The Labour Party is back in the ring. The latest polling shows that Keir Starmer has passed the early tests of his leadership with distinction. In his first four months, he has demonstrated good judgement, competence and resolve – both in holding the government to account and in starting to change the Labour Party.
But Starmer knows the job has hardly started. Most people don’t think much about politics and their views of parties take many years to change. Impressions of the new leader may be broadly positive, but millions of the voters Labour needs to win still see the party as untrustworthy, divided, extreme or irrelevant.
Labour’s challenge is to build connections with people who feel the party is not there for them. This doesn’t mean targeting one group over another, or one type of place, because the party has lost votes almost everywhere. Starmer needs to build an extraordinary breadth of support that unites people with very different lives and world views.
The task is to translate the passion of committed progressives who agitate for vital causes like Black Lives Matter into a majoritarian form of Labour politics, which builds and channels a quiet, broad-based conviction that deep change must come. Starmer must nurture and champion aspirations that feel homegrown everywhere, rather than appearing to impose the values of liberal-minded minorities onto people who find protest culture alien. The party will succeed when it is the conducting rod for almost everyone who wants Britain to turn a new page, wherever they live and whatever their background.
Boris Johnson’s hapless handling of this year’s terrible pandemic and recession has created the chance for Labour to present itself as a serious government-in-waiting. We’ve seen a glimpse of just how prepared Starmer and his team are to strategically capitalise on the government’s failings, with their role in escalating pressure during the exam debacle.
But nothing should be taken for granted because we know the Labour Party usually loses post-recession elections. Labour will need to spend years persuading voters that fundamental change is the only way to bring people security in their lives and competent stewardship of the country.
In this endeavour, the party is at a disadvantage on two fronts. First, at a point of national crisis, the Conservatives are seeking to adopt a pale imitation of social democracy, stealing ideas from Keynes, New Labour and continental welfare states. We can expect the government to fight the next four years on the centre ground.
Second, it is becoming clear that the next election will be a contest between three candidates for Prime Minister, not two: Starmer, Johnson and Sunak. Starmer is starting to edge ahead of Johnson on questions of competence and trust, but we know the Conservative Party is ruthless. The moment Johnson is no longer seen as a winner, he will be replaced and Rishi Sunak has few of the Prime Minister’s glaring flaws. Labour must work on the basis that Starmer will have to best two Conservative rivals in succession to win the next election.
In a world turned upside down in just four months, the four years until the 2024 election are of course a political eternity and Starmer’s party faces its first real test in May next year. In the biggest set of ‘mid-term’ elections we’ve known, Labour must make real progress. Above all, the party will need to reverse its fortunes in Scotland, both because Labour has little chance of winning a general election without more Scottish seats, and because a Labour recovery is essential to maintain Scotland’s place in the UK.
The aim must be to overtake a Scottish Conservative party tainted by Boris Johnson and to prevent an outright SNP majority. If Scottish Labour cannot regain its place as the main opposition party and principal defender of the union, the SNP will use every Conservative misstep in London to further the case for independence until it is seen as a post-Covid inevitability.
Keir Starmer knows all this, and we can expect to see him spending more time in Scotland than any Labour leader since Gordon Brown. Early and decisive intervention will be needed if the Scottish campaign is not shaping up. For the Labour Party in England and Wales, the 2021 Scottish elections are not someone else’s problem.