UK Politics

As the Tories collapse, Labour must seize the moment 

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It has now been several weeks since the local elections. All the results have long come in, but it has only been recently that councils around the country are forming.

Nationally, the Conservatives lost over 500 councillors, many of them in their heartlands. The District Council in Huntingdonshire, an area of Tory dominance that last elected a non-Conservative MP nearly a century ago, has come under the control of a rainbow coalition of councillors from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and other smaller parties.

The same applies in West Oxfordshire in former PM David Cameron’s stomping ground – the Tories have lost control.

However, while they may be the losers, Labour weren’t exactly the victors. Certainly, it is astonishing that Labour won control of Barnet, Wandsworth, and Westminster (resulting in Downing Street, for the first time in history, falling under a non-Tory council).

But, despite a moderately strong showing in Scotland and Wales, the party net gained only 22 councillors in England. Nationally, the Labour vote didn’t change much at all since the last time these seats were contested in 2018.

It really was a night for the smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats did well to gain Hull Council and they made solid gains. The Greens too did remarkably well, doubling their number of councillors.

With the local elections weeks ago, all the drama and disproportionate hype and exaggerating have passed. The Met’s investigation into parties at Number 10 has ended, and the investigation into Sir Keir Starmer for allegedly breaking lockdown rules in Durham is only just beginning. Neither the Tories nor Labour are in a good place currently, and it doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

What does this mean for the future of politics? Perhaps, as the turbulence of British politics is unpredictable, very little. But that seems unlikely.

When a Conservative government is, like this one, suffering from allegations of economic incompetence, sleaze, and general ineffectiveness, the opposition needs to do everything it can to win.

Inflation has hit 9% as the cost-of-living crisis seems endless, the government is scandalous and morally inept, and we’ve got an Opposition which may be constructive and generally intelligent, but it lacks style and excitement.

Despite a disastrous general election result in 2019, Labour is still the Official Opposition and there is no immediate sign of that changing. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens may be doing well, but not enough to claim second place

Even though Labour may be leading in the polls consistently, that isn’t enough. If Keir Starmer wants to lead Labour into the next election and win, he and the party will need to change.

However, it has been done before. The current Labour leadership can learn many lessons from two previous instances of Tory administrations in their nadir.

Months after Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan achieved a landslide victory against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour in 1959, the government’s reputation began to crumble. Not only did the economy’s prospects turn sour, but the famous Profumo Affair destroyed any moral high ground that the Conservatives once claimed to enjoy. Macmillan’s government was dying and his increasingly out-of-touch style of administration led to his resignation in 1963.

Three decades on, after the Tories won a surprising victory under John Major in 1992, similar events took place. September’s Black Wednesday, which saw Britain crash spectacularly out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, fatally damaged Tory economic competence. Major, like Johnson recently, was forced to raise taxes.

Sleaze haunted Major and his government religiously. Back to Basics, that archaic campaign which aimed to “return to core values” and rekindle social conservatism was outdated political hypocrisy. Even the Tory-supporting press saw it as their duty to hound out Tory MPs whose private lives conveyed the moral opposite of the rhetoric of Back to Basics. Tory sleaze entered the political lexicon in the 1990s and has remained since.

These two Tory terms led to Labour governments, but only one of their paths led to long-term success.

From 1959 to 1964, the Tories were certainly failing to sustain their popularity, but it wasn’t Labour who primarily benefited. The Liberal Party, that irrelevant force in politics which has spent several decades as a joke, surprised all with their 1962 Orpington by-election success.

As Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell had already lost one election and he consistently failed to unite his party. His tragic death in 1963 provided Labour with a new start – Harold Wilson became leader and exuded new energy into sixties Britain.

He had only served as Labour leader for less than two years when he won power in October 1964. Labour’s vote increased by a tiny amount, but the Liberals gained votes from the Tory collapse. Perhaps, if Wilson possessed more time, his 1966 landslide victory would have come earlier.

From 1992 to 1994, Labour had a leader who may have been decent and competent, but he failed to excite the public about the idea of a Labour government. John Smith’s time as Labour leader was smooth, but the party failed to excel in local elections as the Liberal Democrats benefited more from Tory decay.

Perhaps unlike Gaitskell, Smith would have become prime minister if he had lived, but would the energy of reform zeal be present as it was with New Labour? Maybe not. Tony Blair’s youth, promise, and sense of both continuity and hope was a winning formula. Unlike Wilson, Blair had several years to mould Labour in his image.

Much of this history may sound very familiar indeed. Johnson’s unpopular government is providing Starmer with the possibility of victory at the next election, but so far Labour isn’t positioning itself correctly.

Starmer’s Labour may be lacking in the policy department, but most ideas conveyed are certainly a break with the Jeremy Corbyn era. Labour can win, just as they did in 1964 under Wilson, by hoping for the largest possible collapse in the Conservative vote, but a party truly hungry for power must strive for more.

While highly unlikely, a 1997-style Labour landslide at the next election isn’t impossible. They may have won only 202 seats in the last election, but substantial recoveries have happened before.

The Liberals won 397 seats from 183 in 1906, but in recent times it was David Cameron’s Tories who gained over a hundred seats to form a government in 2010. It may have been a coalition, but the Conservatives have been in power consistently for twelve years since.

Modern political campaigns require excitement. Labour can and has done that, but can Keir Starmer? Already, successors to Starmer are being considered, with rising stars such as Wes Streeting standing out as a candidate with some potential. Perhaps a new and more exciting chapter may begin for Labour if Starmer’s reign is cut short.

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