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By Emma-Louise Boynton
mong my friendship group (close and extended) voting Labour is pretty unreservedly sacrosanct. Come election time, my social feed is awash in red.
Instagram pictures show cheery faces smiling optimistically in front of large ‘polling station’ signs, with captions extolling the virtues of a party that promises to tackle inequality and restore some humanity to a political system governed by a party they deem corrupt and inherently evil. “Get them out!” they cheer by way of an angry meme.
My lefty-bubble reflects broader demographic voting patterns. Historically, the majority of younger voters have backed Labour. In 2015, the party had a clear lead over the Conservatives only among 18- to 34-year-olds.
In 2017, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, we saw the highest youth turnout for over a quarter of a century, with more than 60% of 18- to 29-year-old voters casting their ballot for Labour. While the extent of the Corbyn-inspired ‘Youthquake’ has been subject to debate, the unlikely Labour leader galvanised a wave of particularly vocal support among younger voters, typified by chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” which rippled through the crowd at Glastonbury 2017 like a football anthem as the Labour leader took to the Pyramid stage. That the election resulted in a hung parliament was viewed by many on the Corbynite left as a triumph of sorts. Labour hadn’t won, no. But nor had it lost as badly as some had anticipated.
“In the last 20 years, there’s only been one election in which Labour's vote went up. And only one election in which Labour won seats,” James Schneider, Director of Strategic Communications under Corbyn, tells me. “We should look at that not as the total answer because we didn’t win, but clearly that should be a major starting point in Labour strategy of thinking.”
‘In recent years, Labour’s electoral record is: Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Blair. Blair. Blair. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat..’
By 2019, however, “Corbyn-mania” had dampened and support for the party waned. While its stance on Brexit was confused (young voters overwhelmingly supported remain; Corbyn did not), the party was beset by allegations of historic antisemitism within its ranks – allegations Corbyn appeared to handle poorly. And where Conservative leader Theresa May had been a terrible political campaigner, she was now replaced by the familiar face of London’s former Mayor, Boris Johnson, whose one campaign message, “Get Brexit Done”, cut through come election day.
And so, yet again, the Labour Party did not win. In fact, it suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1935, its fourth electoral loss in a row.
With Labour having now been out of power for more than a decade, anyone under the age of 32 who has dutifully headed to the polls to support the party, has never actually voted in an election in which the party has won.
The next few months are key
Speaking to Piers Morgan in an in-depth TV interview on Life Stories last Wednesday, the new(ish) Labour leader Keir Starmer acknowledged how desperately the party needs to get back into power if it is to remain a credible political force. The next few months will be key, he enthused, in determining whether this will happen when the country next heads to the ballot.
“This chance at the next election isn’t going to come again,” he told Morgan. “We’ve lost four in a row. This is not about me, it’s about what’s right for our country. “Let me get out there, let me take the mask off. As we come out of this, it allows the political space to open up, and allows me to open up,” he continued.
Many hoped that, as the former director of public prosecutions (DPP) and head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPP), Starmer would be the steadying hand that could help quell the party’s ongoing civil war between its more vehement factions – those on the ‘hard left’ (the Corbynites) and those more in the centre (the Blairites).
Having spent most of his relatively short political life on the frontbenches (he was elected MP for Holborn and St Pancras in 2015 and then appointed Shadow Brexit Secretary by Corbyn in 2016), Starmer had little opportunity to air his political views outside of his brief, which has played in his favour. He is not overtly wedded to either of the party’s main tribes. At Prime Minister’s Questions each week, he is calm and judicious, taking a prosecutorial approach in his questioning of the government on its handling of the Covid crisis.
But just over a year into Starmer’s tenure as party leader, the Labour leader has had little opportunity to introduce himself to an electorate trapped at home due to the pandemic. The news agenda has been dominated almost entirely by Covid and the government has, as a consequence, had the pretty unprecedented opportunity (in peacetime) to dominate the airwaves, discussing and defending its handling of the virus and progress on the vaccine rollout. According to recent polling by Ipsos MORI, Starmer’s favourability ratings are continuing to fall. Only one in five Britons are now favourable towards him.
On a losing streak
Unprecedented circumstances aside, Starmer’s interview with Piers Morgan also followed on the tail of another crushing electoral defeat for Labour in the recent by-elections. The party lost a number of key seats, most notably Hartlepool, which had been in Labour hands since its formation in 1974 but finally swung blue with a majority of 23.2% on the night of 6 May.
