Ian Austin

Keir Starmer still has a big mountain to climb

This period doesn’t feel at all like the run-up to Tony Blair’s landslide Labour victory in 1997

April 20, 2023 10:32

The economy in recession, inflation in double digits and rising interest rates causes misery for homeowners. A tired Tory Party looks like it has run out of ideas after more than a decade in power. They are so divided they force out their leader. The chancellor has taken over but MPs look like they’ve given up.

The opposition seems to be getting its act together under a new leader who takes on the left to drag Labour back to the centre ground and races ahead in the polls.

It’s hard to find anyone who thinks the Tories can win yet another election. But John Major surprised everyone, beating Neil Kinnock to scrape back into Downing Street in 1992.

So, however promising it looks for Labour right now, it is too soon to write the Tories off.
Tony Blair made winning elections look easy. But the truth is, it is very difficult in what is a small “c” conservative country. Labour needs exceptional leadership: only three of its leaders have ever won a general election. Indeed, it’s now nearly 50 years since a Labour leader won an election without being called Tony Blair.

Mid-term leads are not unusual. Kinnock had also overtaken Margaret Thatcher in 1986 but lost the following year. Even Ed Miliband went ahead of David Cameron’s Conservatives for a year before losing in 2015.

The Corbyn catastrophe leaves Labour with a huge mountain to climb. Just winning back the seats he lost is a tall order in itself. Some were lost by just a few hundred votes and ought to be within reach. Others, such as my old seat in Dudley, were lost by more than 10,000 votes. Even winning all those only gets you as far as Ed Miliband’s defeat. Labour also needs to win seats lost as far back as 2010.

Corbyn’s lamentable leadership and Brexit were the icing on the cake, but lots of Labour’s traditional seats in the towns of the Midlands and the North had been moving away from the party for years. Winning them back can’t be taken for granted.

There are inner-city constituencies, university towns, seats in outer London and in the south that will help, but Starmer must still break all records to win an election. He needs a bigger swing than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 to get a majority of just one seat, but even his biggest fans would not pretend that he has either Blair’s political skills or his appeal.

And with Labour’s lead built on the government’s mistakes and unpopularity rather than enthusiasm for its own leader and vision, this doesn’t feel like the period before Blair’s historic victory either.

By the year before the 1997 election, people such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Jack Straw had become household names and were setting the agenda with new ideas for the country. Blair himself was uncompromising and ruthless, eliminating every barrier to voting Labour, and his instincts were completely in tune with the public.

Keir is much more cautious, compromising between the public and his party, so progress is painfully slow. “Our lead is soft and we still don’t have much of an agenda,” one member of the shadow cabinet told the Telegraph last week.

This might be why Labour strategist Paul Richards said recently that “the difficult truth, one which should keep us all awake at night, is that for all the progress made since 2020, Labour has yet to seal the deal with the British people”.

Next month’s local elections will be grim for the government but recent polls suggest Labour’s lead might be narrowing a little. If the PM can make progress on his pledges to sort out the economy, deal with the small boats and NHS waiting lists, things might improve further.

Seats such as Barnet, Finchley and Golders Green or Bury North will help determine next year’s election. The legacy of the last one explains why both parties will be working hard to woo the Jewish community.

Both the home secretary and the Labour leader spoke at last month’s CST dinner. Labour’s Wes Streeting and Liz Kendall have spoken at events organised by Jewish Care and the JLC.
Labour wants a renewed relationship with the Jewish community to show how far things have moved on from the extremism that poisoned the party under Corbyn. The Conservatives are determined to show the opposite, reminding people that whatever he says now, Keir Starmer supported Corbyn’s leadership.

Is it possible for Labour to win next year? Of course. The government’s unpopularity has made it possible, perhaps even probable. But is it yet certain? Definitely not.

Lord Austin is a life peer and former Labour MP

April 20, 2023 10:32

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