Labour leadership candidate Keir Starmer gestures during the Labour leadership hustings at the SEC centre in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 15, 2020. Starmer became the new Labour leader on Saturday, Image Credit: AP

Keir Starmer was announced as the opposition Labour Party’s new leader on Saturday after a contest lasting since January. While the party may now get a polling boost, the new leader faces a key, unanticipated challenge in a political landscape transformed by the last few weeks of coronavirus crisis.

Since the onset of the virus outbreak, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s poll numbers have tracked upwards significantly, like that of many other world leaders, including US President Donald Trump. Last week, Ipsos MORI showed satisfaction with the Johnson’s performance was 52 per cent, up a significant 16 percentage points since early December before the general election when his approval was only 36 per cent.

This appears to have stemmed from what US political scientists call the ‘rally around the flag’ effect, rather than having to do with Johnson’s actual performance in handling the crisis so far. Indeed, the prime minister has received some significant criticism so far for his handling of the crisis, including his failure to introduce much wider testing, especially for frontline health workers.

Yet, for now at least, he dominates the political landscape, despite currently been waylaid with coronavirus himself, and this adds to the significant challenge facing Starmer. Yet Johnson’s current popularity, ephemeral as it may turn out to be, is only one of the obstacles facing the new Labour leader.

A change in political fortunes for Johnson will be especially likely if the new Labour chief can seize the political agenda in the same way that the party’s other successful opposition chiefs have in the post-war period.

- Andrew Hammond

In addition to Johnson’s current popularity, Starmer also inherits a party still recovering from the scale of December’s election defeat, the worst since the 1930s in terms of seats won. Top of mind here for many Labour supporters is the core fact that, aside from Tony Blair’s victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005, the party has not won an election for almost half a century since Harold Wilson’s last election win in October 1974.

The scale of the Tory triumph was underlined by the fact that the party became in December the first to win an increased number of seats in a fourth straight term of office since the 19th Century. This was a personal triumph for Johnson who reshaped, at least temporarily, the new UK electoral map winning a number of previous long-standing Labour strongholds in the Midlands and North of England (the so-called ‘red-wall’).

So the new Labour chief has a political inheritance as potentially daunting as that facing any opposition leader since at least 1997 when the Conservatives were on the receiving end of the first Blair landslide. Yet, troubling as this may first appear, time is potentially on Starmer’s side as the general election is not likely to be at least until 2023 and possibly not till 2024 so there is a long road to travel.

And this is especially so given the more than a decade now of unprecedented levels of voter volatility after a series of electoral ‘shocks’ from the 2016 Brexit referendum to the aftermath of the 2008-09 international financial crisis and subsequent austerity. As the British Election Survey (BES) — one of the most authoritative survey of UK voting behaviour — has highlighted, traditional partisan voting patterns are eroding faster with the UK’s 2015 and 2017 General Elections seeing more people change their voting intentions than ever before in the post-war era. Remarkably, nearly half the country (49 er cent) voting for different parties across the three elections from 2010-17 according to BES.

Difficult times ahead with recession looming

This political volatility was shown again only last Summer following Johnson’s elevation to prime minister which was a clear turning point in the polls with the Tories commanding a lead after that while Labour held the Tories to more-or-less level-pegging from Summer 2017 to Summer 2019 during Theresa May’s prime ministership. While Johnson’s personal popularity fell during last year’s Autumn election campaign, with voter concerns about his trustworthiness growing, his leadership nonetheless helped revive the Tories with the party having strong message discipline around their core campaign slogan of “getting Brexit done” and successfully framing December’s ballot around the UK’s departure of the EU.

With UK politics remaining in flux, it is quite possible that the coronavirus crisis could yet become a new shock to the UK electoral landscape that provides a significant opportunity for Labour. For while Johnson and his Government are riding high in the polls for now, there are difficult times ahead, including a looming recession.

Some forecasters indicated this week that UK economic output could plunge by as much as 15 per cent, in the second quarter and unemployment more than double. Nomura, for instance, predicts an unemployment rate of 8 per cent in the April — June quarter and a rise to 8.5 per cent, for the quarter after.

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If this happens, and the recession is protracted, the political fortunes of the government are likely to deteriorate at some stage. This is especially so if its Brexit agenda does not prove as successful as it claims it will in coming years.

Moreover, such a change in political fortunes for Johnson will be especially likely if the new Labour chief can seize the political agenda in the same way that the party’s other successful opposition chiefs have in the post-war period. From Clement Attlee in the 1940s, to Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s, and Blair in the 1990s, all three showed that it is possible to storm to power after lengthy periods of Conservative and/ or Coalition rule with dynamic leadership that reflects the mood of the times.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics