With recent events you may not have been aware, or perhaps you forgot, that the Labour Party was having its long and drawn out Party Leadership Election. The results are in anyway, Keir Starmer is victorious and will succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Party Leader. Starmer’s task is not an easy one, he takes over at a dire time for the Labour party. Like the Tories during 1997-2005, Labour are in their new “wilderness years”, if they are not careful, they will suffer another defeat in 2024 and Tories will be in power for another 5 years. Starmer must rebuild the Labour Party after the recent general election, where the party won 202 seats having lost 60 from 2017, making it their worst performance in an election since 1935.
Starmer needs to decide how he is going to regain trust and support of traditional Labour voters and regain Labour heartlands, the so called “Red Wall”, where the party collapsed in 2019. He will also have to decide what a post Brexit Britain Labour Party will look like, and what it will say on the big issues facing the country. But also, and probably a more difficult task, he must decide where the ideological fate of his party will lie, whether he remains to the left or moves to centre, similar to where New Labour went or perhaps somewhere in between. Whatever he does decide to do, not everyone will be happy in the Labour Party. And of course, he must tackle the evil of anti-Semitism in the party which will be a true test of his leadership early on.
This article will aim to show just how big a task is facing Keir Starmer, and what those problems are. Labour have until 2024 to prepare for the next general election, and as Harold Wilson once said “a week is a long time in politics” so there is plenty that could go wrong for the Conservatives and plenty that could go right for the Labour Party in that time. Only three men have won elections for Labour since 1945, Attlee, Wilson and Blair. Time will tell if Starmer joins them or whether he joins the ranks of Kinnock, Miliband and Corbyn.
The 2019 Election marked another turbulent time in British politics. This was the third general election in four years and the ninth major electoral contest in the decade. The Labour Party and the UK were going into this election against the backdrop of Brexit, a Parliament that was unable to agree a Withdrawal Agreement or anything in fact and a mood of great anger in the country. The Tories had been in power for nine years and the government saw the lowest satisfaction scores for the way in which it was running the country for any administration since John Major’s (Ipsos MORI, 2019). Normally, after the “cost of governance” and satisfaction levels like that, this should have been an easy win for the Labour Party. Far from it.
One reason for their defeat was that Labour faced an electoral dilemma, how to hold onto their collation of voters from the 2017 election? At the time, the party on the one hand had a majority of Labour MPs (61%) represented constituencies that had a majority leave vote in 2016, whilst on the other a clear majority of Labour voters (68%) supported Remain in 2016 (BES, 2019). Labour was doomed from the start, there was no way the party could hold onto both of these very different and distinct groups at the same time. And what we saw at the 2019 election was exactly that, Labour losing in many leave voting areas. The Conservatives captured ‘fifty-seven seats, all but three from Labour. These included traditional Labour heartlands in the so-called ‘red wall’: Great Grimsby (Labour since 1945); Bishop Auckland (1935); Basset-law (1935); Wakeﬁeld (1932); Leigh (1922); Don Valley (1922); and Bolsover (a seat Labour had never lost when contesting) (Cutts, et al., 2020). So, the challenge for Starmer and the Labour Party going forward is: how to win these voters and seats back? How to build a more permanent and united coalition of support for the Labour Party? Unfortunately, for the Labour Party the loss of support amongst their traditional working-class base, known as the “falling ladder”, has been a long time coming, as Figure 1 shows:
Figure 1: The difference between Labour and Conservative vote share by class composition of English and Welsh constituencies, 2010–2019
(Cutts, et al., 2020, p. 17)
Figure 1 shows the enormous task facing Starmer, he must pick the ladder back up and prevent this election from becoming a realigning moment. Many in Labour will be hoping that 2019 was a one off, that people lent their votes to the Conservatives because of Brexit and will return to the Labour Party after. Of course, Labour will have to earn their vote back but there is a logic to that idea. Now that Britain has left the EU but is in the transition period as it negotiates a future trade deal with our European neighbours, perhaps this dividing line in our politics will weaken. In a recent poll there was 46-54 split in favour of staying out indicated a small swing in favour of Brexit since January (Woodcock, 2020). So perhaps once, excuse me here, “we get Brexit done” there will be a focus on other issues in a post Brexit Britain. Issues that the Labour Party can be stronger on, and issues that enable them to start winning back the support of the voters it lost in 2019.
So, what drove former Labour voters to other parties? Understanding why these voters left might help the party in winning them back. As you can see in Figure 2, Jeremy Corbyn/leadership was the main reason voters did not support Labour in the 2019 election according to this poll. The Labour Party will now hope that the election of Starmer as leader will settle this issue and his name will not be as toxic for the party on the doorsteps. However, Figure 1 also shows that there was much to Labour’s failings in 2019 than just leadership.
Figure 2: What drove former Labour voters back to other parties?
Brexit, as mentioned above, played a significant role. Perhaps, like leadership, this will now be settled, and voters will not be turned off by Labour. But the other telling issue raised by Figure 2, is that people did not trust Labour on policy and economic competence. There was a feeling this time around that the Labour manifesto and policies were undeliverable and would cost too much. This was consistent with polling before the election, which showed that the majority (63%) thought that Labour’s policies are not realistically deliverable, and that the party would not deliver on its promises. Former Labour voters said in their own words that they: “did not trust the manifesto, you cannot keep borrowing to pay for services”, that “the socialist policies were frightening” and “the sums didn’t add up for all the things they promised if they got in” (YouGov, 2019). This represents a significant challenge for Starmer now coming into the top job in the Labour Party. He and his party need to convince voters that Labour can be trusted on the economy and the public finances if they have any hope of becoming a credible option for the voters.
Finally, I would like to talk about another major problem for the Labour Party. Scotland does not get raised enough in terms of Labours problems as much as it should; Scotland is another once traditional heartlands that they have lost. In 2010, even right in the dying days of New Labour, the party manged to have forty-one seats out of fifty-nine in Scotland (BBC News, 2010). At the 2019 election the Labour Party lost six seats and was left with just one seat (BBC News, 2019). The massive decline in Scotland creates a big problem for Labour. For the Labour Party to win a majority, the party must start winning seats back off the SNP and other parties. Otherwise Labour will have to win more seats in England and Wales. This requires an even bigger swing, as the party will need to take seats of the Conservatives, where there are majorities of over 10,000, no easy task. Labour must re-find its political place in Scotland amongst the Nationalist versus Unionist debate or risks remaining in the side-lines of Scottish politics and out of government in the UK.
If the Labour Party is to start winning elections and return to government, then it must address the issues listed in this article. It is currently facing a significant moment in the party’s history, whether it chooses to return to power and credibility, or whether it continues deeper into the political wilderness. It will not be easy, but the path back to having a Labour Prime Minister and a Labour government can start now. We will see if they, and Starmer take it.
Written by Lewis Virgo
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