Starmer’s Remaking Of The British Labour Party

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Starmer giving a speech outlining Labour’s five missions for government (Image Credit: Skynews)

As Britain prepares for its upcoming general election, attention is turning toward the parties and their proposed solutions to what seems to have been a five years wracked with crises, scandals, and a pandemic. Tony Blair recently aptly described ‘the British situation as being perilous’ and the electorate seems to agree, with more than three in four ​​Britons believing Britain is becoming a worse place to live. The cost of living crisis, fueled by sticky supply side inflation and rising interest rates, has resulted in living standards shrinking for five of the past six quarters and the slowest economic recovery from COVID-19 among major advanced economies, with only recession-hit Germany having fared as badly. Furthermore, the governing Conservative party has struggled with internal strife, having replaced two prime ministers thus far and facing a still continuing rebellion from its own MPs. 

As the main opposition party, Labour has benefited from this precarious situation the country has found itself in, enjoying a bump in polls that place it twenty points higher than the Conservatives. It had demonstrated a strong showing in by-elections so far, recording the second largest swing in by-election history of 23.7% in Selby and Ainsty from the Conservatives. Furthermore, in the 2023 local elections, Labour also increased its councilors by 537 and councils by 22, becoming the largest party of local government. On the surface, all seems to be rosy for a Labour party intent on coming into power after a fourteen-year hiatus but a deeper look into Labour’s strategy reveals fractures that could possibly threaten its resurgence. 

Having faced a rout in the 2019 general election, recording its lowest number of MPs since the 1930s, then party leader Corbyn resigned his post and triggered a leadership contest which resulted in Sir Keir Starmer taking the post. Starmer and his backbench have since overseen significant changes in their election strategy, aiming to disassociate the party from Corbyn and his policies in the hope of appealing to more of the electorate. But what has this actually meant for Labour? 

For Starmer the issue is clear, he says ‘If we simply appeal to the same people who voted for us last time or to our party members, we’ll lose the next election—and that’s the blunt truth of it’. The crux of the issue for him is that the electorate did not see the Labour party as electable and it must moderate its policies if it is to stand a chance. This has included embracing traditionally Conservative dogmas in an attempt to court the Red Wall votes it lost in 2019; Labour’s overt five missions exemplify this new strategy, promising to: “make Britain’s streets safer” and “secure the highest sustained growth in the G7” through a ‘“sound” fiscal approach and “credible” industrial strategy. This focus on growth, investment, and a charm offensive toward business is all a part of Starmers Labour and seemingly is resonating with voters, as Labour leads the Conservatives on ‘growing the economy’ by 7%, as well as raising £2m from business donors who have not backed the party in recent years. Furthermore, by toeing a more moderate party line Labour also seems to have wooed Conservative voters, with 39% of those that voted Conservative in 2019 stating they would be open to voting for Labour. 

Starmer has also strived to ensure that the Labour Party has not been bogged down in persisting social issues that have historically gone a long way in shaping preconceptions surrounding Labour. Brexit has been all but removed from the national conversation for Labour, allowing for an air of competence in the face of an ever-continuous ideological crusade of Eurosceptic Tory MPs. There has been a return to center on issues pertaining to gender and immigration, with notable examples of ditching self-ID laws and promising to succeed where the “government has lost control of immigration”. A normalization in social issues for a party that was largely seen as too ideological under Corbyn allows it to present itself as returning to an era of technocrats and moderate policies relative to the populist and divisive rhetoric the Conservative Party had increasingly begun to embrace in recent times, characterized aptly by the Foreign Secretary’s clash with the so-called “tofu eating wokerati”. 

So far Labour’s strategy of committing to little and painting itself in broad strokes seems to have been successful when looking at the polls but the question is whether its popularity comes from the failures of the government or its own appeal. His five missions, despite sounding well in theory are light on specifics and leave much to imagination. Does making the NHS ‘fit for the modern age’ involve privatization and how exactly are we to ensure economic growth and equal opportunity to everyone when Starmer promises not another pound of public spending increases? Thus the largest criticism by far is that Starmer’s Labour stands for little, with 50% of adults stating they do not know what Starmer stands for. He has also gone back on all ten of his leadership pledges resulting in less than 35% of the public seeing him as honest, trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people. Labour has traditionally been a worker’s party yet their reluctance to support recent strikes as well as not allowing frontbenchers to join the picket lines has jeopardized their relationships with the unions, so much so that, Unite (the second largest union in the UK) recently held a vote on whether to disaffiliate from Labour, albeit they voted to keep their relationship. The party’s shift to the center has also alienated its left wing, with Labour losing over 90,000 members in 2021 and the Green Party (typically seen as gaining votes from disillusioned Labour voters) recording its best-ever performance in local elections.

By ditching Labour’s inherent socialist policies and left-wing views Starmer has aimed to alienate itself from its Corbynite era, citing the disastrous results for the party in 2019. Yet, in 2017, under the same Corbyn leadership, the party gained 40% of the popular vote – only 2% less than the Conservatives, showing that the manifesto and policies may not have been the sole reason for the performance in 2019 but rather the persistent anti-semitism allegations in the media and a futile non-acceptance of Brexit. Starmer’s strategy has worked so far, in the face of a floundering and disunited government that is largely unpopular and has given the Labour Party a real shot at government one way or another. However, in doing so he has alienated a core base of the party for votes which may return to their ideological roots when they are next in opposition. Thus, Starmer must evaluate carefully whether his strategy will be one that results in a short-term stint or whether Labour will become a real “party of government” as he wishes. 

Written by Sarp Basaran

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