LONDON — Sober, cerebral and with the poise of the top-shelf lawyer he once was, Keir Starmer promised competence rather than charisma when he became leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party last year, following its crushing general election defeat in 2019.
But his panicky response to last week’s poor local election results and a clumsy reshuffle of his top team have left his party in turmoil, diminishing his authority and raising doubts about whether Labour has a credible path back to power.
Mr. Starmer found himself embroiled in fierce recriminations over local election results that, with smoother communication, could have been explained away as disappointing, but instead pointed to a deeper crisis.
“The one thing Keir Starmer was supposed to be was competent,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “The election results were not good but they weren’t as bad as some people liked to present them. He completely messed up his reaction, and that highlights concerns about his ability to communicate.”
Behind the latest setback lie profound structural changes in British politics, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson making deep inroads into former Labour heartlands in working class districts with a mixture of populist pro-Brexit politics and promises to bring jobs and prosperity.
Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to Tony Blair, Labour’s last election-winning prime minister, believes that critics are “massively over-interpreting” the local election results, adding: “The number of times I’ve read about the end of the Labour Party is legion.”
However, he said, the Conservatives, under Mr. Johnson, have effectively fused left-wing economic policy with a right-wing appeal on cultural issues. The Labour Party, deprived of its traditional appeal to so-called “red wall” voters in the north and middle of the country on economic issues, now relies on liberals in ethnically diverse metropolitan areas, like London and Manchester.
That is too small a base to win a national election, he said, and squaring those voters with Labour’s vanishing “red wall” constituency will be difficult.
“Labour is trying to hold together university-educated liberal voters with the old Labour party voters that they’ve lost to the Tories,” Mr. Powell said. “They can’t stand on two horses going in different directions at the same time.”
The scale of the challenge became clear last Friday when Labour lost a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, an economically struggling port town in the northeast of England. Labour had expected a defeat in this staunchly pro-Brexit region, because the seat would have been lost in the 2019 election had the Brexit Party not contested it and taken votes away from Mr. Johnson’s Tories.
But Labour recorded a lower vote than in 2019 and, grim faced, Mr. Starmer refused to comment as he left his London home on Friday morning. When he did surface later he gave an unconvincing, at times almost robotic, interview that took responsibility for the result but provided no detail on changes.
The following day, just as a set of better results for Labour were being announced, news leaked out that Mr. Starmer was stripping his deputy, Angela Rayner, of key responsibilities.
With an impressive personal story of succeeding against the odds, Ms. Rayner, who has said she left school at 16 while pregnant and with no qualifications, is not only a popular figure in the Labour Party but comes from the sort of community with which the party is trying to reconnect. So the backlash was swift and ferocious.
“The scapegoat sacking of Angie Rayner contradicted everything Keir Starmer said only 48 hours ago about taking personal responsibility for election defeats and his promise a year ago that he would unite the party,” John McDonnell, the party’s former spokesman on the economy under its last leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said on Twitter.
Some on the center and right of the Labour Party were unimpressed too, including the newly re-elected mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham. By late Sunday, Mr. Starmer had to beat an embarrassing retreat, ending up giving Ms. Rayner even more responsibilities, albeit away from campaigning.
The humiliation seemed to encapsulate the disorientation of a Labour Party struggling to adapt to a world in which Mr. Johnson has not only stolen many of its traditional voters but also some of its redistributive, high-spending, political agenda.
Unlike predecessors who presided over austerity, Mr. Johnson is promising to “level up” and bring jobs and prosperity to voters who feel ignored in the so-called red wall area that was once Labour’s electoral citadel.
To many that may have sounded all the more attractive in the absence of a compelling message from Mr. Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions who often sounds as if he would be more at home in a courtroom than on a political stage.
Following the 2019 general election defeat — Labour’s worst since 1935 — Mr. Starmer’s short-term strategy was to concentrate less on policy and more on detoxifying the party brand after its electoral disaster under his left-wing predecessor, Mr. Corbyn.
Mr. Starmer has embraced the Jewish community, in contrast to Mr. Corbyn, whose leadership was dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism. Though he presents himself as a patriot, Mr. Starmer studiously avoids the culture-war issues that Mr. Johnson exploits, such as what to do with statues commemorating contested chapters in Britain’s history.
Given that voters rarely care much about the policy platform of opposition parties until a general election is close, that looked like a sensible approach.
Yet, while he should not have been expected to roll out a detailed policy agenda just 16 months after a general election, Mr. Powell said, Mr. Starmer “has to convince people he has a cause.” Mr. Blair did that effectively in the 1990s when he rebranded the party “New Labour,” embracing the free market and the European Union.
Perhaps that did not seem urgent for Mr. Starmer, because voters normally use local elections and by-elections like those held last week to punish governments. His main campaign theme was to highlight claims Mr. Johnson broke electoral rules over the financing of a pricey refurbishment of his apartment.
But Britons apparently ignored those goings on in Westminster, and with the country now emerging from Covid-19 restrictions seemed to reward politicians who controlled health policies. The ruling Scottish National Party in Scotland performed strongly, as did the governing Labour Party in Wales.
In England, Mr. Johnson was forgiven for his chaotic early handling of the pandemic and rewarded for the country’s highly successful vaccination roll out.
Not all is lost for Mr. Starmer, particularly when the entirety of last week’s results are taken into account. According to a BBC analysis projecting the local voting into a national vote share, Labour was seven points behind the Conservatives, hardly a good result but progress on the 12-point deficit recorded in the 2019 general election.
With no credible challenger waiting in the wings, Mr. Starmer is unlikely to face any immediate threat to his leadership. Nonetheless, the speed with which critics attacked his reshuffle raises pressure on Mr. Starmer to at least identify a message that can appeal to two very different groups of Britons — the old working class stalwarts and the more youthful, liberal and better educated city dwellers.
“Under Starmer it has been two steps forward and one step back,” said Mr. Fielding, “and he hasn’t addressed the problem of how you win back the red wall without losing metropolitan liberal voters.”