Inside the challenge facing Britain's Labour Party leader

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson is suffering lagging popularity with Britons. The latest voting intention figures from the YouGov pollster show the center-left Labour Party with a four-point lead over Johnson’s Conservative Party. It’s a notable increase from polls taken in January and the later part of 2020. But it’s not all good news for Labour.

Labour leader Keir Starmer leads on the “who would make the best Prime Minister” question, with more than a third of Britons (41%) preferring him to Johnson. But Starmer shouldn’t be patting himself on the back: 34% of voters remain undecided on this important leadership question. That speaks to Starmer’s key challenge: how to maintain and build on his lead in the run up to an expected 2024 election. While Starmer obviously has time on his side, several obstacles stand in the way of his success.

Starmer’s first problem is that many far-left Labour supporters don’t like him. It will be one year this April since Starmer was elected Labour leader, taking over from far-left hero Jeremy Corbyn. His first 10 months haven’t been easy. Starmer’s leadership skills and ability to hold government to account, the primary responsibility of the “leader of the opposition,” have been heavily scrutinized from outside and within his party.

A recent viral article by the politics editor of U.K.-based progressive feminist magazine gal-dem encapsulated the far-left’s concerns. Titled “Keir Starmer is a wet wipe,” it lamented his apparent indifference to a racially-charged phone-in during his monthly show with London’s LBC radio station. When a caller mentioned the spurious “Great Replacement Theory,” arguing that the indigenous people of Britain are set to become a minority by 2066, Starmer responded, “Well, the vast majority of people do want a more equal society.” From the far-left, his response was seen as suggestive of apathy toward intolerance. The risk: attempting to be a bit boring and safe so as to keep everyone on side, Starmer risks severing ties with Labour voters he cannot afford to lose.

At the same time, Starmer has to woo not ward off those third of Britons who remain “undecided.” Swathes of the British public, many of whom voted Conservative for the first time in the last election, are displeased with both the current government and the prospect of a Labour replacement. A leak from Labour’s alleged “flag plan,” part of the party’s rebranding strategy, explains some of Starmer’s motivations for treading on eggshells on contentious issues. The plan suggests that Labour must make “use of the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” to rebrand from the Corbyn era and win back previously loyal Labour voters who voted Conservative in December 2019.

The key, here, are the so-called “red wall voters” (in a British inversion of the Republican-red, Democrat-blue trend, red is Labour’s color, and blue the Conservative color). These voters are the pivot on which Labour will win back what its leaked plan calls the “foundation seats,” or northern electoral districts Johnson seized in 2019. The challenge is real: Labour lost 60 seats in the last general election, gaining only one. Again, Starmer’s challenge is clear. As one Birmingham city Labour voter told The Guardian, the party appears to be “two different parties under one name.”

The definitive task of Starmer’s leadership is, therefore, to unite those that feel betrayed by the Corbyn era and also those who oppose pandering to the identity-politics right. Labour is in need of rebranding, yes. Whether this leaked strategy is capable of strengthening Labour’s lead by enticing both former voters and loyal “Corbynistas” is another matter.

The only thing that seems to unite voters is their common agreement that Keir Starmer too often sits on the fence. More decisive leadership is needed if Starmer is to become Britain’s next Prime Minister.

Nikki Peach is a freelance journalist based in London. She recently graduated from City, University of London with an MA in Broadcast Journalism and writes about culture and current affairs.

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