Two years after Labour’s catastrophe, has Labour made any progress?
On 12 December 2019, just two years ago, the Labour Party was crashing to a catastrophic defeat. The voters let us know what they thought about the previous five years, with a final and crushing verdict. From Bolsover to Bridgend, from Wakefield to Wrexham, Labour voters rejected the party they had supported for generations. Worse, these millions of NHS workers, small business people, sons and daughters of coalminers, went directly to the party of the class enemy. The Tories won 43.6% of the vote, the highest share for any party since Thatcher in ‘79.
I won’t rehearse the full calamity of Labour’s five years of shame and law-breaking, or the chaos of the election campaign, with thousands of activists misdirected to unwinnable places like Uxbridge, while Labour MPs were defending seats with only their granny and their dog. But it is worth reminding ourselves of the depths we plumbed in December 2019, to appreciate where we are two short years later, and where we might be heading.
The Corbyn leadership’s final insult to Labour was to hang around until the Spring of 2020, like unwanted guests refusing to leave a party. Given the scale of defeat, the decent thing would have been to bugger off towards the bus stop. Instead they kept loafing about on the sofa, eating the last of the nachos and drinking the decent merlot you were saving. That meant the new leader already had a wasted four months.
Keir Starmer is a relatively unknown quantity as his meteoric assent was in the law not politics. In his speeches, he has shown he has decent values and instincts. In shaping his shadow team, Starmer has shown he gets the need to present the public with fresh faces, to replace the grizzled old mugs from the class of ’83. For all the criticism of their youth, Starmer’s stars are no younger than previous top teams from the era of Labour success. Brown was 41 when he became shadow chancellor. Blair was 39 when he became shadow home secretary. Today, the new shadow health secretary Wes Streeting is 38, the new shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson is 37, and Rachel Reeves the shadow chancellor is 42. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper is positively a veteran at 52.
More importantly, they are a generation with the hunger to govern. They grew up under Labour Governments and want to serve in one, not denounce them as the-same-as-the-Tories. They can speak directly the concerns of the voters, as anyone who heard Wes Streeting on the Today Programme this week can attest. They know that to govern, Labour must reassure voters that this is a new Labour Party from the one that so repulsed them 24 months ago. This requires not only new faces but new policies and a new language. Most of all, it means Labour decisively tilting towards the mainstream majority, and away from the polar extremities: towards people who care more about their heating than Honduras.
The recent flurry of opinion polls, like the first falls of snow, can lift our spirits. Survation for the Mirror had Labour on 40% to the Tories’ 36%. Focaldata for Times Radio had Labour on 41% to the Tories 33%. Opinium for the Observer shows support for the Conservatives had fallen four points to 32%, while Labour had its biggest lead since 2014 with 41%. However, like snowflakes, Labour’s poll leads can melt away again. UK politics can not be seen as a zero-sum game, where the Tories’ loss is Labour’s gain, or vice versa. Instead, the Tories’ collapse can translate to apathy, extremism or anti-politics, without benefitting Labour a jot or tittle.
Indeed, Labour’s performance in by-elections since 2019 has been sub-optimal: no gains, one loss, and the worse result for Labour in a by-election ever, with fewer votes (622) than members of the local CLP. In the period after 1992, though, Labour similarly failed to break through in by-elections despite the pantomime of the pound’s ejection from the ERM and economic chaos. In the first six by-elections — Newbury, Christchurch, Rotherham, Barking and Eastleigh — Labour held seats but the Tories lost to the Lib Dems. The showstopper Labour victories — Dudley West, SE Staffordshire, Wirral South — came later in the parliament.
Labour lost councils and councillors in the May 2021 elections. Since then there have been some tasty gains in local government by-elections — in Rotherham, Bracknell Forest, and in Marine ward in Worthing where Labour’s remarkable progress, fuelled by community campaigning and mass population shifts, continues. But local election results are straws in the wind; they tell us very little about the national mood.
For Labour to gain electorally from the Tories’ industrial-scale ineptitude and planet-sized hypocrisy, it must earn it, not hope it happens by gravity. Having clearly determined what Labour is not for, it must show what it is for. There is always a dilemma about how much leg to show ahead of an election — just enough to give the voters a glimpse of what is to come like in 1997, or letting it all hang out like we did in 2019, resulting in ridicule and mirth.
Starmer needs to let his frontbench stars shine, to develop new policies for the post-pandemic world, and to address the biggest challenges: climate change, public health, automation, poverty, Brexit, and inequality. The next manifesto must start with a blank page, drip with sound values and common sense, and offer practical ways to fix our broken country.
Next, we need a strategy to not only win back the seats thrown away in 2019, but to win back the seats we lost in 2005, 2010, and 2015. That means a generation of fantastic candidates, in place in early 2022, with the full support they need to run eye-catching and energetic campaigns. No more duds — no more Labour candidates and MPs who are out-of-touch, out-to-lunch, or out-on-bail. In so many seats with tiny Tory majorities such as Blyth Valley, Bolton North East, Kensington or Weaver Vale, the quality of the candidate and their campaign will be decisive.
And the tartan elephant in the room is Scotland. Scotland. Scotland. Scotland. Scotland. Scotland. Without winning a bunch of seats in Scotland, Labour loses. In 2019 Corbyn Labour came third in Scotland with a fifth of the votes, and one of the seats out of 59. I am as far away from Scotland as it is possible to be without leaving the UK (don’t get ideas, Scotland), but there is a danger that Starmer and his very English crew look distant too. We need a strategy to win a dozen or more seats from the SNP (and to head off a renewed bid for independence), or else we may as well stay at home in Yorkshire, the Midlands or the south. In 1997, Blair’s New Labour won 56 seats in Scotland, not one.
As 2021 slips in 2022, we leave the post-election period and enter the pre-election one. The Tories don’t know whether to tear themselves apart then ditch their leader, or ditch their leader then tear themselves apart. Either way, their hegemonic grip is loosening, certainly in England. A revitalised Labour Party, fizzing with new ideas, hungry for change, and ready to modernise our country, has the potential to win millions of voters. There is now a critical mass inside Labour who want to win, as NEC and regional party elections show. Two years ago, we stared into the abyss, then took a great leap forward. Two years on, we seem to have rediscovered our governing mojo. Two years from now, we will know if it is still working.
Paul Richards is a political writer-for-hire.