No one can doubt that Keir Starmer has been greatly needed in cutting through the chaos of ever-changing COVID-19 policies. As former Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, his experience shows at the dispatch box every time. That being said, as another Labour Party conference passes, we are no clearer on what Starmer’s Labour party now stands for.
Starmer supporters will tell you that Labour does not have to take any clear policy stances at this current moment. This might be true. The latest Opinium poll shows that 42 per cent of the public would support Labour in a general election, compared to 39 per cent supporting the Conservatives; the first time Labour has led polls since July 2019. Any political pundit will always caveat a public opinion poll by rightly stating the uncertainty of such data and therefore this poll should also be treated carefully by Labour supporters.
The recent success of Labour is not due to the party’s actions – rather, it is due to the Conservatives’ failures. The same Opinium poll shows that Starmer’s approval ratings have not increased dramatically in recent weeks; 55 per cent of respondents imagine Starmer could be Prime Minister compared to 52 per cent in July. Therefore, the change in fortunes seems largely to be down to the perceived failure of the government’s handling over COVID-19 since the summer. Polling suggests 50 per cent of the public disapprove of the government’s handling of COVID-19, down from an approval rating of almost 70 per cent when the country faced its first wave at the end of March. Therefore, one can say with reasonable certainty that Labour’s current favourability polling is not based on any new vision for the UK. It is largely down to not being in government, thus bearing no responsibility for policy errors in handling COVID-19.
Starmer and Labour’s reoccurring position on the decisions taken by the government has been predictable; agree with the sentiment of the government’s actions but criticise details such as timing or efficacy. This can be seen in reaction to the easing of lockdown restrictions or with the chaos of test and trace. Undeniably, this is an essential part of the scrutiny that the Opposition has to provide to ensure that the government is forced to move quicker and act better. That is the easy part of Opposition.
The more complex task for any Opposition is to provide its own vision for the country to challenge the government’s own. So far, we’ve had reactionary policies to the latest issues, whether it be ensuring all schools teach black British history, or calling for a furlough extension for the hospitality industry. In other words, no coherent policy on education, the economy or the environment – just reactions. For a party that is now “serious about winning”, it is hard to tell how they are planning to make serious gains from their current position of 202 constituencies to win an additional 124 seats in order to scrape a majority.
In May, there was a glimmer of some sort of vision from Labour policymakers. Shadow Business Secretary and former Labour Leader Ed Miliband presented Labour’s Green New Deal. Here there was the start of a strategy that aimed to tackle unemployment while dealing with fears of a slowing economy and a withering planet. Labour’s Green New Deal consultation is still ongoing, but its starting ideas are ambitious: reducing and suspending executive pay and dividend payouts, a cash incentive for cycling to work, and taking ownership of the fossil fuel industry to manage its decline are among some of the proposed ideas.
If the Green New Deal could provide Labour with a bold vision, would this vision be politically viable? This summer brought the results of the inquest into Labour’s defeat. The personal dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, antisemitism and a wobbly stance on Brexit cannot be ignored, but the manifesto was highlighted as an issue for voters. Free broadband, two billion trees planted, and nationalising key industries were all popular stand-alone issues, but together they were seen as unrealistic and unaffordable. If Labour’s vision is going to be based on the bold policies of a Green New Deal, it runs the same risk. Undeniably, we are now in a different economic climate where bolder policy actions may be supported, but considering the huge electoral challenge Labour faces if it aims to win in 2024, is it worth the risk?
If and when Labour decides to build a coherent programme of policies, it must make a choice; does it aim to win back the traditionally Labour northern seats, or does it go for middle-class England where Starmer is polling well? Pleasing the two are not mutually exclusive but each demographic requires a different political strategy. Looking at the 2017 election, when Brexit turned out not to be a pivotal issue for voters, Labour’s left-wing manifesto scored highly with those in semi-skilled, unskilled manual occupations and the unemployed. The Conservatives were able to pull together a working majority by banking on the votes of the skilled professionals and retirees with a less radical manifesto.
Yet in Tony Blair’s 1997 election win, 59 per cent of the managerial and professional voters voted Labour compared to 31 per cent of low-skilled manual workers. This underlies the choice that Labour policymakers must make. If they go with the bold policies that are gaining traction within the party as shown with the Green New Deal, it risks alienating professional and managerial voters whose support Starmer has, so far, attracted. A centre-left manifesto sharing similarities with the Conservatives will similarly risk alienating voters in traditionally held Labour seats that have already shown an appetite for anti-establishment politics.
The party conference was an opportunity to show in which direction Starmer wants to take Labour. Instead, he used the conference as a centre for his socially conservative speech. He tried to show voters that he and the Labour party is as patriotic as the Conservatives. While it was preferable to the chaos of voting by the hands of party delegates that has decided previous policy on a whim, it benefits Starmer more than the Labour party as a whole. The majority of people still believe that the party is not ready to form the next government. The speech may make Keir Starmer more trustworthy and electable, but for a party that currently has no policy direction, it was a missed opportunity.
So as Labour supporters and possible swing voters may be comforted by Starmer’s rise in the polls, any excitement from the left should be reserved at this stage. It is not clear what direction would provide Labour with a nationwide victory. To that end, Labour must start establishing a coherent policy programme and electoral strategy if it wants to win 124 seats in four years. The current tactic of relying on Starmer’s personal brand as well as the multiple failures of this Conservative government will not be enough to give Labour victory in the next election.