Keir Starmer: four lessons from history for an opposition trying to be the ‘government-in-waiting’

The Conversation

Labour’s Keir Starmer has one inestimable quality in leading a government-in-waiting a year out from a general election: a consistent 20-point lead in opinion polls.

He also boasts an increasingly rare biographical feature: a big job before he went into politics. But that also meant his entrance was relatively late and he has betrayed, sometimes conspicuously, political inexperience.

The Labour leader is currently engaged in a noticeable effort to shepherd his party to the antechamber of power. The latest step has been to present five missions for his administration.

The sixth (unspoken) is to transmit a sense of seriousness and fitness for office, to demonstrate plausibility as a national leader. Projecting these qualities is always a challenge for the official opposition but historically more so when it’s Labour.

1. Long periods out of office are a hindrance

The British system is well-versed in preparing for a change of party. Shadow ministers are by convention offered the courtesy of pre-election meetings with government officials with a view to ensuring they are able to govern from the day after the general election. An American administration takes two months to change.

But shadow ministers need sunlight. To project a sense of preparedness to the outside world, it helps if voters can recall them as having been actual ministers.

Given the benefits of incumbency, single-term governments are extremely rare in the UK (the last was 1970-74), and even short periods in office are unusual. In 1951, memory of Churchill as prime minister only six years earlier meant his return to office felt unremarkable, as it was for Harold Wilson in 1974 when he returned to office less than four years after he left.

In 1964, however, 13 years without office had passed for Labour, and so callowness could counterbalance “time for a change” as a campaign issue. In 1997, some voters had not been born when Labour had last been in government. Few of its MPs, including the putative prime minister, had even been a junior minister.

A 2024 election will have Labour 14 years since being in power. Much forgotten and more never known, Starmer’s team have thus enrolled in classes in government.

2. A lot comes down to luck

History shows that, in reality, very little is in the hands of the leader of the opposition. This can be to their advantage and disadvantage.

Thrust into that role through the sudden death of his predecessor, Wilson had a sufficiently fresh skin to win in 1964. Edward Heath was a fresh skin too, two years later, but Wilson craftily used his incumbency to bounce them into an election which Heath lost heavily.

Luck cannot be legislated. Margaret Thatcher, a surprise leader of the Conservatives in 1975, proved to be less popular than the prime minister, an increasingly beleaguered James Callaghan. But he delivered her victory by deciding not to call an election in the autumn of 1978, and therefore being forced to in the spring of 1979 after voters had discontentedly endured winter.

A decade on, Thatcher had mutated into Labour’s greatest asset, but opposition leader Neil Kinnock lost that advantage overnight in November 1990 when she was defenestrated. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was immediately cast as a war leader during the Gulf war, one of the most one-sided conflicts in British military history. In the general election the following year his party won the most votes of any, ever.

In 1997, Conservative William Hague received the hospital pass of leadership in the face of a Labour government majority that needed three elections – more than an opposition leader would ever be given – to erode.

Starmer has been lucky to be confronted by the greatest self-immolation of a governing party since Stanley Baldwin threw office away in 1923. Time for a change is never stronger as a clarion when accompanied by incompetence and venality. That Rishi Sunak, the third and final Conservative prime minister Starmer will face – one way or another – is neither incompetent nor venal will test his polling lead.

3. Grab this chance

The unparalleled chaos of the Brexit years upended almost every norm, with neither time nor chance for the opposition to offer itself as a government-in-waiting. This year has marked something of a reset: order in Downing Street and a Conservative majority in parliament acting like one; Labour re-established as a serious contender for office in both Westminster and Holyrood.

Nothing says a party is preparing for power like a set of pledges. But Starmer will need to channel the spirit of 1997 when Tony Blair printed five on card, rather than that of 2015, when Ed Miliband carved six in stone.

Starmer has recalled Blair, too, in appointing a leading civil servant as his all-important chief of staff: Sue Gray is his Jonathan Powell, though with 21st-century controversy

4. Get on a plane

The most favoured rehearsal space for power is the international stage. Neither Sunak nor Starmer has an international profile, but a prime minister cannot help but acquire one.

Starmer recently travelled to Ukraine, where he met president Volodymyr Zelensky. A month earlier, he was crunching through the snow with his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Starmer brazenly positioned himself as being more prime ministerial than the prime minister, who assisted by not attending.

The ideal for any opposition leader is a meeting with the US president in the hope of reflected glory from the leader of the free world. But the path to such a prize is also fraught with risk.

The template was Neil Kinnock’s disastrous trip to meet Ronald Reagan in 1987. A stitch-up of historic proportions, the White House made it public that Kinnock was afforded only a few minutes and that those were spent with him being upbraided for Labour’s limp defence policy.

Worse still, the trip contrasted with Thatcher’s triumphant appearance in Moscow.

Between now and the election can we expect to see the leader of the opposition leaving on a jet plane, off to Dulles Airport, Washington DC. Starmer’s passport may be a more important document than his pledge card.

Martin Farr no recibe salario, ni ejerce labores de consultoría, ni posee acciones, ni recibe financiación de ninguna compañía u organización que pueda obtener beneficio de este artículo, y ha declarado carecer de vínculos relevantes más allá del cargo académico citado.