Two years ago, just weeks into the UK's first and most restrictive COVID-19 lockdown, Sir Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party.

At the time, his win was seen by many as a turn towards a more safe, slick politics, coming as it did shortly after Labour's bitter 2019 electoral defeat.

Comfortably beating out three female candidates from wildly different wings of the party - from Rebecca Long-Bailey, the protege of former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and one of the authors of Labour's ambitious Green Industrial Revolution policy, to right-leaning Lisa Nandy- Starmer campaigned on a set of pledges that included common ownership for energy and rail, action on climate change, abolishing "cruel" benefit sanctions and prioritising human rights over war abroad.

Since that victory, however, his tenure has been marked by controversy - largely centred on his rapid shift away from those core campaign pledges, his restrained opposition to the Conservative government, and his decision to remove the whip from his predecessor, Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn.

In contrast to Starmer's leadership election assertion that "there is no issue more important to our future than the climate emergency", this week Labour called for immediate nationwide police injunctions to stop climate group Just Stop Oil protesting at fuel depots.

The Leader: An activist from Just Stop Oil takes part in a blockade at the Kingsbury Oil Terminal, Warwickshire. (Picture: PA Wire)An activist from Just Stop Oil takes part in a blockade at the Kingsbury Oil Terminal, Warwickshire. (Picture: PA Wire)

Urging the Conservatives to "stop standing idly by" and crack down on the demonstrators, the party cited data from FairFuelUK, a campaign organisation with links to climate change denial lobbyists, and whose founder has financial interests in the fuel industry.

Suggesting that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had "strayed too far" from the interests of working people, Mr Starmer told Parliamentary magazine The House this week: "I don’t think that you look to the electorate and blame the electorate when you lose a general election so badly, like we did in 2019.

“You look in the mirror and you change your own party.

"That’s what I’ve been determined to do.”


Keir Starmer and Wales

Last month, Mr Starmer addressed Welsh Labour's annual conference in Llandudno.

Heaping praise on First Minister Mark Drakeford, who he labelled "a man for the moment" during the coronavirus pandemic, the UK leader added: "The Welsh Labour government is living proof of what Labour looks like in power - how things can be done differently, and better.

"Every day you demonstrate the difference that Labour makes - a blueprint for what Labour can do across the UK."

That speech, however, contained few clues about what a Starmer government in Westminster would offer to Wales specifically.

Among the thorniest and most high-profile Welsh political issues in recent years has been the struggle to both hold onto and expand the Senedd's devolved powers.

The Leader: Mark Drakeford and Adam Price at the launch of the 2021 Labour/Plaid cooperation agreement. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)Mark Drakeford and Adam Price at the launch of the 2021 Labour/Plaid cooperation agreement. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

The Welsh Government is currently pursuing the devolution of justice, which would give Cardiff Bay control over criminal law, policing and prisons within Wales.

As part of Welsh Labour's co-operation deal with Plaid Cymru, the party is also seeking power over the Crown Estate - the valuable land, sea and asset holdings owned by the British Monarchy.

As it stands, the Crown's property in Wales is valued at a total of £603million - a significant increase from just under £97m in 2019. The Queen receives a quarter of the profits generated by the Estate, while the rest goes to the UK Treasury. 

The Welsh Government has also been urged to push for full control over Wales' taxes and benefits system, and is embarking on a lengthy constitutional commission to examine the future of Wales within the United Kingdom - with independence set to be considered alongside Welsh Labour's preferred model of "radical federalism", which would involve a significant shift of power towards the Senedd.

At the same time, Welsh ministers are battling to retain the powers they already have. Legal disputes over Westminster's post-Brexit Internal Markets Act, for instance, has cost the government thousands.

In the Act's original Explanatory Notes, the UK government noted that it would "create a new limit on the effect of legislation made in exercise of devolved legislative or executive competence" - in other words, it would limit future lawmaking powers on the part of the Welsh Government.

Further, the Internal Markets Act is a "protected enactment", meaning that the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland cannot make any future amendments to this law - but Westminster can, as the government of the UK, if it chooses to do so.

The UK Government's increasing tendency to make laws for Wales in policy areas devolved to the Senedd has sparked concern about the security of Welsh democracy. 

"The increase has been momentous, and highlights the creeping tentacles of an ever-encroaching Tory government," Plaid MS Rhys ab Owen wrote in December.

"The process highlights the real precarious nature of the devolution settlement here in Wales."

Starmer's Welsh Labour conference address, however, made no mention of these issues. In The Road Ahead, a 11,500 word essay on his vision for Labour, Sir Keir mentioned Wales just once in passing.

