Speculation has been mounting that Sir Keir Starmer may leave his position as leader of the Labour Party. Such a decision would be catastrophic to those who hold hope for some form of democracy within the United Kingdom.
The Labour leader has had a difficult week, seeing rebels rise up from within his own party on two major topics: Brexit and schools.
Firstly, he told his MPs to back Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, even if it wasn’t necessarily desirable. Despite this, many abstained and some voted against the agreement. Here, Starmer's logic was quite straightforward.
Brexit had been an inevitability since Johnson’s landslide General Election victory in December 2019. If Labour were to oppose the deal then they could be smeared as an anti-democratic party. Those who were anti-Brexit say that Brexit was built on lies and deceit, but the people doubled-down on their desire to leave the European Union in that recent election. Remainers need to accept that.
Starmer has been walking a thin tightrope, chasing electability in 2024. Singing to the tune of the Labour left will not get you elected into power. While Twitter may deceive you into thinking that the United Kingdom is full of left-wing thinkers, the reality is rather different.
Jeremy Corbyn’s reign destroyed Labour’s reputation in many working-class areas; the very people that Corbyn wanted to help were made to hate him. Suggestions that he was a terrorist sympathiser and a Marxist did not sit well with large swathes of the electorate. But his flimsy position on Brexit was the final nail in the coffin for many.
A large number of working-class areas voted to leave the EU and Johnson’s transparency on backing Brexit meant that he was an easy alternative vote for the usual Labour following. Opposing Johnson’s recent deal would have no effect on the final outcome and, more importantly, it would send more negative signals to Brexiteers, who already felt alienated from Labour.
Nonetheless, Starmer’s lack of opposition to keeping schools open is a little less understandable.
A YouGov poll showed that 67% of people would support temporarily closing schools. Many countries across the world have adopted virtual learning in light of the crisis but the UK Government is showing a reluctance to follow that trend. Given that they are implementing a strict lockdown across the continent, it seems odd that the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson is turning a blind eye to an obvious area of concern.
It is tough to pin down Starmer’s thought process on this particular issue. A reluctance to mimic Corbyn's unrelenting backing for unions, perhaps? Parents going to work would need to find somebody to mind their children whilst staying at home, thus causing more strain for those who are already struggling in these uncertain times. There's certainly scope for a negative media spin.
But Labour should be coming out in support of teachers, simultaneously taking the common-sense approach to tackling the coronavirus by keeping children at home. This particular issue is infuriating much of the Labour left and it’s not difficult to see why. Corbyn would have been vehemently defending teachers from the start.
The fundamental difference between Corbyn and Starmer is their approach to tackling issues. Corbyn would jump into a situation with his head first while Starmer prefers to take a more measured approach. While Corbyn’s attitude is more admirable, Starmer’s stance is much more likely to win an election. Sit back, gauge public opinion, and think carefully about how to respond to any given situation.
The Labour leader is simply desperate not to sink in this pandemic. Johnson’s reputation has collapsed over the past nine months and his patchily put together Brexit deal will offer him little reprieve by the end of this pandemic.
Much of the general public don’t look beyond the headlines in the newspaper or the soundbites on the news. It’s very easy to apply labels to things now. Labour’s reputation has collapsed since the glory days of Tony Blair. Many people have a negative depiction of the party and that prejudice can be tough to shake off.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Labour was, somewhat unfairly, blamed for Britain’s recession and the following years of austerity. Under Corbyn, Labour was often dubbed as a Marxist organisation and, after calling for a second-referendum last year, they were labelled as anti-democratic. We haven't even touched on the anti-Semitism debacle! The party’s reputation has been dragged through a hedge backwards and there is still a lot of work to do if they want to change the opinion on the doorstep.
However, the Conservatives will be desperate to trip Starmer up as he appears to be doing a good job. A recent article from The Times dissected that, by the end of 2020, Labour had overtaken the Tories in opinion polls. What a remarkable turnaround in just twelve months.
Ultimately, there needs to be a compromise from the leader and the Labour left. Collaboration is needed. Starmer needs to swallow his pride and put his weight behind the rights of teachers but, equally, his toxic adversaries within the Labour Party need to back down. A person with a legitimate chance of challenging the Conservatives needs to be supported, not lamented at every opportunity. It’s far easier to strive for progressive changes when you're in power; the left needs to remember that.