Relying on a Tory leader's unpopularity for gains in the polls can only last for so long

A rightwards lurch to appeal to Tory voters would be electoral suicide, argues Trevor Fisher

Rory O’Kelly raises relevant questions about Keir Starmer’s Labour Party which are intrinsic to, but go well beyond, the poor performance in by-elections of last year. Of course, it is good that the Tory Party is struggling and Labour is ahead in the polls as 2022 opens; but the Tories have options, and can do what they did in 1990 and ditch the leader. As Phil Burton-Cartledge points out in his new book, Falling Down, in November 1990, a Gallup poll found that Kinnock led Thatcher by 46% to 34%. A month later Thatcher was gone, and the polls had Labour on 39% with the Tories on 45%. Kinnock never recovered.

It is more difficult for the Tories in 2022 as voter cynicism is much deeper, so Starmer’s answer seems to be to junk the politics that won him the leadership election in 2020, and position himself slightly to the left of the Tories. As Rory O’Kelly notes, his political stance can be summed up as relying “entirely on the weakness of the Government”. The lack of policy can be overstated. Labour has plenty of policies, but is so devoid of a firm identity Starmer had to write a Fabian pamphlet defining his own.

As a perceptive article in Prospect points out, he has consciously abandoned the soft leftism that brought him brief popularity in 2020. Alan Lockey observes that, “Over the course of the past year, Labour’s moderate right wing (sic) has replaced its soft left as the dominant force within Starmer’s inner circle, culminating in November’s takeover reshuffle… Starmer is turning to a faction in the throes of a deep intellectual crisis” – which Lockey goes on to outline acutely. Starmer shows not merely an addiction to a failed political current (which does not accept it failed: New Labour is fundamentally dogmatic and the dogmatism is catching); early Starmerite dogmas include the curious belief, noted by O’Kelly, that voters who vote Labour are defective – having voted for Corbyn – and that the target for success is voters who vote Tory.

O’Kelly’s analysis of the by-elections is acute. Corbyn’s by-election performance was poor, and he lost appeal after 2017. But the results he looks at since 2021 have shown an alarming decline in Labour voting. Partly this is tactical voting, and this will not go away. But, as O’Kelly says, the core vote of people who would always vote Labour, even when it made more sense to vote for another party to get rid of the Tories, is weakening. In terms of real voters, in every by-election in 2021 Labour’s number of actual voters declined. And, as O’Kelly writes, when Starmerites discuss ‘core Labour’, it appears that the core vote for Starmer is not Labour at all: it is people who used to vote Labour but now vote Tory.

In part this is due to Brexit, which the front bench think is a non-subject to the point where Rachel Reeves has said that Labour will not call for a third referendum even if the majority of British voters want it. (The idea that this would be a third is totally alien within the Westminster bubble: Labour’s ability to erase the 1975 vote is alarmingly effective.) The reason for embracing Brexit and claiming the task is to make it work is the obsession with the so-called Red Wall voters, who LOTO think are the key to victory. Deborah Mattinson is now Starmer’s director of strategy, and her book, Beyond the Red Wall, has the subtitle ‘Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won, and What will Happen Next’. All three statements are wrong, but the first is the major defect – had Labour won all the so-called Red Wall seats, the Tories would still have had a majority. The loss of Scotland, a topic now hidden in the same black hole as the 1975 referendum, is more important – especially if Starmer wants to save the UK.

But as O’Kelly points out, LOTO now thinks the Tory voters of 2019 are more important than Labour voters, and this ties in with the anti-Corbyn obsession. As he says, since his election “Starmer has been anxious to avoid any concessions to what people voted Labour for in 2019”, discussion of which needs more than a short article. This misreading of the data involves a refusal to accept that Corbyn’s policies were popular and achieved more vote share in both 2017 and 2019 than either Brown or Miliband. And the logical consequence is to accept the manifesto of 2019 contained much that was sensible, though not all, and that the failure of Labour goes back to the 2001 election. No sign of this dawning in LOTO.

