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Keir Starmer: Political genius? Or simply fortuitous?

The results of the local elections have almost certified that Keir Starmer is set to be Britain’s next Prime Minister. The Labour Party won an extra 186 councillors and control over 8 new councils, taking their number of councillors up to 1,158, and control of councils to 51 on the night. Labour topped off their impressive showing by winning 8 mayoral elections, including the shock of the 3-night affair, when Richard Parker defeated the incumbent Andy Street for the mayoralty of the West Midlands. On the other hand, it was an abysmal night for the Conservative Party, finishing in 3rd place, and having their worst local election results in almost 30 years, as the pressure on Rishi Sunak to go grows louder and louder.

The results have undoubtedly emboldened Mr Starmer to continue on with his pragmatic and steady leadership, as he enters the next phase – preparing for the general election. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Starmer and Labour. Just 3 years ago, Starmer suffered a humiliating by-election defeat in Hartlepool, almost forcing him to resign altogether. Having been held by Labour since 1964 and a key pillar of the ‘red-wall’, Hartlepool signalled that support for Labour had fallen further adrift since his victory in the leadership election, a year prior. Hartlepool was ultimately rock-bottom for Starmer. He was faced with no light at the end of the tunnel and the prospect that his beloved Labour Party could become electorally extinct come the next general election. 

In the 3 years since, Starmer has been helped by the two key ingredients that make a successful politician – luck and hard work. He rode his luck when a by-election victory by the barest of margins in Batley and Spen helped strengthen his leadership of the Labour Party, as George Galloway’s candidacy for the Workers Party of Britain helped take enough socially Conservative voters from the Conservatives, that the vote was split in favour of the victorious Kim Leadbeater. Luck helped him again when talks of a challenge to his leadership, by the Mayor of Greater Manchester and ‘King of the North’ Andy Burnham, failed to materialise. 

Luck would prove to be in Starmer’s favour, when a slew of corruption scandals plagued the Conservative Government, from Partygate to Chris Pincher, eroding public support for the Government and forcing Boris Johnson to resign in July 2022. Tory support would nosedive even further, after Liz Truss’s botched ‘mini-budget’ sent the economy into freefall and her premiership into oblivion, becoming the most unpopular prime minister in British history. The opinion polls had support for Labour as high as 57%, with a 39-point lead over the Conservatives, showing levels of support not seen since the 90s.

And while fortune has favoured the brave for Starmer, in sticking it out after the Hartlepool debacle, there should be no doubt that hard work has helped him to achieve pole position. Over the past 3 years, Starmer has worked tirelessly to make his electoral program ‘bomb-proof’ from criticism by the Conservatives. He has worked hard to erase the image of the Corbyn years that was still heavily associated with the party and proved to be a huge turn-off for voters. His persistence in setting the electoral lines of where Labour now stood – as the voice of a moderate and pragmatic party occupying the centre ground – has allowed Starmer to paint the Conservatives as a party filled with fringe right-wing ideas and politicians.

However, during this process of reshaping the Party image, Starmer has torn up the electoral program that he campaigned on for leadership of the Labour Party, slowly erasing his 10 pledges as leader into the political abyss. Starmer has also presided over a purge of party members and senior figures on the left of the party. Also, his unclear position on whether Israel has the legal right to inflict ‘collective punishment’ on Gazans has caused a huge drop in support from many previous supporters of him and the Labour Party – including many Muslim voters – who provided overwhelming support to Labour during the Corbyn years.

Many voters still don’t know what Keir Starmer stands for. Having done a 180° pivot away from his initial electoral program during his leadership election win, his modus operandi has not been to provide the electorate with policies that seek to inspire people to vote Labour, or a vision for a better future under a Labour government. Instead, it has been to tell voters at every point to vote for Labour, because they aren’t the Tories. Whilst positioning themselves as the more competent alternative has nevertheless paid political dividends through commanding poll leads and local election successes, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer ultimately stands for nothing, and if you stand for nothing, the voters will eventually catch on and punish you at the ballot boxes.

For now of course, none of this will matter much to Keir Starmer, who is on the cusp of becoming Labour’s first prime minister for 14 years. The glory of becoming Labour’s seventh prime minister and the grandeur of occupying 10 Downing Street is surely at the front of his mind. The decision to stick it out after the disaster that was the Hartlepool by-election will no doubt go down as a fateful one, helping to propel him to the top. Starmer will be able to count on the sympathy of the voters initially, by using the past 14 years of Tory mismanagement to his advantage. But, for how long will the electorate see him through such rose-tinted glasses? Only time will tell.

Image: Rwendland

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