Charlotte Street Partners



Resistance is futile, Mr Starmer

Written by Alex Massie
8 April 2021

These are cruel times in which to find yourself in opposition. This is the first thing to stress when considering the impact – or lack thereof – Keir Starmer has made in his opening year as leader of the Labour party and Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. What do you do and what do you say when the public has little interest in anything you do or say?

In an emergency, voters pay more attention to the news and to government than may ordinarily be the case in happier, more placid, times. That should not be confused with any additional appetite for politics. Indeed, I strongly suspect the public is less enamoured of politics – and of politicians “playing politics” – than is usually the case. And since the public dislike politics at the best of times, they really dislike it during the worst of times. 

Constructive opposition is not quite a contradiction in terms, but it is sufficiently close to being so as to render life in opposition a more than usually thankless burden. There is little that can usefully be said and yet there is a constant requirement to be saying *something*. That is not a fertile environment for opposition. 

If Starmer is hobbled by this, so are Scotland’s opposition parties. In this Holyrood election, it is worth noting how little attention is being paid to the mistakes – some of them inevitable; some of them ghastly nonetheless – Nicola Sturgeon’s government has made during the course of this crisis. This doubtless reflects the wisdom of focus groups and a general sense this is no time for, as Sturgeon is wont to put it, “carping from the sidelines”. There may be a time for a reckoning – and a number of public inquiries are as necessary as they should be inevitable – but that time, voters suggest, is not yet upon us. 

Hence this curiosity: in London and Edinburgh alike, this is a moment in which the traditional advantages of incumbency are more apparent than ever. The turmoil of so much of the past year is priced in and voters are less interested in apportioning blame than simply getting through this emergency with their wits and livelihoods more or less intact. As so often, if you get your politics from Twitter or Facebook, you are likely to be viewing current events through a significantly distorting prism. These are great forums for anger; they are a less useful means of measuring, or gaining an appreciation for, the quiet patience shown by the public as a whole. 

The electorate knows many things have been broken in these last 12 months and they do not require opposition politicians to point this out. Any criticism of the government, no matter how well-founded, invites the whispered responses: ‘Well, what would *you* have done differently?’ and ‘What would *you* do next?’ These are not questions to which there are easy, let alone compelling, answers. 

All of which helps explain why Boris Johnson can simultaneously have presided over a grotesque disaster and still enjoy a solid lead in the opinion polls. Some of that, doubtless, also reflects the success of the UK’s vaccination programme which, at long last, offers light at the end of a long, long tunnel but some of it is also the consequence of the structural advantage governments enjoy during a period of crisis. Fix it first, then we can think about what should have been done in the past and might yet be done in the years to come. 

And for Starmer there is another difficulty which cannot be wiped away in just 12 months. The baleful shadow cast by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership still traps his successor. Corbyn’s devoted supporters still demonstrate no awareness of the darkness into which he led the Labour movement. The stain lingers and will do so for some time yet. 

In such circumstances and just 16 months after an election in which Johnson won an 80-seat majority, Labour’s difficulties become more, not less, understandable. The journey back to power begins with a road trip to relevance and that is a more difficult voyage than you might think. The forthcoming Hartlepool by-election will be a test and if Labour lose – as is wholly plausible – we should expect to hear it suggested that Starmer has a certain look of death about him. 

Even so, the angst evident in certain Labour quarters seems misplaced to me. It is not too late for Starmer, an obviously decent if unexciting man, to make an impact but it is one that, if made, will only be evident over the long haul. His task is to make Labour seem fit for office when the choosing time next comes around. That requires eradicating almost all traces of Corbynism and then demonstrating that Labour has a true alternative to whatever may be offered by a Conservative party that will by then have been in power for a decade and a half. But you must fix your own house before pointing out the flaws evident in the house across the street. 

If the Year of the Virus has cost Labour anything, then, it lies in the nagging sense that Starmer has not yet done the work necessary to extirpate Corbynism. There has been a break, but it has not been clean enough or sufficiently clear either. 

That is within Starmer’s control in a way that the broader political climate is not. Opposition is always a reclamation job but it is one made harder when, in general, the public wants the government to succeed. Not, to be clear, because they harbour any great affection for the prime minister but because the urgency of the emergency makes it clear that, for once, we really are all in it together. In such circumstances voters will forgive many blunders if, in the end, there is a sense of happier times ahead. And when politics is like this, there is little space for opposition parties to gain a hearing, let alone have it heard sympathetically. 

That is a predicament with which both the Labour and Conservative parties in Scotland might have some sympathy. They may play all the right notes and sometimes even play them in the right order too, only to discover the audience isn’t listening. Who cares what you have to say when everyone knows you will not be in office after the election? 

On which note, it is apparent that inspiration for the next phase in Scottish politics may have to come from outwith the usual channels. The SNP are exhausted after 14 years in power and the opposition still lacks credibility. If you wish to bury an idea in Scotland, Holyrood is an ideal cemetery. 

Which brings me, as a concluding note, to the Oxford Economics report commissioned by the Hunter Foundation and published this week. It suggests, not for the first time, that it is past time the Scottish government focused on wealth – and jobs – creation. Amidst a dire forecast of low GDP growth for the next 15 years, it calls for better and larger government borrowing to stimulate growth, for lower taxes on business, investment in infrastructure and innovation and, perhaps above all, at long last a true, national, focus on the opportunities available in the transition to a green-powered economy. 

Much of this is evidently welcome, even if little of it is new. We have spent 50 years pondering the productivity problem at the heart of the British – and Scottish – economy and, in general, all this pondering has produced little in the way of answers or improvement. If it could be fixed easily, it might have been sorted by now. 

Nevertheless, even if the Hunter Foundation’s analysis does not have all the answers, it is at least asking some of the correct questions. That is something of which the opposition parties at Holyrood might take note and from which they might learn. Not because doing so will transform their electoral prospects overnight but because an opposition focused on the big questions that really matter is an opposition that might just, one day, be ready for office itself. 

About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie

We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.

To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.

Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of
The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday

We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here

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