Keir Starmer Risks Drifting to Defeat If Labour Tries to Win by Default
The Labour leader’s former campaigns and elections strategist, Simon Fletcher, warns that Starmer’s excessive caution risks losing the next election
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Labour begins its annual conference in a halfway position. It is ahead. Its Conservative opponents have spent the summer tearing themselves to pieces, but Labour does not yet command the political landscape. Labour now stands closer to where it wants to be than at any point since the last general election and yet simultaneously far enough away to make it hard to feel confident of victory.
But still, there is now surely a case for us all to get used to the idea that the next government will be a Labour government, and to prepare for that eventuality.
Is that a prediction and is it inevitable? Not by any means. Of those Labour members who worked to get a Labour government under Thatcher and Major, none will ever forget the feeling as the 1992 results came through. During Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party, pollsters regularly produced Labour leads, but Labour still lost. As a member of Ed Miliband’s team, I spent the night of the 2015 general election in Labour HQ. The point when Charlie Falconer got up to try to rally the mood just after the exit poll pointed to a Tory majority is burnt into my brain.
So polls are not predictions, and complacency is a mug’s game. Nonetheless, a Labour Government is an increasingly plausible outcome. Turning that into reality means rejecting the idea of getting a Labour government by default.
In most polls, the party enjoys a large and steady lead. But it is not simply a question of mid-term woes for the government. Allies of the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, have been highlighting for months that the Tories’ ratings on the economy have been plunging. As far back as Christmas last year Opinium had the two parties tied over who is best to handle the economy, the Tories’ prized lead reduced to nothing. Other polling companies showed a cross-over a short while after that. YouGov’s tracking of which government would be better at managing the economy has seen an emphatic Tory decline throughout 2021 as the cost of living crisis, inflation and the pressure on wages and living standards hit hard.
That cost of living crisis is a massive driver of the Conservative party’s problems. We have seen the biggest collapse in living standards for decades, affecting millions of people. It is deepening a wages squeeze that has been underway for years. Rishi Sunak’s spring measures did not abolish the wages crisis. Nor will this autumn’s policies of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. Millions of workers are being made to pay by being forced to accept worsened pay levels, alongside attempts to change their working conditions. In other words they are attempting to extract more out of working class people for less.
Just so everyone is clear on their intent, Jacob Rees Mogg has been placed in the key position of Business Secretary. It is safe to assume we are going to see further confrontations.
Faced with the impending calamity of the energy bills price crisis, the government was eventually forced to act. But the measures that Truss and Kwarteng announced do not remove the pre-existing pressures on working class people that led to the wages crisis, the attack on workplace rights and conditions of employment. The pressure on living standards has been building for years and has intensified even before the likelihood of the energy bills crisis. The Bank of England warns of a recession. A budget for the rich this week will intensify the pressure. The Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie has declared that Britain is now the ‘laboratory’ for the ideas of the right wing Institute of Economic Affairs.
So the squeeze on working people is unabated. A protracted national dispute involving all the main unions is underway on the railways, with new strike days due. There are huge national disputes at Royal Mail and BT involving the Communication Workers Union. Other parts of the workforce are balloting or preparing to ballot for action including teachers and school staff, lecturers, firefighters and civil servants.
The present phase of politics involves an open battle to determine who bears the cost of a whole series of problems. We are at a critical point where very many working class people are taking action openly. Their success or otherwise will help determine how much room for manoeuvre the Tories and employers have.
Labour comes together in Liverpool this weekend with all this in the foreground. To some extent we will see the two, quite different responses to one of the most unstable and crisis-ridden phases many of us have lived through. One is the conventional, relatively careful preparation for the next phase of this parliament in the run-up to a general election. Labour will set out new policy positions and the party’s script will evolve. Simultaneously, on the other side of the conference is the industrial side of the labour movement, where trade unionists are involved in the biggest wave of industrial disputes for decades.
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So is there a contradictory process taking place in which a period of economic turmoil means that British politics will drift into a Labour government – that we may see a Labour government elected by default by a British electorate that wants rid of the Conservative party and has lost all trust in their ability to run the economy?
It’s not quite that simple.
For some, sitting tight and letting the Tories fail will appear attractive. The left of the party would warn that a government coming to power in such circumstances could draw the wrong conclusions about how they got there. It would also be bereft of the enthusiasm it would need to provide it with a base if and when it hit trouble.
But in any case a strategy based on caution is a big risk. At every stage where Labour has taken the initiative, such as over the windfall tax and the energy price freeze, it has been able to lead the argument. Where it has sat back it has flagged and become prone to attack.
To get that Labour government, it is in the electoral interests of the Labour party to take a bold line with policies that are big enough to confront the scale of the crises we face.
Simon Fletcher was Campaigns and Elections Adviser to Keir Starmer until 2021 and previously worked as a senior adviser for both Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband.