‘Labour can smell power but isn’t ready’: 5 things the party must do to prepare

Peter Apps
© Rupert Rivett/Shutterstock.com

If Keir Starmer finds himself in Downing Street after the next election, December 2021 will be seen the point at which more than a decade of Tory rule unravelled.

Labour has led in every opinion poll published since December 6th, with a lead of between four and nine percentage points. The Chesham and Amersham and now North Shropshire by-elections show the Conservatives in serious trouble even in their safest seats.

Whether the Labour Party can leverage that situation to its advantage, however, remains an open question. An aggregate of December polls by the website Election Polling predicts Labour becoming the largest party at the next election, gaining 89 seats while the Tories lose more than 100 – but still 35 short of an overall majority.

That brings its own challenges and decision points – not least how Labour should manage this dynamic with the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists. Starmer’s new shadow cabinet appointed in November is seen as having had a strong first month, but even the leader’s supporters argue more needs to be done on vision, practicalities and politics.

The stakes are high, with everything to play for. “Labour can smell power, but it isn’t ready,” says one well-connected centrist party activist. The last time the party genuinely prepared for government before 1997 is a quarter of a century ago, a very different time.

Here are five things the party must get right if it is to take advantage of its opportunity.

1. Policy and “the offer”

Labour has no shortage of policies. A report in September by Labour In Communications, a new group of Labour supporters in that industry, found that the party had reported some 200 non-Covid-related policies since the leadership race. What the party is still struggling to articulate, however, is its basic offer of what Starmer Labour thinks it is really for and whether it has the confidence of its convictions.

The answer to that might be more big and fewer small policy pledges, tied together into a coherent narrative. Rachel Reeves conference announcement of £28bn a year capital investment in the “green transition” could be the basis for a solid messaging on a “Green New Deal”, tying in other policies such as tax reform and infrastructure.

The country is crying out for a credible, competent but creative and compassionate Labour Party that will deliver affordable housing, effective public services and job and wider human security. To do that, the party must look neither catastrophically divided nor irredeemably London-centric, but at the very least better than the rival offer put up by the Tories.

The party cannot just skip contentious areas. In 2015, its immigration policy might be best described as “written on a mug”. That wasn’t credible then, and it will be less so now.

2. A plan that adapts beyond beating Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister probably has a few more months in power. While nobody else wants to steer the ship of state through the current stage of Covid, he now looks like an electoral liability. Labour must be ready to face whoever comes next: maybe a robustly nationalist Liz Truss or Priti Patel, maybe a smiling Blair-style Rishi Sunak.

Neither of those will be as easy a foil for Starmer as Boris. Each would bring their own, very different vision of Britain in the future, and Labour will need to meet that.

It’s not all bad news. The Downing Street parties, lobbying scandals and sheer entitlement of this Conservative government appears to have cut through. To benefit from that, however, Labour must avoid looking just as entitled and disconnected from real people.

3. A candidate and campaign plan to win the seats that matter

The North Shropshire result also brings its own challenges to Labour, which saw its second place in 2019 dramatically swept away by the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems may genuinely be more competitive at taking former Conservative safe seats, but that makes it more important than ever for Labour to consolidate its own offer.

The party needs to play to win – not least because the more dependent it looks on smaller parties, particularly SNP, the more the Conservatives will leverage that as propaganda. That means finding good candidates for the 150 most winnable seats, running transparent and should effective selections and having a clear policy platform and campaign plan.

So far, the signs on that are mixed. Every party leadership in recent memory has been overly controlling of selections, and the selection for the most recent by-elections have been particularly anti-democratic stitch ups, with popular local candidates often barred from standing (in North Shropshire, that included Graham Currie, its candidate in 2015, 2017 and 2019).

Selections for the next election are expected to start relatively soon in 2022 – until the shift in the polls, the party had expected the Tories to go to the country as soon as next winter. That will be the first opportunity for the 360+ members selected for the new ‘future candidates programme’, criticised for excluding many left-wing candidates but which the party hope will yield a generation of new stars.

That would be good – not least because one of the lessons of North Shropshire is that no party can take its traditional support base for granted these days. Each vote must be fought for.

4. A leadership and top team that sings together

Only three months ago at Labour conference, there was a widespread feeling within the party that the next election was already lost – with potential challengers already moving to position themselves for the leadership election they thought would follow.

That hasn’t gone away – but Starmer’s November reshuffle has arguably turned this into more of a strength. Multiple potential hopefuls now have their own powerful portfolios: Lisa Nandy at “levelling up”, David Lammy at foreign affairs, Yvette Cooper at the Home Office and Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor. Wes Streeting as Shadow Health Secretary has also particularly impressed, while Dan Jarvis and of course Andy Burnham have used their local government positions to showcase what the party can do in power.

That’s all good news. There is still a feeling that the leadership itself needs to do more to capture and project what it truly stands for, however. There is particular scepticism from the left, which accuses Starmer of abandoning the pledges you made to become leader and the becoming captured by a centrist leadership team they view as “mediocre”.

There is a broader challenge here. Getting senior figures on TV and radio is simply not as effective as it was in the 1990s. The electorate is much more diffuse, spread across the Internet and social media – and getting the party elected will require all those leading figures to work harder to get their message through to the audiences that need it.

5. A party that doesn’t look toxic or divided

Modern Labour is very different to the ruthlessly disciplined Blairite project, both for better and for worse – and it feels like there is little appetite in the party or country for that model.

The Conservatives have long shown that it’s possible to hold office with separate wings of the party loathing each other, but it is rarely a good look – and it does not lead to good campaigning. Much of the party would like to see a rapprochement with the left. The announcement of Starmer’s cabinet reshuffle during an Angela Rayner speech appeared a particularly unnecessary snub that made the party look more focused on internal struggles.

That isn’t going to be easy. There is real fury on the left, with Momentum last week calling on members not to leave and claiming that the leadership wished to drive them out. The opening stages of the next election could be dominated by questions over whether Jeremy Corbyn might run as an independent, unlikely to yield good headlines.

Nobody who has spent time in the Labour Party will expect all its elements to get on. But they need to be civil to each other, ideally work together in campaigning and remember that they should be on the same side.

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