Given that Keir Starmer has been Labour leader for just over a year, it may seem odd (and a little unfair) to be contemplating who his successor might be. Starmer was off to a good start. When he first took over, Labour trailed the Conservatives by 20 points. Within a few weeks, they were behind by just 2 points. And by the summer, they were even ahead in some polls. It is true that Labour’s change in fortunes coincided with revelations about Dominic Cummings’ adventures in Barnard Castle, against a backdrop of the pandemic. But Starmer must be given some credit; his forensic and competent opposition almost certainly contributed to Labour’s rise in the polls.


Things have changed

The Conservatives are, once again, consistently ahead in the polls (in some by as much as 11 points). And Starmer’s personal popularity has also taken a hit; Boris Johnson is now the preferred candidate for prime minister. The government has certainly been helped by the success of the vaccine roll-out. But there is more to it than that. It is becoming increasingly clear to many voters that Starmer does not believe in very much — focus groups call him ‘Mr-man-on-the-fence’. He has not been helped by the fact that many in his own party, namely Corbynistas, have been so negative about him. When both the Conservatives and parts of the Left are attacking you, you have an uphill struggle.

There are rumours that local elections in May (as well as the Hartlepool by-election) could be so bad for Labour that Starmer might have to resign. Even if this does not happen, he may have to stand down before the next general election (although this is far from certain, as Labour are not as good at getting rid of leaders as the Tories). The question then becomes, who could succeed him?

Lammy as the voice for Labour

It has been reported that the Left want John McDonnell to be their candidate in any future leadership contest. So who would the other candidates be? And more importantly, who would be best suited for the job? I would argue that Labour could do worse than David Lammy.

Lammy is currently the shadow Justice Secretary and MP for Tottenham. Before becoming an MP he was a lawyer. He has been vocal on a range of issues, including Windrush and Grenfell. He also said that he considered running for leader after the 2019 election.

In some ways, Lammy would be a risky choice. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, he made some controversial remarks, including saying that the European Research Group (a Eurosceptic group within the Conservative Party) was ‘worse than the Nazis’. This would undoubtedly be used against him by the Tories, especially in the Brexit-voting ‘red-wall’.

But I think David Lammy has a lot going for him. Firstly, he is an incredibly good communicator. He has recently made powerful speeches in the House of Commons about the policing bill and sentencing for sex offenders. He has also shown leadership by making a social media video of himself getting vaccinated, to encourage ethnic minorities (many of whom are more hesitant about the vaccine) to do the same.

Lammy may be able to connect with Black voters and party members who reportedly are feeling alienated by Starmer’s leadership. Starmer has a strong record of fighting against racial injustice (he prosecuted the men accused of killing Stephen Lawrence). But as Labour leader, he has put almost all his energy into trying to win back the ‘red wall’. He has also stayed relatively quiet on issues such as Windrush, and has described the Black Lives Matter protests as a ‘moment’. He seems to think (wrongly) that being vocal on these issues would be anathema to voters in the North and Midlands.

Lammy could be well placed to both fight racism and reconnect with the red wall. Not only is he himself Black, but he has also engaged with the question of English identity in a way that few Labour politicians have. For example, when a caller on LBC told him that he could not be English because he is not white, he calmly and politely insisted that he was. He has also engaged with the English Labour Network. Labour has not won an election in England since 2001, and so it is crucial for any Labour leader to be able to engage with English voters in order to win.

Labour will still be hoping that Starmer succeeds. But if he does resign, or loses the next election, David Lammy seems to me to be the obvious choice for leader. No one else on either the frontbench or the backbench seems to be cutting through.

 

Image Credit: Policy Exchange