Keir Starmer's fundamental problem

17 July 2021

4:05 PM

17 July 2021

4:05 PM

Half a century ago, Willie Whitelaw accused Harold Wilson of ‘going around the country stirring up apathy’. I can think of no finer description to apply to Keir Starmer’s summer tour of Britain, during which we are told he intends to listen to the concerns of voters in a bid to win back their trust.

His first such excursion, on which he was accompanied by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, saw him encounter a dozen former Labour voters in Blackpool. Several of them confided that they had never heard of him, a revelation he described as ‘utterly frustrating’.

Ms Kuenssberg reported that the gathering gave Starmer quite a rough ride with some in attendance telling him he was ‘wasting his time’. The issue of anti-Semitism within Labour came up too and she later pressed him further on whether Jeremy Corbyn may be allowed back into the parliamentary party.

‘To turn this into an argument about Jeremy Corbyn is to do exactly what I want the Labour party to stop doing,’ said Sir Keir. Which is good, because the argument should be about Starmer himself.

It would be to let Starmer off the hook to frame his travails mainly in the context of the sins of past leaders — although Gordon Brown’s contretemps over immigration policy with the estimable Mrs Gillian Duffy during the 2010 election was also mentioned by the voters Starmer met.

When it comes to the crucial issue of trust, it is Starmer himself who needs to find a way convincingly to atone for his past behaviour. For the hard of remembering — and perhaps Ms Kuenssberg can be counted among that number for it appeared to have slipped her mind — let me reprise the details of his monstrous breach of faith with the electorate.

Just a few days before the 2017 election, Starmer did a piece to camera in which he explicitly promised, speaking as his party’s Brexit spokesman, that Labour would respect the result of the EU referendum. There can be little doubt that this pledge contributed to Labour’s better-than-expected performance on polling day, in which it took away the Tory majority and won back pro-Leave seats like Bury North, Warrington South, Ipswich and Peterborough.

Yet by the following autumn, Starmer was standing up at the Labour conference pushing his policy of holding a second referendum designed to overturn the 2016 result and keep Britain in the EU. ‘Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option,’ he told party activists to rapturous applause.

Brendan Chilton, the general secretary of the Labour Leave campaign group, condemned Starmer’s remarks as ‘a betrayal’ and forecast, with eerie prescience, that they would amount to a P45 for Labour MPs in pro-Leave areas.

By the following autumn, Starmer had pushed things further still, telling Andrew Marr that Labour was about to table an amendment in the Commons calling for a second referendum and leaving the BBC man in no doubt on which side he intended to campaign.

So as terrible a leader as Jeremy Corbyn was, he is not any longer the central issue when it comes to Labour repairing its reputational damage. Voters have worked out that Sir Keir is a very different kettle of fish. The problem is that those who voted Leave regard him as just as stinky a kettle.

After promising to respect our verdict and honour our votes, Starmer tried to negate our verdict and, in effect, steal our votes. We won’t forget that in a hurry.

In his diaries covering 2003, Alastair Campbell instinctively understood the damage that claims of the case for war with Iraq being sexed up would do to Tony Blair’s reputation, writing: ‘Grim for me and grim for TB and there is huge stuff about trust.’ Blair has never fully succeeded in shaking it off either.

There is huge stuff about trust hanging over another Labour leader now. On second thoughts, stirring up apathy might actually turn out to be his safest bet.

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