General Election day is a weird one for political correspondents. You can’t report much and there’s a long night ahead, so you basically need to rest. But I remember 1997 well as the day I bought my first whole case of wine.
“Celebrating are we,” said the shop assistant.”
“Yes, you look like a Labour voter.”
How times had changed. Notwithstanding a Welsh accent and comprehensive education, there I was in SW1, in suit and tie, splashing out on chablis. Yet the almost universal expectation was that people like that would vote for Tony Blair.
Sir Keir Starmer may now be the default choice for the professional classes in metropolitan constituencies, but hardly anyone seems enthused about the prospect of him winning the next election, and traditional Labour voters in the so-called red wall seats are clearly underwhelmed. So what’s missing?
Blair had built a sense of momentum, purpose and indeed a longing for change. He started doing deals in opposition and projected a coiled-spring enthusiasm to get on with the job. His political pitching in the run-up to the general election of 1997 also left his opponents with nowhere to go. When the Labour leader is a privately-educated, Oxbridge, Anglo-Catholic barrister, married with kids, gushing about the monarchy and genuinely enthused about a Republican in the White House, there’s little space for a traditional Conservative. Starmer struggles to excite anyone. There’s no overriding goal beyond ending Conservative rule, and he’s left plenty of space for Rishi Sunak to play the progressive as well as the better technocrat.
Park any tribal affiliations and ask yourself which leader looks most like modern Britain? Whose back story projects assimilation, aspiration and social mobility? Isn’t an MBA from Stanford and a glowing career with Goldman Sachs more useful training for today’s challenges than cashing in on human rights legislation?
Blair had built a sense of purpose and a longing for change. Starmer has no goal other than ending Tory rule
Five years prosecuting criminals could resonate with voters but Sir Keir washed his hands of the CPS’s failures on his watch (e.g. to prosecute Savile) and many suspect that the political correctness of Islington would get in the way of any robust and compelling strategy to cut crime where it’s most rampant. We won’t get a Blairite “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” from him.
There have been very few memorable phrases to be honest and recent attempts to address that have backfired.
Who really wants to see Downing Street on a mission to “smash the class ceiling”? Is class war really the pitch to end the toxic polarising of the last decade and pull us together after lockdowns, war and the cost-of-living crisis?
Labour recently rowed back on proposed protections for part-time workers, yet Starmer deplores the “gig” economy and seems baffled that many people prefer flexible working — often combined with caring, education or running a business — to the 20th-century norms this “son of a toolmaker” harks back to. Search for more meaningful sound bites or clear policy and you’ll struggle. What would he do to stop the small boats, cut waiting lists, make the UK more energy independent and avoid the next cost-of-living crisis? Where is he on China? Or even Europe?
The latter is interesting as Sir Keir keeps telling us that the UK’s future lies “outside the EU” and suggesting Brexit might turn out beautifully if its implementation was in his hands, not those of someone who campaigned for it — like Rishi Sunak.
At one level, this is a mature acceptance of reality. I wish we hadn’t left but the people voted for it so we have to make it work. But I’m pretty sure I’m in good company in suspecting Sir Keir’s sincerity on this. If such an ardent opponent of Brexit is now an advocate his principles seem less robust than he’d like us to think.
And if he still harbours ambitions to take Britain back to some form of single market let him say it. Many would welcome that, and others might be persuaded that there is more backbone and vision to this otherwise vague opposition leader.
If not — what’s the point in change next year? There is no pendulum that magically swaps allegiances from one side to the other, nor a law of physics that says it’s Labour’s turn.
A lot rests on one man, and if he is to seal the deal with the electorate he needs to raise his game this conference season or Blair will remain the last Labour leader actually to win a general election.
Guto Harri was the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent and Director of Communications in No10