The Guardian view on Starmer’s first year: show, don’t tell | Editorial

The day after Keir Starmer was confirmed as Jeremy Corbyn’s successor at the head of the Labour party, Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital with a severe coronavirus infection. What small portion of public attention was available for the new opposition leader vanished.

That accident of timing exacerbated a wider challenge that looks no less formidable as Sir Keir marks the first anniversary of his election. He inherited a shrunken parliamentary party. December 2019 was Labour’s worst result since 1935. The party was debilitated by feuding over the ideology and the character of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. It had no position on Brexit – a failure that expressed a cultural schism between a liberal, pro-European base and traditional heartland seats.

Rebuilding relationships with lost voters was a tall order for any leader. Sir Keir faced the additional problem of a pandemic that, in its early stages at least, required some subordination of partisan politics to the demands of national unity in a crisis. Labour is still vulnerable to a perception that it “plays politics” with the pandemic. At the same time, party loyalists are frustrated that their leader is not landing enough punches on the government.

This is an old conundrum of opposition: how to keep an activist base enthused while also reaching out to swing voters? That is not easy when Labour has no settled account of what went wrong under Mr Corbyn and what needs to change. Sir Keir dodged that question in the leadership election and has struggled for definition ever since.

Labour’s room for manoeuvre has been further curtailed by Tory advances into policy areas previously dominated by the left. Rishi Sunak has borrowed heavily to fund wage subsidies through the pandemic, ripping up the rulebook of Thatcherite economics. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson declares himself a crusader for green industrial strategy and “levelling up” between unequal regions.

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The Tories’ adoption of environmental and egalitarian rhetoric, even as their policies continue to inflict damage, makes it harder for Labour to carve out distinctive positions. The pandemic has exposed deep social divisions, stirring feelings that the country needs a whole new direction. But Sir Keir has not yet found a way to project Labour as the guide.

His personal ratings have looked inversely correlated to perceptions of Tory competence. When Mr Johnson was messing up the pandemic response, the opposition leader’s lawyerly probing was an obvious asset. A period of more stable government, marked by vaccine rollout, melted that advantage, leaving a void where people wonder what else Labour is for these days.

There will be more bouts of government incompetence, and Sir Keir is well placed to exploit them. But that is not enough. He needs to give voters distinct reasons to want a Labour government. That is not the same as lists of policy or declarations of vague principle. Labour has had enough debates about optimal positioning on an abstract spectrum of leftwing virtue. That argument means little outside a party conference.

There is no shortage of belief. The missing ingredient is vision. There is no parable of the Britain that Labour would build, and no illustration of how it would work for people who feel disconnected from the party. Show, don’t tell – that is the golden rule of effective communication. The Labour leader will not change minds just by bemoaning Tory failures. His forensic mind and earnest demeanour are admirable qualities and, in an ideal world, they would be sufficient foil to Mr Johnson’s colourful, theatrical method.

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But salesmanship is not a dispensable tool in the modern political skill set. If Sir Keir has an agenda to transform the country, he needs to give it crisper definition, both as a project to rally the party and as a destination that speaks to a wider public imagination. He needs to bring it to life for voters who do not owe Labour their attention.



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