Labour: Is the Starmer Rebrand Working?

John Heycock offers a balanced, but pessimistic, analysis of Keir Starmer's first 18 months as Labour leader and his attempt to transform the party.

John Heycock
8th November 2021
Image Credit: Chris McAndrew, CC by 3.0:, via Wikimedia

After Labour's worst election defeat since 1935 — a time when Labour was yet to form a government with a working majority — its leader Jeremy Corbyn resigned, beginning a new leadership contest.

Six potential leadership candidates were slowly whittled down to a final three: Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer. Long-Bailey was viewed as the continuity candidate, having been a close ally of the former leader and coming from the left wing of the party. Nandy and Starmer were both from Labour's so-called 'soft left' but both took markedly different positions - Nandy pitched a more defined break with the Corbyn era and a shift in focus to left behind towns, whereas Starmer told members he would view the 2017 manifesto as a baseline and unveiled 10 key corbynite pledges for his leadership. This was enough to win the former Director of Public Prosecutions the backing of 56.2% of members and affiliates in the vote for leader.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer alongside former leader Jeremy Corbyn
(Image Credit: Jeremy Corbyn on Flickr,
CC by 2.0: Creative Commons Legal Code)

Starmer's election victory came as the UK had just locked down due to a global pandemic. However the new leader soon made a positive start with strong poll ratings, his net satisfaction score peaking at 31% in June 2020 - the highest for a leader of the opposition since Tony Blair, who of course went on to become Prime Minister. He initially made several key decisions which put him on the front foot against a government which would go on to preside over the worst death toll in Europe in the worst health crisis of the post-war era. This included advocating for an "exit plan" for post-lockdown Britain in April 2020 and calling for a "circuit-breaker" lockdown in October, making him seem responsible on the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic and painting Johnson as comparatively reckless.

And perhaps most notably in this early period, he took immediate action to tackle antisemitism in the party — something his predecessor put no effort into doing. The public paid attention and a perception grew of Starmer being a competent leader and serious candidate for Prime Minister.

Starmer's team have been firing out their policies without any sense of direction or a coherent vision.

As time progressed, it became increasingly clear that he was slowly trying to break away from the previous Labour leadership - using his only real cut-through moment at Prime Minister's Questions to tell the nation that "Labour is under new management". However it still isn't clear what this actually means for policy; Starmer's team have been firing out their policies without any sense of direction or a coherent vision. As a result, there has been plenty of mixed messaging: from abstaining on a vote for key lockdown measures to not having a clearly defined alternative to Boris Johnson's abysmal social care policy.

Keir Starmer reneges on his commitment to common ownership of public services, on grounds of 'pragmatism'.

Perhaps the biggest example of all came in recent weeks when Ed Milliband - former leader, now Shadow Business Secretary - was sent on air to talk about Labour's energy policy. He advocated for common ownership of energy policy, as defined by Starmer in his campaign for the leadership, before Starmer himself in an interview later that week said it was no longer Labour's policy. It is mixed messaging like this that has led the public to believe Johnson's claim that Labour doesn't have any alternatives to government policies and opposes for opposition's sake, something he weaponises almost weekly at Prime Minister's Questions.

Starmer's inability to cut through with the public, at a time when the government has been on the receiving end of unprecedented attention, has seen his poll ratings plummet. Whilst Starmer has enjoyed some personal poll leads over Johnson, since February this year Johnson has been the public's preferred choice of Prime Minister. The picture looks even worse for Labour as a whole, with the Conservative Government leading in the polls at almost every time of asking. Project Starmer is yet to turn around the fortunes of the party after its election defeat.

Starmer's initial success and later decline can sum up his leadership fairly effectively: communications success - showing a break from the Corbyn era, and communications failure - not showing what he himself stands for. To win an election you have to control the narrative, and right now Starmer hasn't written one. Regardless of how anyone thinks he can perform as Prime Minister, he'll need to win an election to get the keys to Downing Street.

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