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Keir Starmer at Labour party leadership hustings, Bristol, 2020

Starmer feels the Burn(ham) in latest Popularity Polls

Words by Hannah Bohan

It comes as no surprise to anyone that in the run-up to the Labour party conference last month, a measly 14% of voters believed Keir Starmer should be leading the party. This compared to 19% backing Andy Burnham. The same poll, run by The Independent, delivers a number of stark figures on the dwindling popularity of the current leader in comparison to his rivals. They are popularity stats which many of us could have predicted with great accuracy.  

Starmer has spent the last 18 months failing to hold the government to account for their enormous shortcomings. When pushed on any of the key debates, such as Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic, he is well known to sit on the fence and shy away from dispute. Given numerous chances to take a stand and oppose the Tories’ shambolic governance, he has failed to seize his opportunities. I get the impression the shadow cabinet has to hype him up before PMQ’s, encouraging him to raise his voice a little. 

The party conference in Brighton reaffirmed that scrutiny is beyond his skillset as leader of the opposition. In a week that should have been spent drilling the government for the queues at Britain’s petrol stations (as a direct result of their Brexit policies and failure to prepare, again), he instead chose to drive the splintering factions of his own party further apart. It is this lack of urgency that has allowed a government responsible for “one of the worst public health failures ever”, to maintain a comfortable 5% lead ahead of Labour in popularity polls.  

I get the impression the shadow cabinet has to hype him up before PMQ’s

It must be concluded there is nothing that can loosen the Conservative stronghold on public opinion, other than an alternative worth voting for. An alternative that will finally point the finger at a government that has been caught red-handed again and again. Since winning the leadership contest last year, the lack of substance and innovation in Labour’s proposals has granted the Tories free reign over policy with no fear of the consequences. 

As long as Keir Starmer is the leader of the opposition, the Conservatives will continue to break their own rules and fail to fulfill their promises. Safe in the knowledge they will always get off scot-free. 

Of course, this begs the question of why Andy Burnham is the popular choice for leading Labour to victory. What makes him any different? The answer is a simple one, that for many of us in Greater Manchester is obvious to see. Burnham represents an elected official doing his job and striving to achieve what he set out to do. 

He has challenged the Conservatives’ empty ‘levelling up’ campaign promises, by laying out and working to implement his own plan for levelling up the city. This includes an ambitious new transport system through Greater Manchester, which would make travel cheaper and easier, expanding the opportunities for people with lower incomes, especially.

There is a desperate cry for concrete policy suggestions, coming from those who want to see Labour win the next election, and Andy Burnham has the potential to answer it. 

Photo: World Economic Forum/Faruk Pinjo @ Flickr

Many will remember one of the key moments in which Andy Burnham became a contender for the Labour party leader: his row with the government in October last year. Following Boris Johnson’s announcement to plunge a number of cities in the North West into tier 3 restrictions, Burnham stood up for Manchester. He demanded an extra £30 million in funding for Greater Manchester to meet costs for local businesses. When this was denied, he held a press conference to address the government’s refusal and demanded £65 million as a bare minimum.  

During his impassioned speech on this issue, he defended the commitments he made to the poorest members of the community. Even addressing the people of Greater Manchester directly. He displayed his unwavering commitment to his role as an elected official, even when this required a level of confrontation.  

Following the conference, claims were made about Burnham’s true intentions. This was due to the fact only £5 million extra was being demanded after the first refusal – an insignificant amount in funding terms. The same attitude is taken by some of Burnham’s critics within the Labour party, who see him as a troublemaker. It would be both easier and less risky for him to just sit back and be quiet about some of the key issues he has been vocal about.   

However, I view his willingness to fight for what is right is what makes him so appealing as the next leader. Accusations of showmanship are hardly detrimental to Burnham’s capability. Quite the opposite in fact. The general distaste for bland and uninspiring leaders like Starmer show that what we need is somebody with a bit of pizzazz. Especially when kicking your heels in is also defending the public’s best interests.  

Burnham represents something of substance and hope for the party. His focus is on winning back Northern voters who will be critical to the success of Labour. Clearly missing this memo, Keir Starmer did not afford any of the northern metropolitan mayors a spot on the bill at Labour’s conference. Perhaps he was worried that allowing Burnham a speech would result in something even remotely interesting being suggested. 

The failures of the conference were evident in Labour’s lack of bounce in the polls. While those in the centre circle were hoping to display their shift away from the Corbyn era, they forgot this would actually require some new direction. The general consensus seems to be that they are still searching for it. 

Keir Starmer is clearly facing an important decision at what is a pivotal time for policy decisions in the electoral cycle. Take a leaf out of Andy Burnham’s book Starmer, or step aside for him to do the job himself.  

Tags: andy burnham, Keir Starmer, labour conference, labour leadership, Labour Party

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