Assessing Keir Starmer’s first 100 days as Labour Leader

Today marks the passing of Sir Keir Starmer’s first 100 days as Leader of the Labour Party. In normal circumstances a new Party Leader would currently be approaching the impending summer recess and looking ahead to his first speech at Party Conference in the autumn. However, this isn’t normal times, as Starmer and his team will be keenly aware. But how has he done so far?

Jeremy Corbyn’s successor took over in the most unusual of circumstances. The country was in the midst of a national lockdown and the UK had not yet reached the peak of COVID-19 related infections or deaths when Starmer recorded his acceptance speech in early April. The Government was riding high in the polls and Boris Johnson was enjoying a bounce in his personal ratings, even though he would be admitted into hospital the day after Sir Keir was confirmed as Labour’s new Leader. However, 100 days in things have certainly changed. Starmer is now level pegging with the Tory Leader in most polls and Labour has cut the Conservatives’ lead in the polls in half. After his election, I wrote that things could only get better from here for Starmer, given the postponement of this year’s local elections and the chance to look Prime Ministerial in a time of national crisis. That sure seems to have been the case.

A poll for the Observer at the weekend had Starmer comfortably ahead of Johnson in some of the key indicators. The Labour Leader is seen as more competent (+28 vs -4), more principled (+25 vs +2), stronger (+21 vs -2), more decisive (+20 vs -5), more likeable (+19 vs +4) and more trusted to take “big decisions” (+18 vs -7) that his Tory counterpart. Starmer is also seen as trustworthy, in touch with ordinary people, and “brave” compared to the Prime Minister.

Labour’s biggest challenge still remains the economy. The same poll by Opinium at the weekend found that 42% of the country trusted Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak – fresh from having delivered a third fiscal stimulus in just under four months – with the economy, compared with only 26% of respondents who said they trusted Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds. A relative unknown both in and out of Westminster (only 25% of the public say they have heard of her according to YouGov’s tracker), Dodds has treaded carefully since her appointment, trying to strike a conciliatory tone when scrutinising the work of the most popular politician in the country,  meaning however that she has so far failed to cut through with the public at large.

This brings me to the row that has engulfed the Party over the last week – whether Labour backs a wealth tax to pay for the COVID-19 stimulus packages unveiled by Sunak. In answer to a question following her first speech as Shadow Chancellor, Dodds said that Labour still backed the principle that “those with the broadest shoulders” should bare the brunt of the repayment of this unprecedented borrowing. However a few days later, Dodds was unable to provide any further details when pressed during a TV interview. She then smartly suggested in her response to the Chancellor’s Summer Economic Update that tax rises would stifle economic growth at this time – returning to the New Labour playbook of ruling out unpopular tax rises.

Despite the careful backtracking from Dodds, a rift has emerged in the ranks of her junior ministers. Dan Carden, the Shadow Financial Secretary and former Shadow Cabinet member under Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted that “Labour is clear that the cost of the crisis should be borne by those with the broadest shoulders” – a message that not only contradicts that of his boss but also goes against the diktat of the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Bridget Philipson, who early on in Starmer’s leadership wrote to all frontbench members telling them not to make up tax and spend policies on the fly. This is an example of the problem Labour faces in a microcosm. By broaching the topic of tax rises (which should be said have not been ruled out by the Treasury), Labour could try to move the conversation into more comfortable territory for the Party – that is to say wealth inequality. However, by sending mixed messages and appearing divided all the Party is doing is reinforcing the view in voters’ minds that the Party would be profligate and cannot be trusted with the country’s finances.

If Starmer and Dodds are to make a serious dent in the Conservatives’ lead on economic management they will need to start get all their frontbenchers to sing from the same hymn sheet and avoid unforced errors like the ones we saw last week.

Photo: Keir Starmer MP speaks at Labour in the City event hosted at Cicero/AMO in July 2017

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