Henry Raikes provides an analysis of the Labour Party's future prospects.
It is an adage recited ad nauseam by political commentators of varying ideological stripes that the Labour Party consciously abandoned Britain’s working-class in the lead-up to the 2019 general election on the issue of Brexit, an abandonment which directly caused their electoral defeat. Some have even begun to inscribe the party’s epitaph, citing a ‘terminal decline’ in the party’s appeal in traditional working-class constituencies. It cannot, of course, be denied that the Corbyn Project, Brexit and the crushing defeat of 2019 have brought to boil longstanding grievances and resentments from within both the Labour electorate and the party membership. Nor can it be ignored that ten years of Conservative rule has been answered by the lowest number of seats won by a Labour Party since 1935. Confronting and responding to these grievances and resentments should, and doubtless do, figure highly on Keir Starmer’s immediate political agenda.
Yet instead of sullenly despairing over the newly-daubed bricks of the ‘Blue Wall’ and administering the last rites to the party, Labour must look constructively and pragmatically to the future and conceive of the past decade as part of a regenerative process which will culminate in a return to government in 2024. There are three chief reasons to be hopeful that the 2024 election can be won by Labour: the decline in the political importance of Brexit after the end of the transition period; the importance of each party’s post-COVID vision for Britain to the electorate, and a vastly more palatable leader of the Labour Party in Keir Starmer compared not only to his predecessor but, crucially, Boris Johnson.
Brexit was the ultimate insoluble issue for a Labour Party that had been sociologically bifurcated both by the impact of Thatcherism in the 1980s and by its own experience in government under the guise of New Labour from the late 1990s until 2010. Only an issue as emotive ostensibly intuitive as Brexit had the ability to mobilise this bifurcation - and mobilise it it did. A significant portion of the overall Leave vote came from traditional Labour voters in post-industrial constituencies outside of London and the Home Counties, and a large portion of the overall Remain vote came from metropolitan, young and predominantly middle-class Labour voters. Without rehashing this narrative which has been laboriously documented, suffice it to say that Brexit impeded Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to build a united front against Boris Johnson in the run-up to the 2019 election (Corbyn himself also had some responsibility for this). Johnson not only had to expend very little political capital when he pledged unequivocally to deliver Brexit, come what may, but by doing so also vastly expanded his electoral appeal to those across the country who had tired of the parliamentary deadlock regarding Brexit presided over by Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand had no option but to back a second referendum and hope that Peter Mandelson’s maxim – that the working class had nowhere else to go – still applied, a notion that the election result would plainly disabuse him of.
So there was always a quandary of sorts for the Labour Party when it came to Brexit. But from the beginning of 2021, as Britain emerges bleary-eyed from the transition period, the political relevance of Brexit will begin to decline. In this atmosphere where Brexit can no longer – or at least less effectively - be mobilised draw support away from Labour, Keir Starmer and the rest of PLP must embark on a project to woo socially liberal, young, urban and pro-Remain voters as well as their socially conservative, older and pro-Leave counterparts to have any realistic chance of moving into Downing Street in 2024. What exactly should comprise such a project remains to be seen, but Starmer seems so far to be up to the task: his pro-Remain credentials as Shadow Brexit Secretary will endear him to the metropolitan camp and his unwillingness to put boots on the ground in the so-called ‘culture wars’ – refusing to be drawn to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement’s demand to defund the police force – will be encouraging for many working-class voters. Starmer is also a man shorn of the ideological and historical baggage of Corbyn: there are no antisemitic murals, Provisional IRA friendships or terrorist wreaths in his closet but, rather, a history of public service as Director of Public Prosecutions. As Brexit recedes other issues will be brought to the fore of national political discourse – namely the plan each party has to steer Britain into a post-COVID global environment. Where Brexit served to reveal fundamental divisions within the Labour electorate, the coronavirus crisis has the potential to do the opposite. Campaigning on a much more surefooted and comfortable anti-austerity foundation could form the basis of a rapprochement between Leave and Remain-minded Labour voters.
Starmer will be cognisant of the fact that whilst the Conservative party lead Labour by 2 percentage points in terms of voting intention, the Labour leader enjoys a far higher personal approval rating than his Tory counterparty – 44% believe Starmer is doing well as the Leader of the Labour Party, compared to 34% for Boris Johnson. The regeneration of the Labour Party is a constant, ongoing and dynamic process – indeed the publication of the EHRC’s report on the inquiry into Labour antisemitism demonstrates that there is much still to be done internally before even considering the broader political agenda to be taken to the country – but Keir Starmer appears by all indications to be of sufficient political, intellectual and personal faculties to mount a realistic challenge for Number 10 come 2024.
Henry Raikes has just graduated from Oxford with a BA in History. He hopes to return to Oxford to study for an MPhil in Russian and Eastern European Studies.
He tweets at @HenryRaikes.