It’s been a busy start to the job for Labour leader Keir Starmer, with a global pandemic and major economic crash on the agenda from day one, and Starmer handed the unenviable task of opposing the Government while also not coming across as divisive or unsupportive in a crisis.
But it hasn’t just been pandemic comms for Keir. There is also, of course, a major bit of detoxification and internal fighting to do within the Labour Party. You might have been forgiven for thinking that fighting the left would have been deprioritised on his to do list, given the scale of the other challenges. But no. Far from shying away from battle, Starmer almost seems to be relishing it, eager to have the fight and play up rather than play down tension. This week, Jeremy Corbyn lost a high court case on his suspension from the party, with the judge unpersuaded that it amounted to a breach of contract or that he needed pre-action disclosure about the move. Far from trying to draw a line, the Labour Party are now going after Jeremy Corbyn personally for legal costs.
Let’s be clear, this is a strategic repositioning and communications move. Starmer feels that the best way forward is not to project healing and unification, but to show – in no uncertain terms – that the old king is dead and the Party is not putting up with him anymore. It is a risky move. Corbyn has a strong base of hardcore, very loyal supporters, who will be incensed with Starmer. Many of them would rather spoil their ballots than vote for a Party they believe is persecuting the dear ex-leader.
But the gamble is that for every one voter who won’t support Labour if Corbyn is out of the fold, there could be two for who the reverse is true. Corbyn is marmite, but actually, more people hate marmite than love it don’t they…?
This strategy, while a bold one, is underpinned by consistent poll findings. In recent weeks, Starmer has begun to outperform Johnson in head-to-head polls on who would make a better leader. However, in polls measuring Tory vs Labour, rather than Boris vs Keir, the blue team are still in the lead, albeit narrowly. And in a General Election, the ballot is on parties – not names. What that says to Starmer is that people trust him, but don’t yet feel ready to trust Labour, until they are confident it has radically shifted away from the Corbyn era.
Detoxification, like justice, be seen to be done.