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Artillery Row

Keir has much to fear

Keir Starmer should enjoy the election campaign because he may not enjoy the demands of power

According to current opinion polls, the Labour Party looks on course for a commanding victory at the coming General Election — greater even than that enjoyed by Tony Blair. However, If a Labour government is formed, some strange, but all-too-familiar political dynamics may appear. 

Without being premature, it is worth looking at the sort of voters that the Labour Party will need to win a general election for the first time since 2005, and how they will hold them together. 

The path to power for Sir Keir Starmer lies in the votes of people who voted Conservative in 2019. Not just first time Tories in 2019, but also committed Conservative voters who have trusted the Tories — and have been very suspicious of Labour — for many years. 

To win over these people, Starmer has had to upend Labour orthodoxies, and the promises he made to the Labour Party in his leadership campaign. After testing to destruction the idea that Labour can win from the left — with a magical coalition of the oppressed and non-voters — the party is campaigning from the centre, as it must to win an election. National security, cutting immigration, and securing the public finances are the themes of Labour’s campaign so far. Decidedly Tory in style, this is designed to win over voters in the post-industrial north and midlands, as well as Tories in the commuter belt and the shires. While doing this, Sir Keir must also hold together his core vote, which is becoming much more ideologically left wing. 

With opinion polls as they are, this looks like a luxury problem. Who cares if there are factions in the Labour Party coalition when they have 450 MPs, and both the Conservative Party and their former rivals in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalists, are in disarray? The experience of Conservatives in office since 2019 should give them reason to, and it highlights how a large victory can be revealed to be much more fragile than it seems at first. 

Many people understandably felt that the Conservative Party was on the cusp of entrenching itself as the British political hegemon, with perhaps a decade of power to come after Boris Johnson’s election victory in 2019. Instead of becoming a British equivalent of Japan’s LDP — in power almost continuously in Japan’s post-war democratic era — it looks set for a generational defeat. 

Some of the signs for such a defeat were hiding beneath the 80-seat majority all along. The majority was flattered by the fact that the Brexit Party — now Reform UK — did not stand in the 317 seats that the Conservative Party held in 2019. On top of that, in Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party picked a leader almost uniquely repellent to the professional middle class and skilled working class in England, that the Conservatives won over a much bigger number of seats than they had expected to. 

It is unwise to campaign to cut immigration and taxes, and increase both of them

This gave the Conservative Party a broader and stranger coalition of voters, and indeed MPs, than it really knew what to do with. Boris Johnson’s government did not succeed in its Disraeli-inspired ambitions of uniting the working man and the propertied classes with a new populist agenda. Instead of pursuing the common interests of the voters who wanted to get Brexit done, the Conservative Party and the political class obsessed over a misunderstood caricature of the Tories’ new northern voters. The “Red Wall” became an unhelpful shorthand for a kind of nativist socialism, apparently unique to England’s post-industrial provinces, instead of an observation that the people of Bolsover are in fact very similar to the people of Chippenham. Armed with this misunderstanding, the Conservative Party pursued policies which failed to win over their new voters, and alienated many of their old ones. It is unwise to campaign to cut immigration and taxes, and increase both of them. 

This is where things might prove tricky for Sir Keir. If he is elected following the collapse of his political rivals, rather than on a wave of popular support, contradictions may appear in his broad, but thin electoral coalition rapidly. This could reveal itself across a whole swathe of different policies, but a few deserve specific attention. 

Housing, for example, is an area where Labour has campaigned for increasing housebuilding, despite opposing the Conservatives’ planning reforms as a so-called “developers’ charter” to concrete over the country. If in office, the Labour Party will represent dozens of seats whose voters are opposed to local housebuilding, and who will lobby their new MPs accordingly. It is unlikely that Sir Keir will want to alienate his new voters immediately, which is why he is pursuing a likely forlorn policy of building new towns, rather than enacting wholesale planning reform, even if it pits them against his core vote. 

Contradictions in Starmer’s promises are arising day by day

A similar picture might emerge on fiscal policy. Contradictions in Starmer’s promises are arising day by day. While pledging to continue roughly the same taxation and spending plans as the Conservatives, Starmer has also promised to increase the powers of the Office for Budget Responsibility, and has made pledges like increasing defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. Would that be possible under a stronger OBR? Tax cuts will be a distant dream, and Labour seem more likely to reward their new professional voters by taxing their savings and pension contributions in order to apply a sticking plaster to the NHS, instead.

While pledging to cut immigration — essential to winning over Tory voters — Sir Keir will have a large cohort of ideologically pro-immigration voters to manage, many of whom would have supported his past campaigns to retain freedom of movement with the EU, and endorsed his campaigns against deporting failed asylum seekers. If the OBR will not allow his government to bail out Britain’s universities, which are so strapped for cash, he might instead choose to expand the numbers of international students they can recruit, and reverse the Tories’ limits on dependents to boost demand. This would threaten his promise to cut migration, but would he rather raise tuition fees and burn bridges with left wing voters instead? To govern is to choose, and this is one indication of the sort of difficult choices he will have to make, with an electorate who are disillusioned with politics in general. 

 Even without probing Labour’s dangerous energy policies, and the continued internal strife the party is suffering over the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is clear that the party will struggle with the demands of government. Bringing together and maintaining a broad electoral coalition is, of course, the reality of British governance, but only to a point. If the Conservatives have any sense, they will spend the next month breaking apart this coalition and turning their interests against each other, to sow as much doubt and instability in the Labour Party as possible. They should know how to do it, as it is exactly what happened to them in the last five years.

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