Amongst many things this year, the Labour party’s leadership contest has suffered badly as a consequence of Britain’s war with COVID 19. It began following a calamitous general election defeat, and will end in similar fashion. There will be no ‘special conference’ to announce the result, instead a ‘scaled back event’ with half the pomp.
According to polls, it is likely that Keir Starmer, will win the contest that comes to a close on Saturday 4th April. This win will have less to do with his campaign — and will have more to do with history repeating itself. Let me talk you through a recipe for electoral success.
Every few years, British political parties are accused of leaning far too much on either side of the political spectrum, and become prone to reinventing themselves. When Tony Blair ended more than a decade of Conservative government in 1997, he did so thanks to his reinvention of the Labour party’s image. ‘New Labour’ was Blair’s attempt at revolutionising the party and learning from the success of Thatcherism.
David Cameron too, ended over a decade of Labour government in 2010, by reinventing the image of his party. In fact, Cameron mentions how he embraced the view that he was the ‘Heir to Blair’ in his memoir ‘For the Record’, in which he recalls learning valuable lessons from Blair when becoming Conservative leader.
Both Blair and Cameron were tasked with the responsibility of transforming the electoral fate of their parties, and both succeeded.
Starmer does remind me of Blair and Cameron, much to his chagrin. He has the potential to ‘earn’ his likability, just as they did when becoming leader of their prospective parties.
In recent years, Labour has reached its tipping point with the electorate. Many feel that Jeremy Corbyn has ruined the party’s reputation as a serious electoral contender. Though Labour has drastically lost its support across the country including its traditional voters, I am not here to point fingers at Corbyn, or critique his five years as leader. Corbyn has led from the heart, and his tenure as leader has been characterised by his sheer passion to support ordinary, working people. Sometimes ‘successful’ politics are not always simultaneous with earnest politics, and Corbyn will thereafter be aligned with the latter.
It is however, the time for Labour’ to reinvent themselves as a political party. Tomorrow, Starmer may have the chance to do so. If he is to become Labour’s ‘21st century Blair‘ or alternative to Cameron, there are a few things he will need to do.
Since 2015, the main criticism of Labour has been that they’ve veered too far left of the political spectrum and in doing so have destroyed the party’s electoral potential.
Clearly, Starmer will need to drastically change the party’s image. Labour’s politics need to be re-imagined, without overtly leaning to one side of the political spectrum. Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge back in February, Starmer expressed his apathy for declaring his left/right loyalty, stating he did not need to ‘hug Corbyn or Blair to make a decision‘.
There has been some trepidation about whether ‘Labour could die if a new leader shifts the party to the centre‘, but there is enough evidence to disprove these qualms. Shortly before Cameron became leader of the Conservative party in 2005, he described himself as a ‘modern, compassionate Conservative‘, a ‘liberal Conservative’ and ‘not a deeply ideological person‘.
We know that this worked for Cameron, and a reimagining of Labour may work for Starmer.
Labour and the Conservatives have been leading British politics since the mid twentieth century, but recently Labour has been ridiculed for its inability to hold ground electorally. Whilst the party has consistently held the Conservative party to account for the past few years, this has not reflected well. The Conservative government have become increasingly strident in their ridicule of the opposition, believing that Labour are no longer a political threat. This is the problem.
How do we know when the opposition is ripe to take over government? When the party in charge, feels threatened by them.
Currently, Labour have struggled to evoke this. This was a key marker for Blair and Cameron, when they led their opposition to electoral success. This will be one of Starmer’s biggest challenges, should he become leader.
No doubt, Labour has lost the trust of its voters. This was reflected in the December 2019 general election, where many Labour heartlands were lost to the Conservatives. Whilst youth activism has soared in the party (56% of voters in 2019 aged between 18-24), Labour has lost touch with their traditional voters. Starmer will be responsible for reconciling voters; winning back traditional voters without disillusioning young people, who have aligned themselves with Labour thanks to Corbyn.
Labour supporters are desperate for the party to head in a different direction. The other standing leadership candidates, Rebecca Long Bailey and Lisa Nandy have also held strong campaigns, but have been criticised as still too left wing to turn around the party’s electoral performance.
Starmer has the potential to return Labour to its former glory as a serious electoral contender. I will not yet say return to power — because that has its own challenges. Once leader, Starmer will enter another contest to prove that he can contend with Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who at the time of writing, is very popular with the electorate.
Starmer will win this leadership contest.
Thereafter, he will have to prove that he is a transformative force for Labour – a potential prime minister and not just a party leader.