Politics

Polling guru John Curtice outlines tough task facing Labour leader

SIR KEIR STARMER’S hand has been strengthened by the resignation of Corybnite Jennie Formby as Labour general secretary, but he still needs a big idea and a catchy slogan to make his party electable again, polling expert Sir John Curtice has said.

Mrs Formby confirmed her decision on Monday, exactly a month after Mr Starmer was elected to replace Mr Corbyn – and while his tribute to her was characteristically diplomatic, Sir John, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, suggested her departure would make his job easier. Sir John explained: “Starmer on the radio this week did not deny that he had intimated that perhaps Mrs Formby might resign although he was being very polite about it. “One crucial thing that happened on the day that Keir Starmer won the leadership is that non-Corbynites won the three vacancies on the National Executive Committee (NEC) which means there is now a non-Corbynite majority on the committee.

“So in a sense Mrs Formby’s resignation simply helps to strengthen the hand of the party machine – once he had got control of the NEC, he was heading in that direction anyway.

“It’s clearly a change of personality, it’s clearly a different team.

“Keir for the most part, with the exception of Rebecca Long-Bailey, has dropped most of those who were close to Corbyn.”

Sir Keir was having to tread a fine line in everything he did, Sir John said.

He explained: “Starmer has been quite careful not to position himself too clearly with respect to the various factions and divisions within the Parliamentary Labour Party, partly because he wants to unite the party.

“So he neither is overly critical of Corbyn nor is he overly slavish in his adherence to Blair and he has certainly not been suggesting he is going to overturn every single element of what Jeremy Corbyn stood for.

“The interesting thing is what is the stance for the Labour that emerges under Starmer.

“It evidently is not simply going to be New Labour reinvented but will in some ways at least, row back from what Corbyn had in mind.

“But we don’t have that many clues yet.”

Despite Mr Starmer’s election, Momentum, the left-wing movement which propelled Mr Corbyn’s campaign to victory in 2015, remained influential, Sir Keir said, a fact he said would not have escaped the new leader’s attention.

He added: “Momentum is still there, people like Jon Trickett for example.

“One of Starmer’s jobs is to try to unite the party and that involves him managing to persuade both a significant section of the left and those who you might still want to call Blairites or centrists that he is heading in a direction with which they would feel comfortable.”

Sir Keir’s ultimate goal would be to make his party electable again, something it was evidently not in December 2019, when Boris Johnson’s Tories won an 80-seat majority.

Sir John said: “In my view, one of the major problems the Labour Party faced in 2019 was not to put too fine a point on it, people just did not think they were capable of running the country.

“So it was not necessarily the Labour Party being too left wing.

“Even when pollsters were asking people who they thought could better run the health service, Hancock and Johnson or Corbyn and Ashworth, even on that issue, which is a classic Labour issue, Johnson and Hancock were coming up as more likely to be trusted.

“And also it’s about having a leader who people can conceive being Prime Minister. One of Corbyn’s problems was people could not quite imagine that.

“It’s very early days, and Starmer is not terribly well-known, and one of the basic jobs is to get better known, and obviously the circumstances in which he has got the leadership make that difficult, but the indication so far is that is more likely to be regarded as Prime Ministerial than was Corbyn, which is not bad for a start.”

It was also difficult to predict the impact the unfolding coronavirus pandemic was likely to have on the political landscape in two or three years time, Sir John said.

He explained: “Among the many uncertainties coronavirus creates is what the public’s attitude is going to be towards the role of Government in our society and the need to get the economy back up and how do people think that’s going to be achieved.”

However, referring to the Tories success with their straightforward 2019 slogan – Get Brexit Done – he added: “What one can say is one of weaknesses of Labour in 2019 was not that individual policies were unpopular.

“The problem the party had was lots of individual policy but there were no broad vision which was the equivalent of Get Brexit Done.

“We all remember Things Can Only Get Better – a good clear slogan.

“They need a slogan which tells a story that conveys to people quickly what the party is about.”

Asked about Mrs Formby’s record, especially in the light of the allegations of antisemitism within the party which dogged Mr Corbyn’s leadership, a Labour Party insider said: “Antisemitism has no place whatsoever in our party, and under Jennie Formby we took more decisive and robust action to root it out than we ever did before.

“We’ve imposed swift suspensions, and massively increased the rate at which cases are dealt with. We’ve also launched training and education to give staff and members the tools needed to identify the different forms of antisemitism and challenge them.

“This was Jennie’s number one priority when she took over and she can be proud of what we’ve achieved.”

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