Queen Mary University of London : Exploring Keir Starmer’s leadership of Labour one year on

Since defeat at the 2010 General Election, the Labour Party has changed leadership several times and as the recent elections across the UK have shown, they have continued to fail to make an impact when it comes to the voting public. The expert panel brought together by the Mile End Institute addressed how the party is progressing, if at all, under current leader Keir Starmer. It comes after a recent Mile End Institute poll showed that Londoners were divided in their views as to how well Keir Starmer is doing.

Panellists included Caroline Flint, Member of Parliament for Don Valley (1997-2019), Eunice Goes, Professor of Politics at Richmond University, The American University in London, Ailbhe Rea, Political Correspondent at the New Statesman and Robert Saunders, Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary. Patrick Diamond, Director of the Mile End Institute, chaired the discussion panel.

Changes in polling

The session commenced with a presentation from Anthony Wells, Director of Political and Social Research at YouGov who gave an insight into what the polls say about Labour’s performance over the past year as well as the present and future challenges facing the Labour leadership. Anthony Wells said: “Keir Starmer inherited not just an awful Labour defeat but also an awful position in the polls […] within his first six months he took a party which was 20 points behind in the polls, to a party that was neck and neck. We should not forget that his initial period was very strong. It only opened up again when we got to the third lockdown, and more importantly, the rollout of the vaccine.”

Caroline Flint was the Labour MP for Don Valley between 1997 and 2019 and was one of 101 women elected for Labour at the 1997 General Election. Serving in both the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, she joined the Shadow Cabinet in 2010. She said: “It is clear that in many areas Keir Starmer has improved on the perception of the leader and contributed to the perception of the party. I don’t think we should kid ourselves though, it was from a very, very low base to start with.”

Caroline Flint added that that voting patterns of 2019 have become more entrenched. “I don’t agree that the loss of Labour’s working class voters is somehow inevitable, I think bad politics in many respects has led to this collapse,” she added.

A contrast to Corbyn

Eunice Goes, Professor of Politics at Richmond University, The American University in London, explained why the recent results were so disappointing for Labour. She said: “This was the result of the strategy of Keir Starmer’s leadership and that strategy did not really work. He tried to show to voters that he was not Jeremy Corbyn […] He did not have narrative or a set of policy offers that could enthuse voters. He offered a very bland message wrapped in a Union Jack.”

Ailbhe Rea, Political Correspondent at the New Statesman said: “When he [Keir Starmer] took over as leader, the number one priority was to distinguish himself from Jeremy Corbyn. He spent a lot of the first year as leader in tidying up the mess of antisemitism […] it is worth acknowledging that some of the work he had to do was not public facing.”

Robert Saunders, Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary offered a historical perspective. He said: “It is difficult to judge Keir Starmer’s first year because no previous Leader of the Opposition has ever had a first year like this. Robert Saunders added that the pandemic effectively shut down politics as normal and that the vaccine rollout “has not just been a popular policy, it has been a public policy success of a kind for which there is not really a precedent.”

About the Mile End Institute

The Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London is a major policy centre established at Queen Mary University of London. It brings together research, policy-making and public debate to deepen and challenge understandings of British politics, governance and public policy to address the major political challenges of our time.

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