The first year of Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party has been disappointing. This was further underlined with the disastrous by-election results in Hartlepool as the Conservatives' Jill Mortimer won the seat with a landslide majority, the first time the Tories have ever won the seat since the constituency's creation.
Meanwhile, Labour’s local election results in England were disastrous, losing over 300 seats, as well as control of 8 councils, according to BBC. Further, a disastrous pact with the Tories in Scotland in opposition to support for a second referendum on Scottish Independence led to Labour winning only 23 out of 129 seats. Only in Wales did Labour perform well, winning 30 out of the 60 available seats in the Senedd.
Starmer came to power following the disastrous election result for his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, which was Labour’s worst election defeat since 1935. The predominant reason, it appears, for these disastrous results, was its policy on Brexit, as Corbyn led a party which was deeply divided on the matter. Whilst Corbyn rightly pointed out that the real divide in Britain was between people who were better off and those who struggled on low incomes, this confused position on Brexit cost Labour votes in their historic strongholds in the north of England who voted in large numbers for Brexit.
The leadership of Starmer has unfolded in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that shocked the world in its earliest stages. It has almost been seen as a “steady the ship” type of leadership following their poor 2019 general election results, whilst attempting to win back voters from the so-called ‘Red Wall’ in constituencies in the north of England. Therefore, it was always going to be difficult for Starmer to make an immediate impact as leader, as politics was pushed into the backseat with governments across the world focused on dealing with the pandemic.
However, Starmer’s leadership has been seen as weak and incompetent. He does not appear to be anywhere near as charismatic as Corbyn was amongst the younger voters who turned up in their thousands to rallies where Corbyn would speak. He has not led a radical alternative to the Conservative Party, instead offering something in the middle of left and right-wing politics whilst attempting to isolate the far-left of the party as much as he can and bring it to a more moderate centrist party, only slightly different to the Tories.
Despite promising to unite the party, he has not appeared to have done so as the far-left of the party have been isolated under his leadership. Despite promising to uphold the policies of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 general election, there has been little evidence of these policies being followed through.
Despite some promising poll results in the early stages for Starmer’s leadership, in recent weeks, he and Labour have fallen further behind the Conservatives, as Johnson oversaw a successful Covid-19 vaccine rollout programme, despite a disastrous management of the pandemic which came to a head with disastrous results on Thursday. This led to a significant cabinet reshuffle for Labour. According to the BBC, ‘it began badly with a bust up with his deputy, Angela Rayner, who was being moved from one of her roles – in charge of campaigns’.
According to The Guardian, ‘the main winners and losers from this cabinet reshuffle include: Angela Rayner: moved from party chair and national campaigns coordinator to shadow Cabinet Office; remains deputy party leader, Rachel Reeves, promoted from shadow Cabinet Office minister to shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds: demoted from shadow chancellor to party chair, Nick Brown: out of his role as shadow chief whip’. Meanwhile, according to BBC, ‘Ms Rayner will instead replace Rachel Reeves in shadowing Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office…
Sir Keir said that deputy leader Angela Rayner had ‘a big, new role, taking the fight to the Tories… Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, Shabana Mahmood, has taken on Ms Rayner’s other former role as campaign coordination’.
The BBC elaborated further, stating that ‘other movements in the reshuffle include: Thangam Debbonaire from housing brief to become shadow leader of the House of Commons, whilst Lucy Powell replaces her as shadow housing secretary, Wes Streeting takes on a new role aimed at tackling child poverty, Alan Campbell will replace Nick Brown as chief whip having served as the deputy whip since 2010 and Ms Dodds will also become the chair of the Labour Policy Review’.
It is unlikely that this cabinet reshuffle from Starmer’s leadership will dramatically increase the electoral prospects of the Labour Party, who have not been in Government in England since May 2010. Despite promising that immediate action would not be taken straight away, following the disastrous results, Starmer led an embarrassing cabinet reshuffle with a high profile bust up with deputy leader, Angela Rayner, which was leaked in the media and further added to the problems of Labour, which was rightly criticised by former shadow chancellor, Diane Abbott. A leadership challenge from the far-left or the soft left of the party appears to be likely as many are suggesting that Andy Burnham could be a contender.
Figures on Channel 4 showed that the predominant reason for voters, not voting for Labour, was the leadership of Keir Starmer. This is something extremely worrying and something that will be extremely difficult for Starmer to address from now until the next scheduled general election in 2024. Whatever happens, Starmer must look to improve the electoral prospects of Labour, and cannot continue to isolate the far-left of the party.
There is perhaps a lesson for Starmer to take from these elections. If there is not a credible alternative to the Tories, and if Starmer continues to go along with whatever the government does without offering a credible alternative, voters will either not turn out to vote or they will vote for someone else. The Labour leader must find a way to unite the party and change his leadership style, which has so far been characterised as weak and incompetent.