The Speaker
Friday, 12 April 2024 – 12:14

Labour must not be complacent about the next election

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

It’s easy to think the next general election is game, set and match to Labour. A recent YouGov poll showed the party 33% ahead of the Conservatives, a lead last seen in 1998. Survation meanwhile gave Labour, in comparison, a smaller lead of 21%, which is still the largest they have ever recorded. While opinion polls cannot reveal everything, they, as Sir John Curtice would argue, are a useful indicator.

Labour’s Annual Conference – as documented in The Speaker – passed by largely without any hitches. Aside from a racist comment by Rupa Huq MP, there appeared a large degree of consensus about Labour’s way forward. Compare that to just last year, where Keir Starmer was heckled delivering his speech and shadow employment minister Andy McDonald resigned during the conference.

Starmer’s desire for party unity saw a marginalisation of the left from the conference floor, with corporate stands increasing. There is a sense of a turning point: as Jim Callaghan said in 1979, there is a ‘sea change’ in politics every 30 years. However, Keir Starmer would do best to learn from another of his leaders as predecessors: Tony Blair. Why? For Tony Blair was the enemy of complacency.

The worst thing Labour could do now is assume their path to victory is certain. Remember, their defeat in 2019 marked their worst election performance in 80 years. To attain a majority of one, Labour need a swing of 10.52% – larger than Tony Blair’s 10.2% swing in 1997. It was Lyndon B Johnson who said the first rule of politics was to learn how to count. Ignoring the basic electoral mathematics is impossible for Labour.

Similarly, Labour must recognise the adept skills of their opponents. While, during the economic ripples, the incompetence of Liz Truss is more noticeable, the Conservatives as a political force have been able to adapt and reinvent themselves come the next election. Theresa May in 2017 fought an election campaign on the ‘good Government can do’, a far cry from David Cameron’s support for austerity. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’ marked a clear distinction from the coalition’s support for the EU.

Indeed, despite living in a parliamentary democracy, it is undeniable our political system is becoming more presidential. With every new leader the Conservatives have endured comes a belief they are remoulding themselves to fit the needs of voters. Granted, Liz Truss three weeks into office has been far from impressive, but, as time goes on, that has plenty of opportunity to change.

It was widely agreed Liz Truss’ budget (for it was one) was a huge gamble. Deciding to abolish the top rate of tax, cut the basic rate of tax and reverse the national insurance rate were all major decisions that have increased economy volatility. Economists have decried them, stating they are doomed to fail. However, there is a chance, a small one, that Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng could prove them wrong. Given the statements from the Bank of England and IMF, this seems unlikely. But if the economy shows any chance of improving by the next election, the fortunes of the Conservatives cannot be discounted.

Labour are keen to make the next election one about the economy. There is sense in this. Financial Times journalist Sebastian Payne examined in his book ‘Broken Heartlands’ how Labour had become disconnected from their voters who felt economically left behind. However, there was also a cultural detachment too. Keir Starmer has been far keener to ignore this point, aware of the huge divisions within his party and the country. However, as Ian Leslie says, the more sensible thing might be to accept we are all culture warriors and seek to make – and win – the relevant political arguments.

At present, you wouldn’t win much money by gambling Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister. However, the next election is two years away. Throughout the coalition, pundits believed Ed Miliband was destined for power. Look what happened there. While global shocks – Brexit, Covid, a war in Ukraine – have dramatically altered society, avoiding complacency has never receded in necessity. Keir Stamer would do well to heed that advice.

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