Leading a political party these days is a bit like being a football manager for a top side with a historical pedigree.
A by-election setback is like two points dropped at a key point in the season. The ensuing maelstrom is defined by hysteria. Enemies circle, dealing in the uncharitable currency of absurd over exaggeration as they try and embed a narrative of failure to help grease an end game of resignation.
Sir Keir Starmer is a big Arsenal fan and his tribulations find an echo in those of Gunners manager Mikel Arteta, who is judged to be failing a great institution just as Sir Keir is judged to be gifting a fifth successive general election victory to the Conservatives.
Starmer now finds himself needing a big performance when he delivers his leader’s speech to the Labour conference in Brighton on Wednesday. Not that a great speech will be a game changer any more than a pedestrian one will turbo-charge the reverse gear stakes.
The central claims against the Labour leader are that he doesn’t know what he stands for and that he has manifestly failed to carve out a clear policy platform behind which he can rally those who yearn for an end to the Conservatives. The latter charge is entirely fair.
After a promising start when he regularly bested Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, the Labour leader has simply failed to define any big picture vision. His responses have smacked more of platitude than thought-through policy.
Labour has a series of problems that will not be easily rectified and which pre-date Starmer’s leadership. The post-New Labour era has seen the party struggle to assert its traditional values in a modern context. What it means to be Labour has appeared to be a question without resolution. The party collectively bears some responsibility for this state of affairs.
Old Labour revived under Ed Miliband and then the party shifted Left under Jeremy Corbyn as it did in the 1980s. Under Starmer, it is simply impossible to determine which ideological anchors are immovable.
The party’s historical progress was made in part by the rise of the cause of the working class in the century of industrialisation. The Liberals were the casualties of the cause of Labour. The worry for Labourites who watch politics through a historical lens is that a mix of the rise of green politics and a growth of identity-based nationalisms, may send Labour the same way as the Liberals in the last century.
Starmer has an electoral challenge greater than that faced by Hugh Gaitskell in 1959 or Harold Wilson in 1964. It is greater even than Neil Kinnock faced in 1987 and greater than Tony Blair in 1997. His is an attempt to rewrite the election records and he is doing it with absolutely no momentum behind him.
The UK Government are gripped by a series of crises. Inflation is on the rise. Energy bills will cancel out pay rises and usher a heat-or-eat lifestyle for far too many citizens. There is a cost of living crisis. Taxes are going up and they will disproportionately hit poorer workers. And those who are poor will see their Universal Credit cut.
Add to that young people being saddled with student debt, being asked to make their way in a fast-changing economy and facing a housing market which is now the preserve of those with capital and it all adds up to a country with huge areas of unmet social need. There is the cause of Labour right there.
Starmer needs to find a way of channelling the frustration of some and the anger of many more and build a coalition of interests to challenge the Conservatives at the next election.
He can’t win if he doesn’t revive in Scotland. He can’t win if he can’t harness Green voters behind Labour. And he can’t win if the Liberal Democrats start to revive. There is actually an anti-Conservative majority in England which will forever be a parliamentary majority so long as the anti-Conservative forces are split.
He is not helped by the sniping of the Left, who never wanted him. To be fair, his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn had to put up with that from more mainstream social democrats in the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is what every leader faces because it is hard wired in the culture of the party, who still remain a collection of uneasy bedfellows. The broad church is sometimes too broad for its own good.
Those who oppose Starmer should answer a simple question. Do they seriously believe there is anyone else who is more likely to propel the party to victory? Of course, there are those who just want a leader of ideological purity and would replace him on that ground alone. These are people who have read every book on socialism but not taken much notice of election results.
He is undoubtedly handicapped by the fact he doesn’t have what is deemed to be star quality in an age of personality politics. It should depress everyone, no matter their allegiance, that an inferior mind is an asset so long as it is camouflaged by performances deemed entertaining.
He lacks Harold Wilson’s skills of party management, Jim Callaghan’s brute toughness, Neil Kinnock’s heart on sleeve positions and Tony Blair’s initial appeal to a broad constituency in the country.
But he is also the victim of a broader malaise. Social Democratic parties have struggled throughout Europe to redefine their values as globalisation busts holy grails. The backlash of the marginalised has found a voice in parties of the right, often reverting to appeals to patriotism.
The German SPD has just won an election but with the support of only just over one in four who actually voted. And that was after 16 years of Conservative-led administrations.
Starmer has to start to flesh out policy. Connect with those who support the Conservatives not out of instinct but because they are seen as the least bad option. He probably needs to play against type and get angry from time to time. There is plenty to be angry about.
Boris Johnson is facing a winter of discontent and a six-month period which could make or break his government. If Starmer has not established a commanding lead for Labour by the middle of next year it will be difficult to see how he survives. The prospect of a fifth defeat will be too much even for those who currently support him.