A year of Starmer – how is the Labour leader doing and what are the challenges ahead?

By Dan Julian, Senior Account Executive

Easter Sunday marked a year since Sir Keir Starmer was elected Leader of the Labour Party. What followed has been one of the most unpredictable 12 months in British politics, which makes the job of assessing his performance harder than usual. Starmer is yet to face an electoral test, and has yet to have a full party conference – usually two staples of the British political year. In addition, the Labour leader has had to tread a fine line between offering up constructive criticism of a government handling a once-in-a-generation crisis while also aiming to assert himself in contrast to that very same government. So how has he done so far and what do the next twelve months have in store?

Firstly, any analysis of the Starmer’s performance should bear in mind one simple fact. He is one of the more popular leaders of the opposition in recent times, easily outpacing his two immediate predecessors, and broadly following the course charted by David Cameron who, lest we forget, started with fewer MPs than Labour currently has and yet still ended up in No10 five years later. Even as his ratings have dipped recently – he is in net negative territory for the first time since his election (-11 favourable ratings) and is seen more negatively than positively when it comes to being a strong leader (-14), decisive (-14), trustworthy (-9), and likeable (-5) – Starmer’s relative popularity remains a bright light for Labour.

There are a few more bright spots that should give Labour some comfort. A recent poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that Labour trailed the Conservatives on who would handle the economy better by only 4%, and the two parties were tied on the issue of immigration – two issues that have dogged successive Labour leaders. Even as he is reportedly considering replacing both his Shadow Chancellor and his Shadow Home Secretary, it looks like Labour has made significant progress towards neutralising its two biggest weak spots.

However, not everything is as rosy. A YouGov survey last week found that Starmer was now ten points behind Boris Johnson on the question of who would be the best Prime Minister, having been ahead of the Tory leader from August until late January. In addition, with the vaccine roll-out going better than expected, the Conservatives have seen their poll rating rise just in time for next month’s local elections. Coupled with the unlocking of the economy, this could foreshadow a ‘bounce’ for the Government at the ballot box.

Starmer, however, could turn this to his advantage. This set of local elections is a repeat of the 2016 contests – when Labour barely edged the Tories ahead of the EU Referendum but still lost council seats nationwide – and of the 2017 elections contested at the height of Theresa May’s popularity, meaning this year’s results should still see Labour gain council seats across the country. And with a vaccine bounce now priced in, Labour could benefit from beating expectations.

It will be the results in Hartlepool, however, that will set the tone for the months ahead. If Labour can pull off a convincing win, then doubts about Starmer will ease, and the pressure to change course will relent. Should the Tories win, marking only the third time a governing party has won a by-election in a seat held by the Opposition in fifty years, then Starmer will see calls to change tack – and possibly members of his Shadow Cabinet and inner circle – grow louder.

The other medium-term challenge facing the Labour leader is the expectation from the media, as well as party members, to go on the front foot once the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Nothing will be more important to show how Starmer plans on dealing with the new post-Covid reality as this year’s party conference. September’s gathering should represent a turning point for Starmer, and he should see it as an opportunity to dispel concerns about his leadership, in a similar vein to how David Cameron approached the 2007 conference speech ahead of the election-that-never-was. If he can project himself to be not just the leader of a party, but a Prime Minister in waiting, then doubts about his ability to do the job will begin to dissipate. If he doesn’t, then he’ll be facing an even longer 12 months where he’ll be dogged by constant questions and speculation about his ability to win the next election.

Keir Starmer has had to face one of the toughest years any leaders of the opposition has ever had to deal with. So far, he has emerged relatively unscathed, but has yet to make his mark with voters. The next 12 months will tell us whether he is on the road to No10 or whether he is doomed to follow in the footsteps of so many of his predecessors.

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Dan Julian

Senior Account Executive