"It really has been impressive how little he cares about the only part of the UK where we have a Labour government," a Welsh Labour local election candidate, who wished not to be named, told The National.

"Instead, he's focused a lot of his energy talking about Scotland."

Indeed, one of Starmer's most strident positions has been his staunch criticism of Scotland's ruling SNP.

On a campaign visit to Glasgow this week, the Labour leader insisted that his party would "never" go into coalition with the SNP - whether it be at a national or local council level.

The Leader: Sir Keir and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar in Glasgow. (Picture: PA Wire)Sir Keir and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar in Glasgow. (Picture: PA Wire)

Asked about Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's intention to pursue a second independence referendum, Starmer said that he would rather not revisit "the old constitutional arguments", suggesting that doing so would provoke "old divisions".

Though the UK leader had run on a pledge to "push power, wealth and opportunity away from Whitehall" with a new federal system, and has charged former PM Gordon Brown with heading up UK Labour's own, separate Commission on the Future of the UK, his fondness for appearing with Union Jack flags, his pointed jabs at Welsh and Scottish nationalism and his emphasis of "British values" has left some in doubt.

"While Keir Starmer might talk the talk on ‘radical federalism’, it’s far from clear that he would be comfortable walking the walk," Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, wrote last year, suggesting that Mark Drakeford and his party's "soft nationalism" may be "just too Welsh for the British party at large."

"I think it comes from, at least in part, his ideology - which honestly, listening to him speak, is a form of British nationalism," the Welsh Labour local election candidate said.

"All his speeches, his symbology with the British flag, they all make reference to the British people, or Britishness itself," they added.

The Leader:

"'I'm curious to see his response to Brown's constitutional commission, his proposals - beyond unionism, there's been very little content as to what that unionism, or any constitutional reform under him, would look like.

"Whether it works out is honestly hard to say.

"I've believed for a while that the party in England to some extent needs to engage with Englishness, and needs to allow the nation parties in Wales and Scotland to develop in their own ways - I do think that Starmer is missing a trick on that.

"I worry if he goes too hardline on the union in Scotland he might undermine the party there.

"He could miss out on voters who are attracted by some of the federalism proposals being put forward, but not keen on the hardline unionism."

Though a majority in Wales remain skeptical of splitting from the UK, support for independence has crept up over time, noticeably accelerating during the pandemic.

According to the Institute for Government, around a third of surveyed Welsh voters in 2021 said they'd vote yes in an independence referendum, compared with between 10 and 20 percent of respondents in surveys prior to 2018.

What do you say?

"He's back to Ed Milliband levels of beige," says Steve, 37, a teaching assistant and carer from Cwmbran.

"He refuses to take a stance on brexit that benefits the people he's suppose to represent, rarely challenges the opposition on votes.

"He's done nothing to retain the support offered by the left where he's had ample opportunity to cement policies that would benefit the working class and those in need."

Asked about that Brexit position, and the policies he'd like to see, Steve said: "Common ownership of rail, energy, water, mail and NHS.

"He's stepping back from trade union support and advice, and there's no evidence of championing fair wealth distribution.

"His Brexit position should be unpopular with those least affected by it. It's clear we are worse off since we left. So give a timetable to see if we can recover or better ourselves with the caveat that if it doesn't, we seek to return."

Daniel Giles, 29, from Neath, said of Starmer: "Pretty shambolic, doesn’t hold the UK government to account and certainly forgets about Wales, especially in regards to Mark Drakefords leadership.

"While it is obvious he's trying to move away from the ‘far-left’ that Corbyn portrayed, it seems he's more than happy to let Boris constantly c*ck up (not necessarily a bad thing) and just wait for his downfall, rather than constantly pile on the pressure."

Ruth Saunders, a 60 year-old retiree from Bangor, Gwynedd, said: "I don't like him, I think he's wet and he's on the right wing of the Labour party. I much preferred Corbyn."

Chris Meikle, from the Rhondda, said: "I believe he is honest and capable but he doesn't come over as 'dynamic' when you see him on TV.

"I'm sure though that he would do a good job as PM."

Graham Page, Caerphilly, said: "Jeremy Corbyn could inspire people and increase Labour membership, and Mark Drakeford has a firm a hand on the coronavirus Pandemic (as much as allowed by Westminster) - in these two politicians I have every faith.

"Keir Starmer does seem capable, but not dynamic.

"I would still vote Labour primarily to curb Tory growth, however, whoever is the leader, as there are good politicians in the Labour wings."