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‘Rishi Sunak’s Delay in Calling an Election May Help the Conservatives – But it Could Benefit Labour More’

The Conservatives may be hoping that ‘something will turn up’ to ease the inevitable – but they are also giving Labour time to prepare for power and form a bedrock of support, writes Mike Buckley

Labour Leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA/Alamy

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Governments trailing in the polls tend to wait until the last possible moment. Like Gordon Brown in 2010 and John Major in 1997 before him, Rishi Sunak appears to have decided to delay the inevitable in the hope that ‘something will turn up’. 

His Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is already talking up a further ‘fiscal event’ which seems all but certain to include more unfunded tax cuts, despite repeated evidence that what the public wants is investment in the NHS and other struggling public services. 

There may be some wisdom in Sunak going long.

In both 1997 and 2010, the governing party did slightly less badly at the five-year mark than they would have done 10 months earlier. But there is no guarantee that history will repeat itself. The public are more sick of Sunak and his party than they were of Major’s Conservatives or Brown’s New Labour

Rishi Sunak appears to have decided to delay calling an election. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

For Keir Starmer‘s party, the delayed election brings challenges as well as opportunity.

The additional time will help Labour prepare for power. Shadow ministers are meeting with civil servants in readiness for a handover. Labour still has candidates to select in many of its less winnable seats, the list of retiring MPs is yet to be finalised, and candidates selected or appointed. 

Beyond the practical, Labour’s most pressing need is to further solidify its relationship with the public – thinking not just about winning votes on polling day, but about building a bedrock of support that will sustain it through what is likely to be a difficult Parliament. 

Giving Labour pause will be the fact that politics has become more volatile since 1997. Labour lost the ‘Red Wall’ because, in 2015, 2017 and 2019, the Conservatives’ coalition had changed – doing less and less well among affluent, economically right-wing voters with college degrees but better among skilled manual workers and voters without degrees. 

The Conservatives’ new unpopularity is seeing the party lose its new voters without regaining its old ones: a perfect storm. 

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The question is whether Labour’s resurgence in the Red Wall will mark a reversion to type – voters tried the Conservatives once, but won’t make that mistake again – or whether these seats will now swing with every election like a perennial marginal such as Crawley.

If it’s the latter, the UK will become a much more volatile democracy – one in which even very bad defeats like Labour’s 2019 rout can be recovered from in a single term as a matter of course. This presents Labour with a challenge: the extended terms in office won in 1979, 1997 and 2010 maybe a thing of the past, and big wins like 2019 may be more likely to be followed by a big loss unless the party in power meets public expectations. 

Compounding Labour’s challenge is the fact that while all but certain to win – both Labour and Starmer are far more popular than the Conservatives and Sunak – both party and leader are less popular and trusted than previous opposition leaders who successfully took power from the opposition. 

Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all started their premierships well ahead of the predecessors they replaced and with their approval ratings in positive territory. In contrast, while Starmer easily beats Sunak, his ratings are in negative territory – -18 according to Ipsos’ latest count. 

But the public’s reticence is not confined to Starmer. While his party is seen as significantly more competent than the Conservatives, here too Labour is in negative territory – by -14 points to the Conservatives’ -47. 

A different time – then party leaders John Major, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in 1995. Photo: Neil Munns/PA/Alamy

In part, this negativity may reflect lasting voter anger over the Jeremy Corbyn years and Labour’s flight from electability. Even if it is, the party still has to win greater public confidence if not to win the election but to enable it to take the country through what will remain challenging times. 

Labour’s leadership is acutely aware that there are no simple solutions to the country’s plight. 

When Blair came to power with a swiftly growing economy, Labour had to avoid messing things up. This time, the challenge is far greater.

Labour will come to power after 16 years of economic stagnation. Had economic growth continued on its 1955 to 2008 path, GDP per head would now be 39% higher. The UK has not been the only high-income country to have fallen into stagnation, but its fall has been among the steepest

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Similarly, while public services were in a parlous state in 1997, they are far worse now. The ongoing – and permanent (unless things change) – economic harm of Brexit plus labour shortages and lost inward investment add further challenges. 

Labour needs to both effect an economic transformation that will, in turn, enable it to renew public services, and to win public support both for its programme and the time it will take to implement given there are no quick fixes. 

That it understands this challenge is clear. Both Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves have used set-piece speeches to tell a narrative of Conservative failure as the cause of the nation’s ills and to limit expectations of what a Labour government could achieve. 

Reeves has argued that the Conservatives had made four big mistakes: misunderstanding the role of the state in helping to drive growth; austerity; the failure to borrow more during the era of ultra-low interest rates; and Liz Truss’ unfunded tax cuts. Put together, she said, these errors strangled the economy, starved public services, and led to the recent rise in interest rates – adding costs for both government and the public.  

To restore growth, she argued for a new model of economic management guided by three imperatives: stability; “stimulating investment through partnership with business”; and reforms to unlock productivity including reform of the planning system. 

‘The Country has Noticed the Conservatives’ Lack of Levelling Up’

Since Boris Johnson’s 2019 pledge, the public has received more of the same – austerity and higher taxes from the Government and, in many cases, cash-strapped local councils

Starmer used his local elections launch to attack the Conservatives for their failure to ‘level up’ and to temper expectations by arguing that Labour cannot “turn the taps on” to fix councils’ £4 billion funding gap. 

This is all sensible politics, as is Labour’s refusal to make big spending commitments which it knows it would be unable to meet. And yet, the twin challenges remain.

While economists welcome Reeves’ prescriptions – particularly her commitment to reform the planning system – some query whether they will be enough to bring about the transformation required. Once in power, and faced with both real need and public desire for swift change, the pressure to raise spending and taxes will be hard to contain.

There is pressure on Labour not to go into too much detail. Specific pledges can win support and court opposition or raise questions over how they will be paid for – hence Labour’s step away from big commitments such as the £28 billion it had planned to spend on green infrastructure. 

But to win public enthusiasm, as well as benefit from public revulsion at the current Government – and to win public consent for real change to take a full term or more – Labour will need to be more explicit about its plans, priorities and the limits of what can be achieved in the short-term. 

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The stakes are high. Reeves made clear in her speech her fear that, without widely shared economic growth, democracy itself could be in peril. Rebuilding trust in her party is necessary to rebuild public confidence in politics itself. 

The task is not an easy one, but given what is at stake for our country’s economy, public services and faith in democratic politics as the best way to solve collective problems, we should all wish Labour good luck – and seek to play our part in political renewal. 


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