With voters continuing to abandon Labour in their droves, as they did in the 2019 general election, these recent results will have done little to buoy supporters’ optimism or convince sceptics that Labour is not a party in terminal decline.
And so as I watched Starmer emphasise the rather self-evident message for an opposition leader whose party has been on a decade-long losing streak – that they need to win – I couldn’t help but wonder: how long can the young be expected to back a loser?
Can the “youth vote” declared Labour’s “secret strength” by elections’ analyst and psephologist, David Butler, in the ’60s – weather the gloomy hangover of even one more electoral defeat, if the party doesn’t manage to turn things around by the time we next head to the ballot box?
I posed the question to a few friends. “Because we grew up under Tony Blair for so many years,” said one, a 29-year-old woman who grew up in south-east London, works in PR and has always voted Labour, “followed by a coalition government, you just kind of assumed that the political pendulum does generally swing between the two main parties, with some sort of tokenistic role played by the Liberal Democrats. But now I’m starting to see that Blair and his Labour government were a bit of an aberration, while a Tory government is sort of the rule.”
She is not wrong. There have been 13 Labour administrations since 1922 – when the party overtook the Liberal party and became the main opposition to the Conservatives – out of 28 elections in total. And in recent years, Labour’s electoral record is: Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Blair. Blair. Blair. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat.
“At this point, if you support Labour,” said another (a 28-year-old publicist who also grew up in south-east London and is similarly a lifelong Labour supporter), “it doesn’t feel as though there’s much point in voting at all. Will Labour even survive the next few years? It seems to be crumbling from within most of the time…”.
Yes it can, and it will, Joe Twyman, political pollster and co-founder of Deltapoll, assures me.
Too big to fail
“The only thing of which we can be certain is that the electoral system means that as things currently stand, Labour is essentially too big to fail,” he says.
Yet, while it continues to draw support from an increasingly narrow range of voters, it’s also “too small to succeed”.
What precipitated the collapse of the Labour vote is an interesting and telling question, Twyman says, because there is, of course, more than one answer. There are numerous points in recent history that can be seen as key turning points contributing to the party’s succession of electoral failures.
Some point to the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland in 2015 when the Scottish National Party (SNP)won a landslide victory, usurping all but one of Labour’s 41 seats there (Labour won the largest share of the vote in Scotland at every UK general election from 1964 to 2010).
Others say it goes back further than 2015, to 2010 when the party (specifically the unions, who partially fund the party) elected the “wrong brother” in choosing Ed rather than David Miliband and subsequently failed to position itself as a meaningful opposition to the coalition government.
Others go back further still and lay blame at former Labour leader Gordon Brown’s door for his decision not to call a general election in 2007. While some claim it was Blair’s decision to take the UK into the Iraq war in 2003 – a move from which they argue the party never recovered.
Some suggest that it was Blair’s leadership itself that, despite leading the party through three successive electoral victories, ultimately decimated its working-class support and so robbed the party of its core electoral base.
In essence, Twyman points out, they are all right. The issues besetting the party are multifarious and far-reaching, which is no doubt why Blair recently penned an essay diagnosing the party as in need of “total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less,” he wrote, “will do.”
No room for nostalgia
Taking a swipe at the party’s propensity towards a policy agenda couched in nostalgia, Blair argues in his “reform or die” essay that “technological change… is the future. But you can’t organise the future with the playbook from the past.”
It’s a point echoed by Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirral, who recently described “nostalgia on the left” as “a political disease” and a “seductive liar” which, she says creates “an emotional longing for the past that tells us things were better before, even when that is demonstrably not the case”.
If the party is to become electable, McGovern counsels, it has to decide what it stands for today.
“Too often we assume that by ‘not being the Tories’ we are somehow better,” she writes. “We cannot afford to make this assumption. We must spell out what it is we want to govern for so that no one can mistake our purpose.”
It is an important and timely point. The idea that the party can define itself as simply “not being Tory” and claim, therefore, to have a monopoly over virtue by default simply does not stand. It is a flimsy argument at the best of times, but it has become an increasingly difficult one to justify to voters in the current climate.
The Conservative government is spending at record levels due to the pandemic and rather than shrinking the state, as it is ideologically wont to do, it is expanding it through a spate of policies more traditionally associated with the Left.