Reviving the Third Way

As O’Kelly points out, the two groups most enthusiastic about Labour have been socialists (now the enemy within) and the young. As the Starmer agenda develops, not only might these groups withdraw from voting Labour, but all progressives are likely to abandon the party. The assumption that real Labour Core Voters can be treated with disdain while Tory renegades are wooed not only runs the risk of falling between two stools, but reruns the New Labour strategy of the nineties which took the working class for granted while seeking to win the support of Tories. Switching to a workerism which ignores the reality that progressive politics is more likely to be young and metropolitan is not the answer: there has to be a multi-faceted approach. What we now see, as David Parker rightly states, is that “Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have two things in common: a lack of strategic thinking and a failure to grasp the prime importance of building a coalition broad enough to remove the Tories”. Neither Labour’s left nor right are fit for purpose: and we are back with the Third Way perspective of the early 1990s.

Immmediately this means opposing the proposal to start a new left-wing party, which the Tory press – including David Aaronovitch in the Times – are supporting. A principled broad left initiative must revolve around a revived soft left able to resist New Labourism, on the basis of a refusal to allow Labour to be a lesser evil than the Tories. This means there has to be a firm opposition to a split to the left which, while unlikely to win many seats, could siphon off enough votes to hand seats to the Tories. The task is also to reject a switch to a failed Blair-Brown current which lost votes in the twenty years from 2001 to 2021 – losses which accelerated in the 2021 by elections.

Politics in 2022 may have so far been dominated by Johnson’s severe problems, but it would be foolish to ignore Labour’s problems. A pitch for the centre-right to attract Tory voters is a dead end. Labour has to base its electoral appeal on being a party of the centre-left. There is no future in trying to be the lesser of two evils.

3 COMMENTS

  1. The electoral state of the Labour Party; continued

    Following the Birmingham Erdington bye-election it may be a good moment to look again at the state of Labour Party. The figures, in the same format as in my last article, are:
    Birmingham Erdington:
    Year Vote % share place Turnout

    2017 21,571 58.0 1 57.2%
    2019 17,720 50.3 1 53.3%
    2022 9,413 55.5 1 27.0%.

    The Party leadership sees this as a marker of progress, in line with recent opinion polling, and there is some basis for this. For the second time in six attempts Labour has exceeded its 2019 vote share. It still seems, however, that however desperate the state of the Conservative government its disillusioned supporters are still tending to stay home rather than vote Labour. One can see that Labour’s relatively best results are still occurring where the turnout is lowest.

    It is clear that 2017 is still the high-water mark for Labour in this century. It is interesting to speculate as to what would have happened if the Parliamentary Labour Party, and subsequently the new leadership, had tried to build on this instead of pulling back from it.

    I remarked before on the lack of interest shown by the leadership in trying to appeal to 2017 and 2019 Labour voters. In a comment following from Trevor Fisher’s response to my article Paul Martin suggested that it was natural to focus on potential rather than actual Labour voters. He seemed to be following the New Labour argument that it is safe to ignore one’s supporters because they have ‘nowhere else to go’. This did not in fact work out very well in practice. The more important point however is that the leadership’s attitude to Labour voters is now one not of indifference but of active hostility.

    We should consider the truly remarkable claim by Rachel Reeves MP that it is positively beneficial for the Labour Party to lose supporters if they are the wrong sort of supporters. Her thinking seems to be that losing its existing voters will make the Party more attractive to people who have not voted Labour before. This is rather like the archetypical man going through a mid-life crisis who decides to get rid of his boring old wife in order to replace her by a younger and more attractive model, only to discover that the first part of his project is easier to carry through successfully than the second.

    It is quite likely of course that the Labour Party is in fact gaining some new voters to replace the ones it is losing. It is probable however that they are fewer in number and almost certain that they are less enthusiastic and committed. The figures quoted here and in my previous article certainly seem to point in this direction.

  2. Why wouldn’t you give more priority in re-engaging the voters that you lost rather than the ones that you kept, especially two or more years away from a General Election? As a thought experiment, try reversing the formula – “Let’s expend maximum effort now on those who already support us.” Labour does need to know in detail where the faultlines lie within that mass of lost votes because it will subsequently need to “make its offer” to the whole electorate with a reasonable expectation of an overall majority. Trevor’s line of criticism seems to be the age-old whine of the siblings when their lost sheep brother is welcomed home – “why aren’t you making such a fuss of me?”. (Matthew 18: 10-14).

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