Keir Starmer fired his Chief of Staff this week. With Labour around thirty points ahead in the polls, and the Government akin to a boxer stumbling hard onto the ropes, Starmer still pulled the trigger and fired his main man, Sam White. Seems rather harsh doesn’t it?
What the departure of Mr White speaks to more than anything is the ruthlessness in the Leader of the Opposition’s camp, and a desire not to rest on laurels. White was held responsible for what many viewed an excessive cautiousness on the part of Sir Keir. And for what it’s worth, this feels unfair – Keir Starmer is just a cautious individual, you can tell that from a mile off. Perhaps the real criticism of White is that he indulged rather than challenged these tendencies… but either way, his departure has apparently been in the post for some time.
How does Keir want his operation to change going forward? The briefings from his office are that he wants the Party on an ‘election footing’ now, with a smaller more agile team who are ready to run for election any moment, take the necessary risks, and operate a campaign style war room. What that really means is that Keir recognises it’s time for Labour to pull out all the stops, start properly pitching to the public, formulating policy, and acting like ‘a Government in waiting,’ to use the phrase being bandied about right now.
In 1997, the last time power changed hands from Conservative to Labour, there was as much enthusiasm about the New Labour project as there was anger at the Tories. Now, the question mark is over whether the current polls are a reflection of voters actually liking Labour, or just righteous indignation at the car crash Truss reign. And it is still more the latter than the former, almost certainly. To sure up a Labour victory, Starmer needs to be way out in front based on his own merit, rather than because of someone else’s failings. Blair got to the stage by 1997 when even if the Major Government had started performing well too, the public would still have voted for him. Whereas if Truss (somehow) turns things around, it is not clear the same would be true for Keir.
This is why, despite dizzying poll leads, Starmer is keen to mix things up, get on a war footing, and drive Labour’s pitch home to the public. He isn’t starting from a complete standstill. His own polling has taken positive steps in recent weeks, with approval ratings consistently in the positives now, albeit narrowly. The public is slowly, step by step, starting to view Starmer as a real alternative. But while the public’s view of him now is a bit akin to a shrug and a ‘yeah that could work’, he needs more punching the air, and a ‘hell yes, we are ready for Keir’ vibe. Faster progress which creates a sense of unstoppable momentum is the next step, and it is the most difficult yet.