First impressions count, and Keir Starmer has made a good one. His performance ratings are the best recorded for an opposition leader since Tony Blair took over the Labour party in 1994. Starmer is the first Labour leader since Gordon Brown before the financial crisis to be preferred to his Conservative opponent when voters are asked who would make the best prime minister. Starmer’s sharp attacks on a floundering Conservative government have landed well. The new leader has also made his mark internally, securing control of the party levers of power with remarkable speed and efficiency. Labour factions are calmed, if not fully reconciled, and the current unity and discipline is a sharp contrast to the chaotic feuding of the Corbyn years. For the first time in more than a decade, Labour has reasons to be cheerful.
It will need all the optimism it can find given the challenges ahead. In 1994, Tony Blair took charge of a party with 271 seats, including 49 in Scotland. Starmer begins with just 202, the smallest parliamentary Labour party since 1935, and just one Scottish MP. The Conservative government he faces has increased its vote share in every election since 2001, even while presiding over a decade of austerity spending cuts, which it is now reversing, and years of wrangling over the Brexit process, which it now seeks to complete. Although Starmer’s ratings are strong, he is running well ahead of his party, who are still viewed with scepticism.
There are some causes for hope. Voters are less tribal now, and more responsive to changing political conditions
Labour faces a daunting political map. The party’s decades of dominance in Scotland are a fast fading memory, and revival there remains elusive with politics now firmly aligned around an SNP-Conservative fight over independence. Labour has also fallen back in the traditional mining and manufacturing towns of the Midlands and north of England which once formed the backbone of its support. Such seats returned Labour MPs for decades after the collapse of the industries which forged tribal loyalties to the party, but that loyalty has been fading since the Blair years and is now severely eroded. Voters who broke a lifelong taboo in backing Conservatives in 2017 or 2019 may be hard to win back again. The Labour vote continued to collapse in traditional heartland seats as Mansfield and Halesowen and Rowley Regis which elected their first Conservative MPs earlier, underscoring the challenge the party faces in reversing decades of slow local decline in many English towns.
Even Labour’s greatest source of strength – its rude health in the nation’s big cities and university towns – is a source of weakness due to the operation of the electoral system. Its strongest current support comes from younger voters, graduates, professionals and ethnic minorities – groups who all cluster together in the same big-city seats. This produces towering Labour majorities in those constituencies, but leaves the party bereft of support in the much larger number of seats where such groups are scarcer.
There are some causes for hope. Voters are less tribal now, and more responsive to changing political conditions. Levels of voter switching in the past three elections have been higher than in all previous cycles going back to the 1960s. Big swings are easier to achieve than hitherto. The issue agenda is also more Labour-friendly than for a long while. Polarised arguments over immigration and Brexit, which divided Labour internally from top to bottom over the past two decades, have been replaced by coronavirus and the challenges it poses for health services and the economy. Debates over health, public services and job security are favourable terrain for Labour, playing into areas where they retain strong sympathies from the electorate.
If voter satisfaction with Johnson and the Tories continues its recent sharp fall, the pandemic may present Starmer with the same kind of opportunity John Smith and Blair enjoyed in the wake of the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis of 1992. Voters can swiftly lose faith in a government they feel has failed them in a crisis, and they can be slow to forgive once the crisis has passed. Four years of strong economic performance did little to stave off disaster for John Major in 1997.
Labour will hope 2020 proves to be a similar political watershed. Anything short of a 1997 style swing may not be enough, particularly if the party remains moribund in Scotland. Analysis by Labour Together suggests the party would need a swing of 12% to secure a majority, larger than that achieved in Blair’s first landslide. Such a swing would also need to be truly national, renewing Labour’s support with the older and more socially conservative voters where the party is now weak as well as retaining its large advantages with the younger and more liberal voters where it is now strong. Such historic sea changes have happened before – in both 1945 and 1997 Labour surged to triumph when the public mood shifted decisively. But this parliament still has a long way to run. While Starmer has made a good start, he has a lot of work still to do, and however well he does it, Labour’s electoral fate will still turn on forces beyond any leader’s control. When voters survey the landscape in 2024, will they decide it is once again time for a change?