When Keir Starmer was elected in 2020, the future for the Labour Party seemed brightWIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When Keir Starmer was first elected as Labour leader, I was hopeful. He appeared serious, competent, and well-presented —he was everything that Corbyn was not. Fast forward a year, and Starmer’s leadership is looking in serious doubt. From losing an MP in Hartlepool to a disastrous set of local council elections, it appears the public has very quickly fallen out of love with Starmer. But what is behind this loss of love, and what can Labour do to win back voters’ confidence?

Labour’s greatest enemy has always been itself. From the famous Gang of Four’s defection to form the SDP in 1981 to the more recent and shorter-lived Change UK, infighting has always dogged the party. The most successful Labour leaders, from Atlee to Blair, have all been able to keep the opposing factions within the party under control.

Considering how divided the party was when he became leader, Keir Starmer has done surprisingly well in this regard. His hard-line and competent approach to antisemitism within the party has helped to restore public confidence and distance himself from Corbyn’s farcical handling of the crisis. The asinine missteps of Corbyn and his allies no doubt helped Starmer, allowing him to further cement his power. Though troubles with the more radical fringes remain, he has until now managed to rein in the infighting and solidify his power, arguably achieving the hardest task on the road to making his party electable.

“The driving factor behind Starmer’s general loss of support is a drought of clarity ... a year on, it is still unclear what this new leadership stands for”

This makes Starmer’s loss of popular support and his actions after the local elections even more infuriating. The reshuffling of Angela Rayner and Anneliese Dodds is set to deepen divisions within the party, and ultimately overshadow any positive gains made in the local elections, such as the election of Nik Johnson to Mayor in Cambridgeshire.

When it comes down to it, the driving factor behind Starmer’s general loss of support is a drought of clarity. It is clear that he wishes to depart from Corbyn’s politics — he even went as far as to make the new Labour slogan ‘Under New Leadership’. The problem is that a year on, it is still unclear what this new leadership stands for.

Labour has not put out a new manifesto since the 2019 general election, and there is little to go by in determining where the party’s leader stands, apart from vague and unenthusiastic promises during press interviews. It is almost as if Starmer wanted to use these elections simply to determine the national mood, and as a guide for future policy. If so, it has backfired spectacularly. Now the left of the party can justifiably claim that a departure from Corbyn’s politics has in fact hindered the party electorally; it also feeds into the destructive narrative peddled by both the Conservatives and some illiberal Labour members that supporting socially progressive politics championed by the “liberal elite,” such as Black Lives Matter, alienates traditional voters in the North.

In fact, the main reason for the loss of the northern vote has been the inability of Labour, and the Left in general, to appeal to popular sentiment with enticing rhetoric in an area of the UK that has been left behind. A poll in 2017 found that 67% of Britons do not read manifestos, with 29% either completely disinterested in reading them or completely unaware of what a manifesto actually is. Rhetoric and optics are what matter for most people in elections, not individual policies. While the right is acutely aware of this, as their results show, the left struggles. Rhetoric is derived from policy — and until Labour takes a clear stance they will be unable to develop rhetoric effectively.

The supposition that northern voters are fed up with the progressive policies themselves is a dangerous narrative that risks losing Labour the youth vote to the more progressive Lib Dems or Greens, and does nothing to win northern support. No matter what concessions Labour makes to social conservatives, the Tories will continue to peddle their rhetoric and, more importantly, continue to win votes.

“The future of the Labour Party lies in populist progressivism that seeks to expose the Tories for what I believe they really are”

Despite the Tory party’s undeniably elitist membership, Johnson has still been able to fashion his party into a populist one. The idea of an out-of-touch, metropolitan, intellectual ‘elite’ is central to the Conservatives’ brand of populism. This is well encapsulated in Michael Gove’s assertion during the Brexit referendum that, “The people of this country have had enough of experts.” It is dangerous yet seductive rhetoric that appeals to people who have felt forgotten by Westminster. Last election, this sentiment combined with Brexit negotiation fatigue was far stronger than the anti-Capitalist alternative Corbyn proposed — after all, one can only take so many news cycles about withdrawal agreements.

The future of the Labour Party is not the bland, uncertain centrism that Starmer has been set on. The future of the Labour Party lies in populist progressivism that seeks to expose the Tories for what I believe they really are: self-interested authoritarians who treat the British people and their freedoms with contempt. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill was an ideal opportunity for Starmer to try out this new rhetoric, yet unfortunately, Labour’s response to this unprecedented constriction of the right to protest was bungled. The recent and unsurprising allegations of Tory sleaze would further bolster this anti-elitist rhetoric and help to increase popularity among those who feel disaffected.

Given the Tory party’s current inclination towards authoritarian politics, there are upcoming opportunities to test-drive this rhetoric: Conservative proposals of tightened voter ID laws with little evidence of voter fraud are an anti-democratic move that seeks to disenfranchise. This, along with the proposal to replace supplementary voting with first-past-the-post in mayoral elections, seems cynical and anti-democratic and should be attacked as such. This rhetoric, combined with progressive welfare proposals that would improve the material conditions of the disaffected, could provide formidable opposition to the Tories’ own anti-intellectual populism.


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But there is yet another potential benefit to embracing such rhetoric. The Liberal Democrats have carved out a definitive niche in recent years as the anti-authoritarian party, adopting policies such as cannabis legalisation and clear opposition to civil liberties restrictions. A tactical alliance between the two parties to oppose the clear threat of conservative authoritarianism, with an agreement for the parties to run unopposed in constituencies where there is vote splitting between them, would be disastrous for the Conservatives. Unfortunately, this alliance would require amendments to Labour’s constitution and is unlikely to achieve enough popular support within the party. It would nevertheless help greatly if implementation were possible.

Keir Starmer stands at a crossroads in his leadership. Labour needs to find direction, and adopt cohesive policies from which political narratives and rhetoric can be built. Despite the disheartening losses at the last set of elections, there is hope — the Conservatives have been a gold mine of errors, that if capitalised upon correctly could change Starmer’s fortunes. Whether this will happen remains to be seen — but the Labour Party’s future depends upon it.