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Opinion

Keir Starmer needs to take a leaf out of Mark Drakeford’s book if he wants to become Prime Minister

22 Sep 2022 7 minute read
Mark Drakeford. Picture by CPMR – Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CC BY-SA 2.0). Keir Starmer picture by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0).

Keith Darlington

The Labour Party Conference begins on September 24th with a small spring in their step following the single-figure leads that they have in the latest opinion polls. But given that this Tory government has been in power for 12 years and presided over a dysfunctional energy market, the evils of inflation, and the chaos caused by the aftermath of Brexit – those leads seem very small and suggest something is not going right for Starmer.

Furthermore, as previous Labour leaders will know, like Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, opinion poll leads of over 20 points count for little if you cannot win General Elections. Starmer’s poll leads seem particularly fragile because his public perception is poor according to the eminent psephologist John Curtice.

Sir Keir is not cutting it with many voters because they don’t know what he stands for and lacks purpose and direction.

As I show in this article, he needs to find the same clarity of purpose as Mark Drakeford has, otherwise, he may be destined to the same fate as his three Labour leader predecessors.

Public perception

Starmer has been the leader of the opposition for about two and half years. In fairness to him, he took over at a difficult time during the first pandemic lockdown. Yet, few voters know what he stands for and he scores meagre ratings as a leader.

Before Truss was elected leader, Starmer rightly focussed much of his brief on attacking the character and behaviour of Johnson. His legal skills served him well in Parliamentary debates that helped to force Boris Johnson’s resignation.  He demonstrated his qualities of honesty and integrity in by promising to resign if found guilty of breaking the rules at a Party event and was subsequently exonerated by the investigating Police force. But honesty and integrity are insufficient qualities for becoming PM.

Even being seen by the voters as boring and uncharismatic would not matter if, as Clem Attlee proved in the first post-war government, he had a clear vision and purpose of where he wanted to take Labour. But he has failed to present a cohesive message other than to say that he wants to see Labour as a Centre party.

Being a Blairite tribute act is hardly likely to work again because the world is now facing a very different set of problems to those in 1997 when Blair came to power. Blair had a clear direction of travel and was more than vague platitudes and ambiguity. Starmer needs to develop a clear, unambiguous purpose quickly otherwise, he will struggle to turn around negative public perceptions.

It’s notable that the new PM Truss is presenting a very different image to her predecessor in defining the battle lines for the next election.

Growth, growth, growth

Both main party leaders have stated that growth is an important part of their economic policy. But there the similarities end. The new PM Truss said yesterday that she wants growth and will get it by cutting taxes even if it makes her unpopular. This rush to Thatcherite “trickle-down economics” has been tried and failed miserably before – which is largely why the country is in the mess it is today.

But unlike Truss, Starmer has not given any indication of where growth in the economy will come from. For example, he made a speech in Liverpool on July 22nd calling for “Growth, growth, and growth”. Yet, when questioned on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme the following day, he refused to say how he would get it.

When asked by Nick Robinson whether he would rule out tax cuts or whether he would use tax increases, he refused to say. He wasn’t only ruling out giving details, something that politicians refuse to do before general elections, but more worrying was that he was refusing to give a direction of travel.

This is not the only issue on which Starmer refuses to explicate a direction of travel. For example, on many of the main issues of concern to voters – strikes, dealing with inflation, Brexit and climate change – he has had little to say and tries to silence others in his party from commenting on difficult issues.

The sound of silence                    

Starmer has been fiercely criticised in recent months for quashing dissent in his party at all levels. For example, in May he considered expelling Labour members who criticised NATO.

On Brexit, he instructed  MPs that they were not to talk about it. Yet millions of travellers had their holidays ruined because of Brexit-related problems at the airports and shipping ports but Labour, like the Tories, did not want to talk about Brexit being a cause so the travel chaos was largely ignored by the main parties.

On strikes, Starmer has made many enemies in the party by telling MPs and Shadow Cabinet members that they are not to join picket lines. This has infuriated many prominent members in the Labour movement including Sharon Graham, leader of the Unite Union who told Starmer to “get a spine and stick up for workers”.  Some Labour MPs disobeyed Starmer including one of his own Shadow Ministers Lisa Nandy.

More recently, during the 10 days of mourning the Queen’s death, he instructed MPs not to talk about any other matters during the period of mourning. He also said that even peaceful protests shouldn’t be tolerated during the period. By contrast, Mark Drakeford was quite relaxed about allowing a small group of peaceful republican supporters during King Charles’ visit to Wales on September 15th.

Embrace change

On other matters, like electoral reform, Starmer has surprised many by ruling out working with other parties and embracing electoral reform. At the Labour Conference of 2021, there were over 80% of party constituencies who supported abolishing the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. Starmer and the NEC voted it down. Yet, during his leadership campaign, he stated that he thought the FPTP system failed many voters and appeared to support electoral reform.

Again, this is very different from how Mark Drakeford has shown a willingness to work with other parties, like Plaid Cymru, and embrace change in electoral reform – even when it may not bring any advantages to his party.

