2022 will be an absolutely crucial year for the Labour Party. It’s very likely to be the last full year before the next general election. This is because no government likes to run the risk of reaching the end of their full five-year term, as that removes any element of their control and ability to surprise the opposition over the timing of the election, so the Tories are most likely to go to the polls again in May 2023.
It could even be that this year is the general election year. If Boris Johnson manages to get the repeal of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed quickly enough, and really feels under internal threat, he could decide on a very early general election in May 2022, preferring to take his chances with the British public rather than hang around and wait for his Tory colleagues to launch a leadership coup. An alternative scenario is that there is a coup, and a new Tory PM, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, decides to hold an early election to capitalise on their opinion poll honeymoon.
Assuming we have one full year left to prepare, there is a lot to do. The shadow cabinet team around Keir now looks like it is the team that will take us into the general election, so personnel is settled. But we need to get MPs through the reselection process and pick candidates for over 400 non-Labour held seats and any where the Labour MP retires. After two snap general elections for which most local parties had candidates imposed at the last minute, it is essential that local members are given the opportunity to pick candidates wherever possible.
After a series of MPs who have caused the party huge reputational damage, sufficient due diligence has to be done that Labour picks candidates without skeletons in their closets. We need to pick needle-sharp campaigners who will show leadership in mobilising their Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) for a year of all-out campaigning effort, and attractive candidates who will bring a bonus personal vote that could make the difference in a marginal seat. We have to increase the calibre of the parliamentary party so that it boasts the talent and competence needed to fill the ministerial ranks, as well as increase its diversity so it looks like the nation we seek to lead.
We need to develop and announce policies that will both win over swing voters in the key marginal seats and also form a manifesto that will be a radical but achievable programme for our first term back in government. We need to fundraise so that the party can afford to fight a general election on a level playing field with the Tories. We have to rebuild an election-winning organisation that was hollowed out during the Jeremy Corbyn years, both through the removal of key experienced party staff and the political purging of experienced local activists and CLP officers.
We start the year ahead in the polls, showing we can win, something that many doubters tried to say was impossible. A key factor is that if we look from the polls like we could win an overall majority (as suggested by multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) forecasts in December) that in itself will both persuade some Scottish voters to switch from SNP to Labour, putting some seats there back into play, and persuade swing voters in England that there isn’t a threat of a Labour PM being dictated to by Nicola Sturgeon in a hung parliament.
But who knows what turbulence will come during the year due to Covid, the huge problems with the economy, and the possibility that the Tories try to repeat their trick of 1990 and 2019 by sacking an unpopular Prime Minister so that voters feel change has already happened before the general election?
The political weather can also be dramatically changed by by-elections, as we saw during 2021 in Labour’s loss of Hartlepool and hold of Batley and Spen, and the Lib Dem gains in Chesham and Amersham and in North Shropshire. We already know there will be one by-election due to the tragic death of Jack Dromey MP. Birmingham Erdington is a difficult seat where the Tories have a strong local base, and we can’t take the result there for granted. Nor should we be complacent about holding Leicester East if Claudia Webbe’s court appeal fails. We have yet to see a by-election in this parliament in a Tory-held marginal where Labour is the main challenger.
One certainty is that there will be local government elections on May 5th. The key factor here is that these are seats that were last fought in 2018, the best year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, when Labour and the Tories tied on 35% each in the national equivalent vote share. They are also disproportionately in London, where every seat is up for election and 2018 was the best year ever for Labour. This makes it a real challenge to achieve net gains. The campaigning done for these elections will be a key building block for the subsequent general election in terms of data collection, building relationships with swing voters, and building local campaigning capacity.
Internal matters will fade into the background after several years of heavy lifting to sort out the legacy of problems within the party. The problems haven’t wholly gone away – as a national executive committee (NEC) member, I see enough antisemitism cases at disciplinary panels to know there is still a huge amount of work to be done – but now that the party is settled on its direction of travel, we need to get the media focused on our external battles with the Tories.
But the inexorable wheels of internal party democracy will continue to grind. In the summer, there will be a hotly contested national one-member-one-vote ballot for the nine CLP seats on the NEC and for five national policy forum (NPF) reps from each region and nation, and a host of elections in Young Labour and the new Labour Students organisation. All these will hopefully see candidates win who have a positive attitude to getting the party electable again.
CLPs will also be holding AGMs, where there is likely to be continued movement away from Momentum, and electing delegates to annual conference, where we need a pro-leadership majority so that this vital pre-election conference is a real showcase for Labour’s next government.
It’s going to be a busy year. See you all on the campaign trail!