadya Dimitrova
The unenthusiastic response from Nadya and others is unsurprising given the final ballot included both Rebecca Long Bailey and Lisa Nandy, two women within the party from different political factions.
Rebecca Long Bailey represented the left of Labour, serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet from the start in 2015 up until the election of Starmer in 2020. She was known for being a key proponent of a ‘Green New Deal’ with large scale investment from the government in green industry and was viewed by many as the socialist choice.
Alternatively Lisa Nandy, who was involved in Owen Smith’s 2016 leadership bid, represented the ‘soft left’ and put great emphasis on how labour needs to focus on towns and villages across the country. Both contenders would have been the first ever elected female leader of the Labour Party, and Lisa Nandy would have been the first Person of Colour leader.
Instead, Keir Starmer was elected.
While this does not comment on the quality of his personal appeal, it is certainly worth noting that the other contenders would have given equal professionalism, and brought diversity to the role. Some even note that Emily Thornberry should have carried much of the same appeal as Starmer. Both being middle class lawyers from working class backgrounds, with no strong ideological obligation to any particular faction of the party, and pro-european politics. Unfortunately only Starmer made it onto the ballot with Long Bailey and Nandy, whilst Thornberry being eliminated in the previous round. Much of the criticism leveled against her based on these qualities was notably not levelled at Starmer in the same way. This is, however, commentary from the leadership election and not from Starmer’s time in office.
Now, a month into the job, Starmer has had more time to prove that he is the right person for the job to those sceptical of his abilities. A month later, I checked in with Nadya to see if her opinions had changed on the matter. She prefaced her comments by noting that a month is not a sufficient amount of time to evaluate someone’s leadership abilities. However, that said, she is not optimistic about the future of the Labour Party. She believes the recent leaked report on the Labour Party’s tackling of anti-semitism, racism and bullying show “the essence of the party”. The allegations made in the report have not been adequately addressed as of yet and because of that the party is in decline.
Jacob Allen, also the Surrey Labour Students’ outgoing co-chair, provided an equally hesitant but more hopeful view of Starmer’s leadership. A month ago when asked about his views he said:
“While Keir Starmer wasn’t the candidate Surrey Labour Students or I personally voted for, he has a mandate to take the party forward like Jeremy Corbyn did in 2015 and 2016. I’m going to practice what I preach and not start criticising from the off like those that went on to defect to CHUK. Let’s see how he does…” - Jacob Allen
Jacob’s view seemed to be representative of many labour supporters given that ultimately, Labour suffered greatly in the 2019 General Election. Regardless of the specific leader, it is fair to say that most Labour supporters ultimately want a Labour government, regardless of whether it is their preferred candidate as leader or not. A month later, I checked in with Jacob again to see whether he still held his cautious hope.
“I’ve not been overly impressed so far. His [House of Commons] appearances have been applauded by the media, but he has yet to face the popular Boris Johnson. The roll back of Labour’s demands for renters during the coronavirus crisis was deeply disappointing. For me, the big test coming up is how Keir Starmer would deal with the leaks report on anti-Semitism and internal party wreckers.” - Jacob Allen
Similar to Nadya’s reaction, Jacob also picks up on the issue of the leaked report and the lack of action so far. This report, if its allegations are true, represent a never before seen level of internal sabotage from Labour Party staff to stop the effective handling and resolution of anti-semitism cases, stop the election of a Labour government in 2017 and also to deploy abuse and bullying for factional gain. It must be stressed that this report was leaked and although an inquiry has been commissioned by Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, the allegations remain allegations.
Despite the disruption this caused in labour supporter circles, it made little impact in the wider media cycle. Instead, what has dominated the media discourse surrounding Keir Starmer, is his ‘forensic’ House of Commons appearances. Political pundits and viewers found Starmer’s lawyer-like breakdown of the government to be precise and calculated. Although as Jacob notes, Starmer has yet to face Boris Johnson in the House of Commons who will pose much more of a challenge than his ministers.
While the Surrey Labour Society Chairs seem to hold hesitant and cautious views on Starmer, not everyone is in the same mindset. For more balance I spoke to Ryan Pratt, Outgoing Politics Society President and swing voter, James Penny, another swing voter, and finally Adam Heilbron - President of the Surrey Conservative Society.
Ryan Pratt and James Penny, while representing a similar section of the political spectrum, hold opposite views on Starmer’s performance so far. Ryan notes that Starmer has provided an “attention to detail [that] has been sorely missing” in his scrutiny of the government. Starmer has a ‘forensic’ approach to opposing the government in the House of Commons, using constant statistics and even going as far as to bring in documented proof with him to Parliament in order to call out Boris Johnson. Political commentators and social media have lauded his calculated performance which is only supported further in Ryan’s view. While Corbyn was unfairly attacked and labelled by the media and his critics, Ryan believes Starmer has managed to, and will continue to, avoid the same level of disapproval and lead an effective opposition.
“Starmer has impressed at a time more difficult than imaginable… After a catastrophic five year absence, we have an opposition again.” - Ryan Pratt
This optimistic praise could not be more different from how Starmer’s detractors feel and indeed is the opposite of James Penny’s view: “I had high hopes for fresh leadership in the Labour Party… those hopes have not yet been reached. Keir Starmer seems to be missing in action … and this worries me.” James, like Ryan, believed, or at least hoped, that Starmer’s leadership signalled a positive change for the Labour Party.
However, like James, many believe that Starmer has not performed as well as he could have. This critical position is often in response to Starmer’s repeated attempt to constructively work with the government to respond to the pandemic as opposed to focusing on scrutinising their positions and holding them to account for it. One approach does not necessarily mean the other approach is entirely ignored but it does signify the basis for how the labour party will deal with the government. This point of contention is common in much of criticism of Starmer and is one of many reasons why he has yet to appeal fully and convincingly to swing voters like James.
“Starmer has a long way to go to convince me and the electorate that he is a viable option for Number 10” - James Penny
Many are supportive, many are critical, and many aren’t too sure where they stand on Starmer. Adam Heilbron however, had much to say about Starmer. While some of it is unsurprising given Adam’s party allegiance, such as his unmistakable dislike of Corbyn’s leadership or rather the “complete void” of it, there is also much nuance and counter argument to some of the earlier presented views. For example, Adam found Starmer’s approach to cooperating with the government to be the correct stance rather than “opposing for opposition’s sake in times of crisis”. Adam also noted Starmer’s “strong attention to detail at [Prime Minister’s Questions]”.
Starmer is clearly competent in many respects even if his approaches are open to criticism; what may well be his insurmountable barrier in terms of Labour’s electability, is his personal politics.
“I think Starmer is a good politician finding himself in leadership at the wrong time… I suspect Starmer is the [Neil] Kinnock of the 21st Century, he will improve Labour’s standing but not enough to win power… Gaining the 124 seats Labour needs for a majority is a task Starmer is simply incapable of achieving in one election cycle.” - Adam Heilbron
Will Starmer win the next general election in 2024? Who knows. Like Nadya stated, it is simply too soon to fully assess Starmer’s leadership. More importantly, political events are ever changing and how Starmer responds to them will make or break him and the Labour Party’s chances. Even now, we have the Dominic Cummings story dominating political discussion and by next week it could be an entirely new scandal.
Do I personally think Starmer has got it right so far? I think Starmer has been overly cautious in much of his handling of the pandemic and internal party members. With enough criticism and political circumstance though he may well surprise us all.