Voters knew what to expect from Corbyn and Blair even though they represented very different strands of Labour. Not so with Starmer. In the past, all the talk about new leaders is whether they move left or right. Where Starmer really stands is puzzling – particularly since he reneged on the 10 pledges he made during his leadership election campaign.

But that may not matter if in such difficult times the leader he had the confidence and clarity to tell us what type of country he wants Britain to become and how he will take us there. To date, he has failed to do so but it’s not too late. Timidity and evasion might leave voters seeing Labour as irrelevant.

Starmer might think he can sit back and wait for the Tories to lose. And with a leader like Truss – who is also making a poor impression with voters – that may be a tempting strategy. It could happen.

But as much as I want to see the Tories removed from power at the next General Election, it’s hard to see that Labour would have done anything to deserve power.


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Jack
Jack
2 months ago

“By contrast, Mark Drakeford was quite relaxed about allowing a small group of peaceful republican supporters during King Charles’ visit to Wales on September 15th.”

Not sure this is a good example. He disparagingly called them a ‘footnote’, and he didn’t really ‘allow’ them as there isn’t really any provision for the first minister to do anything other than let them exercise their right to free speech.

Keith Darlington
Keith Darlington
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack

Yes but he still permitted a small protest. Starmer thought otherwise from his TV interview.

notimejeff
notimejeff
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack

Free speech is under attack, including free speech on the monarchy. We have recently seen Kay Burley of Sky News asking if it was acceptable to allow Labour for a Republic to have a presence at the Labour Party Conference. We’ll see what happens next week.

Stephen Morris
2 months ago

I’m sorry, this article is completely delusional if it’s trying to make out that Mark Drakeford actually has to do anything to win elections in Wales besides simply being the leader of the Labour party. The innate Toryphobia of much of the Welsh electorate, coupled with the almost total lack of scrutiny that the Welsh Government receives from the media, leads to Labour winning elections in Wales by default rather than because of anything they actually do. In the article, the only actions attributed to Mark Drakeford are in fact allowing republicans to protest in Cardiff and doing a deal… Read more »

Keith Darlington
Keith Darlington
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Morris

I never said that. Only that, unlike Starmer, Drakeford is ready to say what he believes- whether you agree with him or not.

Arwyn
Arwyn
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Morris

There’s a bit of a myth about the “donkey with a red rosette” Labour voter in Wales. I think there’s more to it. Leanne Wood said in an interview that it isn’t inevitable that folk vote Labour and in fact, the vote is quite soft. She won in the Rhondda because she and local activists were able to win those votes by their graft and effort. Drakeford recently credited Welsh Labour’s successes to the number of activists they have and the efforts they put in knocking doors etc. This is certainly a factor. It’s tough to get folk out to… Read more »

David
David
2 months ago
Reply to  Arwyn

For right of centre leaning independentistas Gwlad should be the party.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
2 months ago

Mark Drakeford is, and has been an amazing leader who has kept his cool and led us through a very difficult period, while constantly having to battle against the constant barrage of attacks from “Westminster”.

I hope he will always be remembered with pride, whatever our political persuasions may be or become.

Arwyn
Arwyn
2 months ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

I wouldn’t say excellent but he is an accomplished political operator and I’m glad that we have a Welsh Govt with some degree of decency in stark contrast to the outrageous Tory UK Govt

I Humphrys
I Humphrys
2 months ago
Reply to  Arwyn

I think all none Tories would agree with that.

I Humphrys
I Humphrys
2 months ago

Tory lite, which Mark Drakeford is not. However, Mr Drakeford is not reading the direction of movement in Cymru, which is for more devolution, imo, and among politically aware people the direction is for outright independence, judging by the comments on this site which are much more radical than when I started reading N. Cymru a couple of years back.

Last edited 2 months ago by I Humphrys
Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
2 months ago
Reply to  I Humphrys

Compared to Drakeford, Starmer is indeed an amateur, but c’mon, Humph, Drakeford has come out in favour of stronger devolution, e.g. justice, the Crown Estate. But you’re right, pro-indy he is not.

notimejeff
notimejeff
2 months ago

Appalling that an elected politician should seek to ban peaceful protests which are in favour of democracy.

Brian
Brian
2 months ago

I’m no longer vote for Labour in Welsh or UK General elections. There are two reasons for this decision. Firstly, I have become a fervent supporter of Welsh Independence and vote for a political party which supports independence. The second reason is that Labour have spent the last 12 years on their knees perpetually lacking confidence in their own identity. The financial crisis has left an indelible mark on Labour which they seem to be unable to remove. My message to the Labour leadership is simple FFS GET UP OFF YOUR KNEES and STAND UP for the people of the… Read more »

Last edited 2 months ago by Brian
Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
2 months ago

Starmer seems in a state of torpor, lacking the vision, confidence, and capacity to offer feasible policies to get England (his main concern electorally) out of the mess it’s in, lacking support in Scotland and alienating many voters in Wales. When Welsh people vote Labour, it’s probable that they are looking to Drakeford, not to Starmer. Drakeford needs to up his game in defence of Wales, but Starmer gives the impression that he couldn’t care less about Wales.

Last edited 2 months ago by Wrexhamian

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