For example, Transport Minister Grant Shapps recently announced the semi-nationalisation of the railways through the creation of the Great British Railways – rail nationalisation was a key tenet of Labour’s election manifesto in 2017 and 2019.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s March budget introduced a corporation tax increase of 19% to 25%, taking the tax burden to a level not seen since Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1969.
The Conservative government has even introduced their own repackaged version of Labour’s early-years intervention programme, Sure Start, named Start for Life, which promises to set “babies up to maximise their potential for lifelong emotional and physical wellbeing”. (During Tory austerity, local authority funding cuts resulted in widespread closures of Sure Start children’s centres across the country).
So does Labour have a valuable role to play in the face of this sort of “Red-Tory” policy-making? I put the question to Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding.
“Absolutely. Because it is and always has been the vehicle for progress,” she tells me. “Virtually every single right that I am afforded as a woman who didn't come from a wealthy background, has been given to me by the Labour Party – whether it’s the right to vote, my right to be paid a certain amount, childcare, the expectation that women’s jobs should be equal to that of mens...
“Every single piece of legislation that has marched us forward was marched forward by the women’s movement, the Labour Party and the union movement. And we’ve forgotten that progress.”
The problem now, she says, is that people don’t expect things to get better.
“People have forgotten that we were on an upward trajectory for pretty much 70 years,” she says. “Since the war there have been ups and downs, but progress marched on in some regard. At the moment, we're in such an era of conservatism (with a small c) and nostalgia… we forget to expect things to get better.
“Since my first child started school in 2009, his entire education has been spent with his school crumbling around him,” she continues. “while universities have become more expensive and jobs less widely available. And so there’s this sort of expectation that things are just a bit shit.”
But the problem remains that a party out of power can do very little to put into practice whatever vision it has for a better future. So what does Labour do?
“We need time to rebuild that narrative [that the Labour Party is the party of progress] but at the moment the party is still in civil war,” Phillips says, frustratedly.
“Of course we have to shake off the idea [from the last election] that we were unelectable, narrow-minded, bitter and angry with each other, of course, but I don’t think we can just blame everything on Corbyn. It goes back further than that.
Labour needs to move forward
“It’s also not necessary to find blame. The Labour Party loves to try to answer what’s gone wrong, rather than what’s gone right, and what we should do next to move forward.”
Keir Starmer is the person to do it, she assures me.
“He is the leader of the Labour Party and he is a good and decent man,” Phillips says. “But what needs to happen is it needs to not just be about Keir Starmer. It needs to be about a team of people working with the country – the Labour Party. He needs to feel like he’s not doing it alone, and that has not been engendered by a global pandemic.”
Indeed, any opposition leader would face a similar struggle, operationally and structurally, to cut through in this unique context, agrees Twyman.
“British public opinion is a bit weird right now,” he says. But that doesn’t mean things couldn’t change dramatically before the next election, he explains, since we don’t know where we will be in even a year’s time. We could still be going in and out of lockdown, “which I'm sure would play badly for the Conservatives”.
But if we are out of the immediate concerns around our health, how will the economic recovery play out? As we ease out of the lockdown, who will benefit from the recovery programme and who will lose out? Will the return to economic growth be equally spread? What will come of the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis?
“These are enormous questions on top of, of course, the long-standing questions about what will happen with Brexit longer-term, and we just don’t know the answers. We don’t know how things will go.”
Hence, Twyman insists, we must be wary of projecting trends we have seen occur in the recent by-election and the elections that came before it onto a future that may well look very different to the present. In essence, Labour still has everything, or something, to play for.
Whether you’re a disillusioned and/or optimistic Labour voter or not, the strength of British democracy relies heavily on our having a strong opposition government that can meaningfully challenge the party in power. It is the ultimate check on executive power and it is why we have a multi-party system.
As the public inquiry into the Conservatives’ handling of the Covid crisis unfurls and the excoriating claims recently put forward by former Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, are either vindicated or disproven, it is more important than ever that the electorate knows there is another option. That there is a viable alternative to the present occupants of number 10, should the (mis)handling of the crisis suggest to enough people that Johnson and his team are not fit to lead.
Whether Labour can “deconstruct and reconstruct’” as per Blair’s instruction in time to offer the public such an alternative within a few years remains to be seen. But for the sake of democracy and for the sake of retaining faith, particularly among younger voters, that the government really is accountable to the electorate and we don’t just live in a one-party state, I hope they do.
In his recent TV interview, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer said that Labour has to win the next election. But what has gone wrong and what needs to change to make that happen?
By Emma-Louise Boynton