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'He needs to be more than just competent': What Labour MPs think of Keir Starmer so far

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·5-min read
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 20, 2020: Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer speaks to media outside the BBC Broadcasting House in central London after appearing on The Andrew Marr Show on 20 September, 2020 in London, England.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
One Labour MP has labelled Sir Keir Starmer, who has led the party for six months, as the 'man of the moment', though another said he needs to do more. (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Amid all the Brexit and coronavirus turmoil since Boris Johnson became prime minister in July last year, perhaps one thing has been forgotten about him.

He is really good at winning elections.

This is the Conservative who was twice elected mayor of London, a city where two-thirds of MPs are Labour.

He’s the man who perfectly manoeuvred himself to win last year’s Tory Party leadership election.

And he’s the man who won a huge majority in last year’s general election, ending Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist dream.

Which brings us to Sir Keir Starmer, who has now led the Labour Party for exactly six months.

Unlike Johnson, Labour’s recent leaders – Corbyn, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown – have been bad at winning elections. The party has now been in power for just a quarter of its 120-year existence.

However, since replacing Corbyn as leader in April, there’s no doubt Starmer has made it a more viable alternative in the eyes of voters.

According to YouGov’s rolling voting intention tracker, Labour was 24% behind the Conservatives when Starmer took over on 4 April. Just half a year later, that gap has been completely closed: both parties are now on 39%.

The difference in polling between 1 and 2 April, top, and 29 and 30 September, bottom. (YouGov)
The difference in polling between 1 and 2 April, top, and 29 and 30 September, bottom. (YouGov)

That’s polling, though. Even Corbyn’s Labour received encouraging polling before the election. Johnson ended up with an 80-seat majority.

Nonetheless, some Labour MPs are bullish about Starmer’s chances come the next election, which must take place by 2024.

“Keir’s brand of politics makes him the man of the moment,” Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier tells Yahoo News UK.

Watch: Keir Starmer challenges Boris Johnson on COVID-19 rule confusion

“Any counter-balance to what the current government is doing was going to be a winner anyway, but his brand of being competent and forensic on the detail really works right now.”

In a thinly veiled comparison of the Corbyn and Starmer regimes, Hillier refers to how a newspaper operates: “When you have an editor who’s all over the place, you don’t know what he’s trying to do.

“Having a leader with a clear direction, who you know you’re following, who you know has rational decision making... It makes things really sensible. Nothing’s a surprise, and you can trust the team effort.

“Having consistency is boring but really important – and really important for the general public. It’s one of the reasons this government is doing so badly.”

MP Meg Hillier speaks in a fringe event on the fourth day of the Labour Party annual conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton. Picture dated: Tuesday September 24, 2019. Photo credit should read: Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment.
Labour MP Meg Hillier calls Sir Keir Starmer the 'man of the moment'. (Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment)

One of the words Hillier uses to describe Starmer – “competent” – crops up regularly when his supporters compare his leadership style to that of Johnson.

However, Leeds East MP Richard Burgon, a Corbyn loyalist who was sacked from the shadow cabinet by Starmer in April, tells this website he needs to do far more.

He says: “Keir’s right to put into real focus the government’s lack of competence. This is a government that is scandalously incompetent.

“But we can’t just critique them on competence, we need to distinguish their values from our values. I don’t think we’ll be able to win a general election on the question of competence alone.”

Burgon, who came third out of five candidates in this year’s deputy leadership election, doubts Johnson will even be PM at the next election.

(left to right) Keir Starmer, Richard Burgon and Dianne Abbott listen as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn makes a speech about Brexit during a visit to OE Electrics in Wakefield. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)
Keir Starmer sits next to Richard Burgon during a Jeremy Corbyn speech in January last year. (Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

“So if we just confine our critique to competence, we could end up giving the new incumbent a chance.

“We’ve got to set out an inspiring vision of the Labour Party. There are going to have to be radical policy answers to the huge problems people are facing in this [coronavirus] crisis and beyond.”

Starmer has troubled Johnson in the House of Commons chamber in ways Corbyn rarely did. “Forensic” is another word often used to describe the approach of Starmer – who is a barrister – to the PM.

Johnson, on the other hand, is someone who is perceived to struggle with details: something captured last week when he was forced to apologise after muddling key rules of his own North East lockdown.

Labour frontbencher Tan Dhesi, the shadow railways minister and MP for Slough, claims voters are also seeing this. He tells Yahoo News UK: “At Prime Minister’s Questions especially, the bumbling nature of Boris Johnson has been exposed because of the style of questioning.

Labour Party parliamentary candidate for Slough, Tan Dhesi at the launch of the Labour Party race and faith manifesto at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, north London.
Shadow minister Tan Dhesi (PA)

“When you juxtapose Keir’s leadership next to the seemingly limitless ineptitude and incompetence of this Tory government, it’s chalk and cheese.

“His popularity is increasing with the country and it’s beginning to warm to his sensible, safe-hands approach.”

Away from Labour circles, Prof Tim Bale, deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, says there are reasons for both leaders to be concerned at this stage.

Of Starmer, he says: “Labour’s brand was very badly tarnished between 2015 and 2019 [under Corbyn’s leadership], as far as most voters were concerned.

Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, sits waiting to speak next to Keir Starmer Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union during their election campaign event on Brexit in Harlow, England, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Britain goes to the polls on Dec. 12. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer during last year's election campaign. (AP/Matt Dunham)

“There will inevitably be a lag effect, so even if Starmer becomes more popular than he seems to be at the moment, it will take time for Labour’s rating to catch up. I don’t expect that to happen until the Conservative government runs into real trouble.”

On the other hand, Prof Bale argues Johnson’s electoral prowess will come under pressure like never before, amid serious questions so far about his handling of the pandemic.

“There’s no doubt he is a fantastic campaigner. He is very, very capable in that respect.

“But with 2019, he had only been PM a few months and there was one defining issue [Brexit]. If he is there in 2024, he is going to be judged on his record – as well as rhetoric.”