Politics is a funny thing. One day, the Conservative Party winning Hartlepool symbolises Boris Johnson’s continued erosion of Labour support and suggests the Tories will reign supreme for decades to come; weeks later, the Labour victory in Batley and Spen is touted as the beginning of a storming comeback under Keir Starmer. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle – these were, but two microscopic tests of public opinion, and both parties are facing significant long term electoral threats.
So what problems are really facing the Labour Party right now?
A point scarcely recognised in current political debate is that the next general election is not far off. Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet colleagues continue to remind us that they are new to this job, and bringing the Labour Party back to government is a five-year process. Fine.
It’s worth remembering, however, that pundits suspect Boris Johnson will call an election in 2023 (one year before schedule), and we have lost a lot of time to this pandemic. A spring 2023 polling day would mean this coming March, and we will be starting the one-year countdown to the next general election. Keir Starmer cannot continue to put off making radical strategic decisions to make Labour appeal to voters – the clock is ticking.
North of England Realignment
It does sometimes feel as if British political commentators are paid not for the quality of their analysis but the number of times they can feature the words ‘RED WALL’ in their reports. The term represents a particular stereotype: older, white, uneducated, unskilled and socially conservative men, rather than simply someone living in the north of England.
More frustrating than the lazy stereotypes, though, is the assumption that ‘new Tories’ worship the ground that Boris Johnson walks on. That Labour cannot touch them ever again because of the euphoria they felt waking up on 13th December 2019. The problem facing Labour in the Red Wall is partly because the party tells itself that it cannot possibly represent office workers in London and Manchester simultaneously as labourers or teachers in Doncaster and Hartlepool. In reality, parties have always won elections by assembling diverse voter coalitions, and for many previous Labour supporters, the issue now is not a dislike of the party’s stance but a perceived lack of any stance whatsoever. This autumn’s party conference will test Starmer’s ability to lay out a comprehensive policy platform to win back voters who, worse than disliking the Labour Party, see it as irrelevant.
In the long list of issues overshadowed by Red Wall commentary is Labour’s electoral task in Scotland. Labour needs to regain not only the northern English seats but the 40 or so previously held Scottish seats, plus around two dozen others to win a majority. Without Scotland, Labour would have to find 40 seat gains elsewhere in the country, NOT including the 2019 losses – a near-impossible task. Keir Starmer is aware of the issue, appearing north of the border multiple times prior to May’s Scottish elections. But Labour will have to comprehensively dismantle the SNP if they are to make progress once again, which will mean taking a firmer stance on the independence issue – something Scottish leader Anas Sarwar seems reluctant to do.
It’s often said that politics is reality TV for ugly people. But, of course, the underlying assumption here is that politicians are equally as entertaining and dramatic to watch as Molly Mae and Tommy Fury, just not quite as pretty. Somewhat hard to argue lately, as so many ‘new’ politicians have been moulded to cope with an unforgiving media environment that jumps on slips of the tongue and prioritises heat over the light in interviews, resulting in ever more rigid lawmakers at Westminster.
An essential criticism of Starmer is that he is wooden and uncharismatic. Perhaps so in long parliamentary debates, but the north London MP showed a softer side more recently as he was moved to tears duri of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories episode. The man has interesting stuff to say – more concerning for the party’s electoral prospects is an overall lack of big beasts and household names in the shadow cabinet. The reason for such a low level of name recognition among Labour’s top team is that, understandably, the government has dominated media coverage for the last 16 months. We needed to hear from ministers about changes to our daily lives, leaving Labour struggling to cut through. I imagine you’ve heard of Oliver Dowden, George Eustice and Robert Jenrick.
Try and picture their Labour counterparts Jo Stevens, Luke Pollard and Steve Reed…a little trickier? Whilst a large proportion of the shadow cabinet are rarely seen in high profile media appearances, it seems the party is hoping key figures such as Lisa Nandy and David Lammy will appeal to voters, with the occasional (well, actually rather regular) helping hand from Mayors Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan.
And so to the vaccine. It is not possible to prove that the Conservatives are riding high in the opinion polls lately because of a ‘vaccine bounce’, but it is highly likely. The government is seen to be responsible for a rapid rollout that has allowed the country to return to a semblance of normality at the time of writing. It’s no wonder that the public is keen to reward that, but the risk for Labour lies in the near future. Political memories are generally relatively short, meaning a fierce race to capture the post-pandemic narrative will begin in the coming months; did the government do all it could to protect the NHS and did Labour provide the right opposition at the right times?
We’ve seen with major events such as the Iraq War that opinions change over time – many in Labour will be hoping once the blinding hope of the vaccine success has worn off, voters will have time to contemplate the decisions that lay behind the seemingly endless lockdowns. Whether the public draws an unforgiving conclusion of the Conservatives’ handling of the pandemic or gives them the benefit of the doubt is yet to be seen. For Labour, the chance to be adequately heard again will be one they relish, but the test for them will be not only if they can make arguments with which people agree, but whether people are willing to listen in the first place.