By Grace Couch

The dust has settled and it’s plain to see that Labour struggled in May local elections. Not only were council seats lost up and down the country, but the Conservative party took the Hartlepool parliamentary seat in a by-election that many thought would be a safe bet for the party of the ‘working people’. With a stronger hold in Wales and many of the Mayoral seats (with landslide victories for Sadiq Khan and Andy Burham), the accusational finger has been pointed to fresh off the block Labour leader Keir Starmer, who took over from Jeremy Corbyn in April 2020. It may be premature to write him off as an electable leader for the Labour party, but it’s definitely shaken the boat – including a reshuffle of his top team.  There’s also another election next month in the constituency of Batley and Spen, which will be another test for the Labour leader.

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Voter turnout was predictably low (around 20% in most areas) so the election results don’t necessarily tell the whole story. To find out more, Naked Politics has reached out to young people to find out what they think of the leader of the opposition. 

When thinking about their first impressions of Starmer, the overwhelming similarity in their responses was that they are massively underwhelmed by his leadership. Nearly all the interviewees commented that they had high hopes for the ex-Director of Public Prosecutions. With a legal background he could be the suited and booted professional that those closer to the centre could respect, while upholding human rights and social issues that matter more to those farther on the left. 

Halima, an 18-year-old student, mentioned that “he definitely is looking way stronger than Jeremy Corbyn” and that at the end of the day looks matter. However, Starmer’s first year has quickly shattered these perceptions, ranging from pure ‘nothingness’ to straight up racist vibes. This was reverberated across the board, with Olu, 25, summing up his impressions: “From a former CPS … we were promised forensic and competent … and instead we got performative gestures. It’s all superficial; ‘waving flags in lieu of actual policy’”

When asked whether they think Starmer has conveyed a clear vision of Labour under his leadership, there was a consensus that the importance of his image doesn’t substitute actual policy. Alex, 18, said: “Through his attempt to appeal to everyone he appeals to no one. Nothing in Starmer is inherently compelling, he is fundamentally inglorious and there is nothing in terms of policy that makes him stand out from Brown, Blair or Miliband”.

Olu believes that when trying to hold the government to account, people just don’t know what he stands for: “he’s like a weathervane not a sign post, he’s following public mood and public sentiment.” 

Alex proclaimed that he “doesn’t care for this culture war nonsense”, but the defining commonality in their answers was that Labour should be focusing on actually helping the material conditions of the working class. Olu said: “We need policy that’s going to benefit people’s lives. I think that’s the only way we can actually win over people. We can’t win on this terrain of culture. Because we’re not going to ‘out-tory the tories’ … We have to give them something to vote for that’s going to be a material and economic benefit to them”.

As was well-documented by Twitter a couple of weeks ago, Starmer has spent most of his time standing in opposition to the image of Jeremy Corbyn rather than the Conservatives. All the participants recognised this, as well as the limitations it is having on holding the government to account, with Halim saying: “I think he is too focused on not being Corbyn … he just doesn’t want to get his hands dirty … He’ll criticise the government but he doesn’t give solutions.

One of Olu’s main concerns is that he doesn’t stand up enough to powerful interests. “He doesn’t seem to be wanting to stand up to power or to the establishment or to the status quo. He just wants to be a more friendly face of it.”

The main way he does differ to Corbyn, is his position on racism in the UK. Olu has actually met Keir Starmer before, and had a poignant experience with him at a Q&A in which he was the only person of colour in the room. After avoiding to answer his question on race relations in the UK (and notably the only question of the event in which he skirted responding to properly), Olu finally eked an answer out of him which was based somewhere around early years education as the solution to the high criminalisation of young black men, conveniently avoiding scrutinising the justice system Starmer was inextricably a part of.

Elaborating on his experience he said: “He just doesn’t get racism. He just doesn’t get it … for him, early years [education] was sufficient … but there’s a lot more to it than that. He kind of has the assumption of being labeled to being good for people of color, but what we’ve actually seen …  in the past year, we’ve seen how he’s treated us, how he’s not stood up for us, how he’s not bothered to engage with us meaningfully.” 

Despite conflating views on his handling of the issue of structural racism in the UK, one way in which the respondents differed were their views on Covid-19 and the way this has shaped politics in the last year. Halima mentioned that the unusual peace and quiet of the House of Commons had actually benefited Starmer, with the lack of jeering allowing him to come across well at PMQs. On the other hand, Alex believes that, ultimately, there hasn’t been much Starmer could have said on the issue of the pandemic, as the general principle of economic support alongside necessary lockdowns is “a pretty decent stance”. The problem with this, he says, is that people believe Rishi Sunak and the Conservative government are actually delivering on that promise of economic support. 

With no precedent set on how a Labour government, or that of any party, would handle a global pandemic, Halima does recognise that the pandemic has made it hard for Starmer to show his vision, and we may have to wait until some form of normalcy to fully appreciate Labour’s opposition. On the other hand, Olu described the government’s handling of Covid-19 as an “open goal”  in which Labour has not been scoring. 

It’s clear: young people simply aren’t gravitating to Keir Starmer in the same way as his predecessor. Following a disastrous showing in the May local elections, Labour has yet to show that it has learned any lessons, and it is doing little to deserve the support of young people.

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Last Update: June 16, 2021