Arise Sir Keir: Is the Labour leader really a PM in waiting?

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Labour leader Keir Starmer during the 2020 leadership election. (Wikimedia Commons)

In two and a half years as Labour leader, Keir Starmer has struggled to make an impact. The public failed to recognise and remember him and his policies, with some polls showing that ‘almost half of voters do not know what Sir Keir Starmer stands for’. Starmer’s once-forgettable reputation and apparent lack of forward-thinking led him to be dubbed as “Captain Hindsight” by Boris Johnson. But the recent party conference seemed to mark a turning point for Sir Keir and after a disastrous start to Liz Truss’ tenure as prime minister, the tide has turned. Recent YouGov polls showed a 33-point Labour lead over the Conservative Party. Is Sir Keir finally ready to be the next prime minister?

Opinium polls also revealed similar results, showing a 19-point Labour lead, following the ‘mini-budget’ by the government and the Labour Party conference. This is not only Labour’s highest ever share in a YouGov poll (54%), but it is also its highest result ‘recorded in any published poll since the late 1990s’. Considering the unpopularity of Liz Truss, and the possibility of her being ousted by Christmas, Starmer’s strategies are more important than ever before.

So who is this new Keir Starmer, and what factors have motivated this change in Labour’s political fortune?

Changes to Starmer’s leadership

One element of Starmer’s leadership that has always been praised is his lawyer-like ‘forensic skills at the dispatch box’ and looking ‘prime ministerial’ in comparison to Boris Johnson.

While these skills are admirable and undoubtedly useful, they are not often praised in the current political culture in Westminster, which favours populism. In particular, when opposing Boris Johnson, Starmer was faced with ‘Borisonian’ populism’ characterised by a ‘constant willingness to court controversy…play to the media, entertain the public’ and rarely discuss ‘substantive policy issues’. The populist theory of ‘bad manners’ explains that Johnson displayed ‘directness, playfulness, a certain disregard for…tradition’, which appealed to many voters who lost trust in politics and believed Johnson had broken the traditional politician mould. 

But now Johnson has been ousted by the Conservative Party, perhaps the British public is finding this style of leadership less and less appealing. Starmer is now in a position to carry on his calm communication approach, while continuing to call out the chaos of the last 12 years of Tory government, which he did candidly in a podcast interview, stating Johnson “took the piss out of the public” over partygate.

With Liz Truss experiencing an explosive start to her premiership, it seems like a calm and safe pair of hands is what the country really wants right now.

New policies 

At the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, Starmer unveiled numerous policies in his speech. Perhaps most urgently was his reaction to the ‘mini-budget’ recently unveiled by the Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. To restore trust in Labour on economic policy, he pledged to ‘scrap the 45p income tax rate for the highest earners’, and to set up an “Office for Value for Money”.

Starmer also played to a variety of voter bases by committing to “70% home ownership” to appeal to younger voters in the housing crisis, and confirming his “pro-business” stance.

The key policy announcement of the conference was ‘Great British Energy’ – a nationalised energy company aiming to help with the rising costs of energy resulting from the war in Ukraine. Starmer pledged to establish this “within the first year of a Labour government” with the goal of increasing economic growth and expanding on the UK’s clean energy commitments. 

On Brexit, Starmer promised to “make Brexit work” and reaffirmed his commitment to the unity of the United Kingdom. He firmly stated that there will be “no deal” with the Scottish National Party “under any circumstances”.

Party unity

Not only has Starmer managed to reshape his leadership-style and his policies, he is also achieving the aim he set out in his leadership acceptance speech in 2020 – to unite the party. 

In contrast to Starmer’s conference speech last year where Starmer struggled to make progress with his speech, there was no heckling at all.  The only disruptions Starmer faced in his speech this year were ‘having to stop for 13 different standing ovations’. This overwhelming response suggests the party has grown more accepting of Starmer’s leadership. 

Furthermore, a notable change at the conference this year was its patriotic tone. It was the first time ever that the Labour Party Conference has started with a rendition of ‘God Save the King’. Starmer also took a moment to pay his respects to the late Queen for her life of service and dedication to the country. Both gestures faced no opposition.

Party unity is vital to the success of any political party. The newfound unity of Labour will be appealing to voters, especially when contrasted with the divisions in the Conservative Party following a summer of infighting throughout the leadership race.  

Final thoughts 

It seems that after 12 years in opposition, Labour has grown to become a more mature and united party. They are able to offer practical solutions to the cost-of-living crisis and are unafraid to be patriotic. With Liz Truss and her government in turmoil, the tables have turned and the once-forgettable Starmer has soared in popularity. Although there may still be a long way to go, a Starmer government is looking more likely than ever. 

Words by Katie Nelmes

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