Keir Starmer at PMQs. Keir Starmer at PMQs. Photo: Flickr - Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Chris Nineham argues Starmer’s poor polling can’t be blamed on vaccine success

Given the Tories’ disastrous handling of the pandemic, it is quite an achievement for the opposition to be trailing in the polls almost one year after the virus first appeared.

Some commentators have put Starmer’s recent dreadful poll performance down to the Tories taking credit for the successful NHS vaccine rollout.

The problem is the polling data and the wider state of public opinion just don’t support this view.

Latest polls do show the Tories moving ahead to lead Labour by 5%. But a closer examination shows the Tories have barely increased their vote. What has happened is that Starmer’s Labour has lost votes to the Greens and the LibDems. Most likely his recent flag-waving, patriotic turn was simply too much for some voters.

More generally, support for Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, though it has increased slightly, is still dreadful at 39% compared to a high of 72% in March last year. A recent poll of polls shows that a majority still disapprove of Johnson’s leadership of the country overall.

Source: YouGov

In these circumstances, any reasonably combative leader of the opposition should be forging ahead. But the sad fact is that Starmer’s Labour has only been ahead once in the last year, marginally, for a brief moment last November.

Source: Politico

The immediate problem is that Starmer is combat-averse, at least when it comes to the Tories. In recent weeks he has been barely audible above the vaccine hoo-ha.  

Starmer’s strategy of backing the government while making occasional queries about whether they are overreacting is both irresponsible and electorally pointless.

Media myths

Despite efforts by the media and politicians to portray British people as anti-lockdown or even Covid-sceptic, the truth is many more think the government is too lax than too harsh.   A survey last December showed nearly half the population wanted the government to do more to tackle the virus, with only one third saying they had got it right. 49% actually wanted tougher restrictions over Christmas.  

A recent poll shows that two-thirds of British people think rich countries should not have priority access to vaccines, an attitude way more progressive than most MPs would dare to express in parliament.

Ever since May last year, there has been massive dissatisfaction with the way the government has responded to Covid. Instead of opposing the teachers when they called for school closures, Labour could have been channelling that opinion. If they had pushed for a distinct and more decisive policy they would have won massive support and forced the government to act, saving thousands of lives in the process.

Bad politics

There is of course a wider issue here. Despite his claims to being a unity candidate in 2019, in practice, Starmer has proved to be a man of the right through and through. It’s not just his recent flag-waving antics. Starmer spent more energy trying to eradicate Corbynism in the party than he did taking on the Tories in 2020. Now that the ‘I am not Corbyn’ strategy has conclusively flopped, The Sunday Times reports Starmer has gone running to Blair’s buddy Peter Mandelson for advice on next steps.  

This follows his utter failure to reflect anger over scrapping the furlough and free school meals, his sneering attitude to Black Lives Matter and his failure to back the school student protests last year.

All this is no doubt instinct for a man who has long been wedded to the establishment. It is also, as it happens, bad politics.

Leaving aside attitudes to the pandemic for a moment, survey after survey shows a popular desire for change and a commitment to reducing inequality, improving wages, tackling climate change and reducing the power of big business in this country. The right is in control of the Labour Party, but they are utterly out of step with the country.

Luckily there are signs that workers and trade unionists are stepping up and starting to channel anger against the government’s Covid shambles and the employers’ job-cutting offensive. It’s an extra-parliamentary movement based on the workplaces that offer the best hope of taking on this basket case of a government. 

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.