Keir Starmer walked to the podium at the Labour Party conference on Tuesday with a stonking seventeen point polling lead in his back pocket, banks withdrawing new mortgage deals because of a lack of confidence in the government, and a rolling Sterling crisis. Not since 1979 has a leader of the opposition had such a favourable backdrop to their annual party speech.
Then of course it was Margaret Thatcher who four years earlier had seized control of the Conservative Party from Ted Heath. She understood then that she had one shot at winning a General Election and returning the Conservative Party to government. She was under no illusion about the scale of the challenge and the fate that would await her if she failed. Those long years of opposition were not easy and her political demise was regularly predicted. She was adroit, however, at political manoeuvring while all the time staking out policy positions and spelling out her political philosophy. Nor when victory came in 1979 did Mrs Thatcher lead a team into government that indisputably shared her views and vision. Winning the election was just the start of a long haul and never ending battles with her party and her colleagues.
Now it is Keir Starmer’s turn. Twelve years on from its 2010 General Election defeat Labour has suffered years of demoralising opposition and dispiriting defeat. It has indulged itself by electing two ineffective leaders. It has watched in bewilderment as the Conservative party has worked its way through four successive Prime Ministers.
Starmer has had his work cut out to drag Labour back to a position where it can make a credible pitch for government. He has assembled a team of capable and competent front-benchers. These are both achievements. In Scotland, formerly a Labour heartland, the party shows no sign, yet, of electoral recovery. If the Labour Party is to win at Westminster it is going to have do it by winning in England as well as Wales. The loss of Scotland for practical purposes for both Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster elections is having a considerable impact on the approach of both parties to national politics, but that is the reality of modern British politics.
It is often said that oppositions do not win election but that governments lose them. Looking at the current government Starmer and his team must be thinking they are as close to a safe bet as you can make in politics. Then so did Neil Kinnock and his team in 1992. With his famous pre-election rally performance and what was recognised at the time as Shadow Chancellor John Smith’s unhelpful insistence on delivering a pre-vote shadow budget Labour blew its chances. That example of complacency and hubris should stand as a stark warning to Labour and its leader.
It is not enough for Labour to wait and hope for the government to destroy itself. Labour and its leader must not damage their own chances. Keir Starmer and his team have one chance to lever Labour back into government. They must tread the line between doing something and simply being something. In politics less can often be more. The temptation to always announce a policy or launch an initiative can be overwhelming. This though is it. The general election campaign is underway already. Starmer has his chance.