Johnson, Starmer& the Tectonic Plates of British Politics
Professor Chris Painter explores the strategic electoral dilemmas which Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer respectively face, as normal political engagement resumes
Soon after the 2019 General Election – a traumatic experience for the Labour Party – came the onset of a public health crisis not seen for a century and on which the nation’s mind became almost exclusively fixated for the best part of 16 months.
Apart from anything else, it gave Boris Johnson and his Cabinet exclusive control over political channels of communication through their frequent in-person media briefings. State intervention on a scale not seen since the Second World War, including emergency financial support for companies and employees, along with vaccines for a novel disease produced at remarkable speed, also provided political lifelines for the Prime Minister, notwithstanding his repeated floundering responses to the Coronavirus pandemic.
All of which meant that Keir Starmer, as newly-elected Labour Leader, struggled to receive a hearing or make much of an impression on the electorate. Now, we have resumed something like more ‘normal’ political engagement, despite various crises continuing to rumble away and threatening to erupt this winter.
The end of the party conference season presents an opportune moment to take stock of Johnson and Starmer’s strategic positioning and their respective strengths and weaknesses, as the battleground is prepared for the next general election.
Johnson may have a political strategy, but there is little sign of any governing strategy
Johnson’s Political Strategy
Boris Johnson’s achievement in the 2019 General Election was to solidify a right-leaning vote, assisted by Nigel Farage’s decision to stand down Brexit Party candidates in prime Conservative electoral territory. Voters treated that election as an opportunity to resolve a three-year-old Brexit crisis that had festered during Theresa May’s premiership, with profound questions of national identity thereby reconfiguring political allegiances in Johnson’s favour.
One of the strategic challenges facing Johnson now is how to sustain the diverse electoral coalition that was the upshot.
Ministers are trying their best, continuing to shamelessly tap into English nationalist sentiment and deploying the full repertoire of populist rhetoric in the process.
Johnson’s overarching future strategy is also clear if we read the runes from his party conference speech. Strange as it may seem, it appears as though he wishes to inherit the mantle of Tony Blair’s ‘big tent’ politics, covering his flank every which way and starving the opposition of any electoral ground.
But that is offset by a number of problems.
His high-octane rhetoric is unmatched by delivery. Destinations and promised benefits are somehow always out of reach, stretching into a distant future; whereas pain concentrates in the present. Moreover, he remains the most polarising political figure since Margaret Thatcher, not least because of his uncompromising Brexit stance.
Johnson’s underlying strategic weakness therefore is that he may have a political strategy, but there is little sign of any governing strategy. As a consequence, his premiership is engulfed by multiple crises, with Brexit a significant contributory factor to the economic and logistical ruptures being experienced.
His latest rationalisation for labour shortages and trading frictions has all the plausibility of voodoo economics, alienating the Conservative Party’s former business constituency. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that barely more than a third of adults currently view Brexit as a success. So, despite Johnson possessing an aura of political invincibility, winter financial hardships for many of those who cast their vote for him in 2019 will likely have unpredictable political consequences.
Indeed, Starmer has a long time to exploit the the current political climate if it becomes ever-more turbulent.
Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Harold Wilson lambasted the Conservative governments that had occupied office continuously from 1951 to 1964 for their “13 wasted years”. Opportunities for comparable attacks on the most recent 13-year period of Conservative rule by 2023 will be legion: David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity, May’s political paralysis, Johnson’s misrule when guarantee of even basic supply chains became problematic.
Starmer has also proved politically astute in avoiding temptations to be drawn into Johnson’s ‘culture wars’. One of the fundamental mistakes of Labour over the past decade was arguably letting Conservative governments constantly define policy parameters and public narratives. Starmer is much better advised to take his cue from Labour’s ongoing strategic policy review, as Johnson continues to flounder.
Starmer’s Electoral Dilemmas
For Labour, four distinct electoral strategies could be found.
First, renouncing Brexit and cutting losses as quickly as possible on a disastrously ill-conceived project. The risk of this approach is that it may play directly into Boris Johnson’s hands, reigniting the national identity debate to Labour’s detriment. Arguably, it makes much more sense to incrementally chart a road back to a closer trading alignment with mainland Europe. The downside involves exposing the party’s political flank to the Liberal Democrats in former Remain-voting seats.
Of course, Labour may be driven into reassessing this cost-benefit analysis as Johnson’s Brexit unravels, with even the threat of a tariff war looming over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Concessions to mitigate the most damaging labour shortages, temporarily easing strict visa requirements, chisel away at the very fabric of his extreme form of Brexit, even when evaluated on its own terms.
Second, there is the metropolitan strategy, capitalising on Labour’s current mayoral strengths. This entails distancing itself from the party’s traditional voter base following the ‘Red Wall’ disaster in the 2019 General Election. A new electoral coalition centred on urban cities and younger, more highly educated cohorts would supersede former historical alignments. That said, it is hard to conceive of how this coalition could form the basis for anything like an electoral majority in the foreseeable future.
The third strategy is a ‘progressive alliance’, with Labour acknowledging that it can only succeed under the current electoral system by forging a formal pact with like-minded smaller parties. The logistics, though, are a nightmare and it presumes voters can be moved around like pieces on a chess board. The rationale is much more likely to be realised pragmatically by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens targeting finite resources according to their relative and complementary strengths.
Finally, there is a strategy that focuses on the breadth of the party’s appeal. Compelling polling evidence suggests that, even to be in with a fighting chance of emerging as the largest party at the next election, Labour must not only attract progressive votes but also ‘soft’ Conservative support. An intrinsic tension exists because what may attract one demographic group could deter another.
There is an additional challenge of breaching the ‘grey wall’ of older voters so carefully cultivated by the Conservative Party, and with whom Johnson’s nationalist rhetoric seems to particularly resonate. Add to that the current wasteland for Labour of Scotland, and a formidable array of obstacles are apparent.
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Starmer nonetheless appears willing to gamble his political future on the fourth approach – the most ambitious of the strategies – despite Johnson’s rhetorical endeavours to crowd out his electoral space. That leaves the Labour Party Leader with an unenviable political balancing act of both reassuring cautious, soft-Conservative prospective voters and appealing to those who would be tempted to vote for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.
Realistically, given Labour’s starting point, Starmer’s approach will need to be combined with a de facto version of the third strategy, with a number of ‘Blue Wall’ seats likely to be more vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. Previous British elections do suggest that other progressive political parties tend to perform better when Labour is in revival mode. If Labour encourages this process, even tacitly, it will deprive the Conservatives of seats.
That all leaves Johnson continuing to edge ahead in the polls, with Starmer still requiring a crisper political narrative to out-manoeuvre the performative theatrics of Johnson’s populist politics.
Yet, Starmer’s conference speech appears to have impressed more than Johnson’s reality-defying tour de force. Starmer is a less divisive political figure, as demonstrated in Byline Times’ own recently commissioned poll. Other polling evidence suggests, moreover, that support for Johnson in some of his newly-acquired Red Wall seats is already fraying, let alone his potential vulnerability in former Remain-voting Blue Wall constituencies.
Ultimately, we all have a stake in the outcome. The strains being placed on Britain’s economy and society have become visceral, aggravated by a growing sense of the chaos enveloping Johnson’s premiership. If the British state’s governance is to return to anything like an internationally acceptable norm, it is imperative that a truly competitive party system is restored as soon as possible.
Chris Painter is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Management, and formerly Head of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University