What will it take for Labour to win the next general election?
Image courtesy of Jordhan Madec via Unsplash.

The Labour Party has been lost for many years. Since the success of Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government, the party has experienced an erosion of their core voter base, as well as deeper divisions within the party itself.

In 2019, the Labour Party lost more seats in Parliament than in the last two general elections combined, the most significant loss the party has faced since 1935. With the new leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, there is a huge opportunity for Labour to not only recover, but perhaps even win the next general election after years of division, tension and controversy.

The Labour Party has been one of the two main parties in the UK’s political system for nearly 100 years. This means that if Labour are not in government, they still play an important role as the official opposition, who are granted priority in holding the government accountable through procedures such as Prime Minister’s Questions. The leader of the Labour Party is thus the leader of the opposition, and so becomes just as well known as the Prime Minister. Their performances in Parliament are intrinsic to their future electoral success, acting as a type of ‘advertisement’ for their skills as a possible future Prime Minister.

Throughout history, it seems that there is a pattern of an incumbent party being voted out after a major event or crisis, and the opposition party gaining a landslide majority. For example, despite his success in the Second World War, Churchill lost the 1945 general election to Attlee’s Labour party. Similarly, in 2010, Cameron’s Conservative Party won the election after the Global Financial Crisis, which took place towards the end of over a decade of Labour rule.

Rejecting socialism?

The association of the Labour Party with socialism has become increasingly controversial. During the Cold War, the West rallied around principles of capitalism and liberalism, seeing radical socialism as dangerous and threatening due to its association with the Soviet Union. This ‘fear of socialism’ has been instilled across Western countries and is still apparent today, with ‘socialist’ almost being used as an insult. Since global capitalism has been accepted as an international norm, it seems that there may no longer be room for socialist governments. 

Labour also suffers from particular media mockery in comparison to other parties. The UK’s media landscape is notoriously biased towards the right, and so are often less critical of the Conservative Party. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which includes The Daily Mail and The Sun, has particular influence over voting intention. Some well-known examples of this include the infamous ‘Ed Miliband Bacon Sandwich’ photograph and the constant antagonization of Corbyn, with headlines such as “don’t chuck Britain in the cor-bin”. 

This quite clearly explains the differences in success for different Labour leaders in elections. The greatest success the Labour Party has had is under Blair, who did not only shy away from the party’s left-wing roots, but completely rejected them. Blair’s government, despite coming to a controversial end, was undoubtedly the most successful Labour government ever – yet, it is also the least left-wing Labour government we’ve ever seen. 

We can also understand, then, why Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was often viewed so negatively. Corbyn is part of the more radical, left-wing faction of the Labour Party, and previously made his name as being a more rebellious backbencher during Blair’s leadership. As leader, it seemed Corbyn was firmly placing Labour back on the left of the political spectrum. He consistently performed badly in opinion polls and approval ratings; with a 60% disapproval rating in his first few months of leadership and 61% of the public viewing him as ‘dislikeable’.

In the 2019 General Election, which was called after a period of Parliamentary deadlock over Brexit negotiations, the Labour Party launched a manifesto full of large-scale, radical changes. These included the nationalisation of certain industries, the abolition of university fees, and a second referendum on Brexit. Labour lost 60 seats in the election, many of which were part of the Northern ‘red wall’ of safe Labour seats. The particularly confused and weak stance on Brexit was of course important in Labour’s subsequent loss, but perhaps what was even more apparent was the huge rejection of socialism that took place in the voting booths 

Starmer’s challenges

The election of Sir Keir Starmer as the new leader was met with the greatest challenge for the Labour Party yet. With Brexit being practically forgotten in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Starmer was elected in a time where holding the government accountable has never been more important. 

A former lawyer and MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Starmer is viewed as ‘soft left’; a leader who wouldn’t completely abandon the policy proposals of Corbynism, but who would attempt to build greater unity and consensus within the party. Within the unprecedented context of the pandemic, Starmer promised to “engage constructively with the government” rather than overtly criticise every action possible. A recent opinion poll has recorded 39% of respondents viewing his performance as leader well, while 37% think he is performing badly.

Starmer has attempted to take stronger stances on issues – in particular surrounding antisemitism – within the Labour Party. In November 2020 Starmer banned Corbyn from the party, only to reinstate his membership less than twenty days later. In a time where the public were exhausted by a frenzy of political U-turns from the Conservative government, it seemed that Starmer was no better.

Similarly, Starmer disappointed many with his comments on the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, which he regretfully called a ‘moment’. Speaking on an LBC call-in show, he criticised how the statue of Edward Colston was toppled down in Bristol, saying that it should have been removed in a more democratic fashion. 

With this, it is debatable whether Starmer really has what it takes. The nation is practically on its knees, begging for a brighter future. In positioning himself as centre-left, Starmer may fare better than his predecessor Corbyn, but it may not be enough for a Labour victory. 

Focus on patriotism

This victory, according to Starmer’s policy advisors, may be possible with a focus on ‘patriotism’ as a key message in future political campaigns. This, at face value, may seem quite nonsensical considering the times we are currently living in. The UK is at a loss, grieving over 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, and is beginning to suffer from the repercussions of Brexit. Patriotism can also have quite negative connotations. There is a fine line between being patriotic and being xenophobic or nationalist, and some Labour MPs have expressed that this political stance may alienate BAME and young voters, who constitute Labour’s prolonged supporter base. 

In a recent YouGov Poll, only 5% of respondents considered the Labour Party to be ‘very’ patriotic, whilst 41% considered they were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ patriotic. However, we may just be misinterpreting what is meant by patriotism, and a new definition of what we should be proud of may be the perfect antidote to the past tumultuous years in British politics. After taking many lukewarm positions since becoming leader, this could actually be Starmer’s most decisive yet.

But, with this focus, is Starmer attempting to transform (or completely change) the Labour Party? With the pandemic signalling the possibility of a change in government, Starmer is of course the most obvious candidate for the next Prime Minister. Yet, this issue surrounding what patriotism really means is only worsening the sense that the Labour Party do not know what they’re doing. If this continues, Labour may continue to alienate its voters. In the times we are living in, where clear messages are as important as ever, Labour will not be able to succeed if voters still cannot make sense of the direction it is going in.