Politics isn’t easy when the public won’t take you seriously, and after a decade out of office there comes a point when you have to wonder whether the problem is you, not them. Scandals reported in progressively shrill headlines don’t help matters, and the opportunities given by another five years in the wilderness don’t stretch far beyond a very long holiday. Even the most shameless of politicians would shudder at the prospect of being leader of the opposition for half a decade before getting a shot at the top job. But for David Cameron, it worked. Can it work for Keir Starmer?
While it can sometimes be difficult to remember that the Conservatives occasionally lose elections – I was four the last time it happened – I’m told that there was a time when they were deeply unpopular. The early 2000s saw them dubbed the Nasty Party: they were dinosaurs, fighting amongst themselves and unable to look past the needs of their narrow band of voters.
So how did Cameron go on to be Prime Minister? He offered, or at least appeared to offer, a clean break from the past. His was a relatively fresh face, having only been in the shadow cabinet seven months before being elected leader. And through careful cultivation of their public image, his was a party which appeared unified and modernised, a competent party which could be trusted with leadership, and one which had put its painful divides over trivialities like the EU far behind it.
The Labour party desperately needs unifying following the protracted civil war between the centre and the further left, and Starmer has certainly taken steps in that direction. Emboldened by his landslide victory in the leadership race, he has returned moderates, among them that beloved statesman Ed Miliband, to the cabinet, and the team which gave Jeremy Corbyn control over the party system has been dismantled with the zeal of a seasoned Blairite. Which is strange, because Keir doesn’t appear to be a Blairite: a self-described socialist who served in one of the most radical Labour cabinets in a century, he has so far been reluctant to offer a radical departure from Corbyn policy. In terms of policy decisions, the most use he’s made of this headline-making seizure of power is, well, making headlines.
This doesn’t seem to be the electoral deal-breaker that certain Telegraph columnists were hoping it would be. Starmer has been relatively popular so far, although nearly anything would seem so compared to Corbyn’s approval rating nadir of -60%. While many could well change their minds if they find another radical manifesto waiting in 2024, it’d certainly be far less likely to bomb this time around if it was presented by someone trusted by the public – something his predecessor clearly struggled with.
One of the prevailing defences of Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity is that he fought an uphill battle against the right-wing press, but this view can only take you so far. Every Labour leader faces an upwards battle against the likes of the Daily Mail, but that doesn’t mean you can refuse to engage with them, à la Jeremy. I dislike the Mail as much as the next well-adjusted person, but if I was trying to cultivate a public image, I might try not to show it quite so clearly. Starmer, on the other hand, has engaged from the outset, including directly addressing painful issues such as Labour’s antisemitism problem from the very beginning of his leadership. This willingness to address and listen to the media could explain his more friendly reception despite supporting largely the same policies.
In this sense then (and hopefully in this sense alone), similarities can be drawn between Starmer and Cameron. Media coverage can create and destroy leaders – to avoid the latter you need strong, clear and consistent policy decisions. If Keir doesn’t work his out soon, then opinion could turn quickly – my personal favourite David Cameron insult, ‘a hollow Easter egg with no bag of sweets inside’, came about for the same reason.
It’s easy to say that, three months into his leadership and four years out from the next election, Keir has time to develop policy and that speculation around it is irrelevant. I would counter with two points. The first is that irrelevance has never stopped me and countless other student journalists in the past. The second is that Labour needs every day of the next four years if it is to be a credible option in the next election, and Keir Starmer can’t afford to lie low until then. Ambiguous policy didn’t work for Labour with Brexit, and it won’t work now: the sooner that Starmer can set out his agenda, the sooner he can rebuild Labour’s credibility, and the sooner he can show that he’s serious about reform.