I had the pleasure of hosting an event with the Labour leader Keir Starmer this week.
It was a call with Lancashire residents and the opposition leader was taking questions on a whole range of issues from COVID to local government re-organisation.
He was clearly comfortable and confident in covering all of the points put to him, but if it is difficult to genuinely challenge an experienced operator like Starmer in a ‘live’ event, it is virtually (forgive the pun) impossible on a Zoom call.
In short, the Labour boss indicated that he wanted to see more devolution, but structures had to be directed by local communities rather than Whitehall; he disagreed with a freeze on public sector pay, particularly for the lowest paid such as care workers, making the fair point that a lack of spending power for these millions of people will have a negative impact on the wider economy; he was, naturally critical of the governments’ handling of the Pandemic, whilst welcoming the news on the vaccine; and he agreed that more support was required to upskill the young and old alike.
It was a steady, if not spectacular performance – but at this stage of the game that will do nicely. He inherited a party at its lowest ever point, and though aided and abetted by the government’s handling of the crisis in recent months, his ability to draw Labour level or ahead in many polls has been no mean feat.
Nevertheless, he has more immediate complex matters to deal with in the coming weeks that will make it increasingly difficult for him to avoid taking a stand – and inevitably upsetting some people.
The oppositions decision to abstain on the latest ‘lockdown’ vote has been met with criticism not only from the Tories, but from many in the country who see this as political game-playing and ‘passing -the-buck’. Gary Neville spoke for many in his interview on the Robert Peston show on Wednesday evening, when he said you can’t leave the field of play and expect to be in the game.
Labour have, thus far, looked at the pandemic through the narrow prism of COVID-infection rates since March. Come the New Year, as the vaccination is rolled out, there will be less sympathy for lockdown restrictions and more focus on the economy – and increasingly on the wider health implications that lockdowns have caused. Will Labour be able to pivot?
A more looming dilemma will come if the government brings back to parliament a ‘Brexit Deal’, likely to happen before Christmas.
Starmer is facing a rebellion if he instructs his MPs to vote for the deal but fears that Labour will continue to look like a party that is in Brexit-denial if it votes against. Another abstention would amplify the criticism that he just doesn’t like making tough choices.
And then there is St Jeremy. A procedural cock-up has meant that Corbyn is back in as a member of the Labour Party. But he remains suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Trade Union leaders and the hard left are demanding that Starmer reinstates the whip to their martyr on earth. To do so may keep a faction of his party on-side, but it would also disappoint many in Labour’s mainstream who hoped they had seen the back of the extreme left-and particularly those who had re-joined the party post-Keir’s election. That’s not to mention the uproar that would follow from the Jewish community.
People say 2020 has been the hardest year ever. Keir Starmer may find the next twelve months even harder.