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9 May 2024

How Labour should handle the rise of the Greens

Keir Starmer’s party must learn from the Tories’ inept response to Reform UK.

By David Gauke

Last week’s local elections went well for Labour. Its share of the vote (34 per cent) was not particularly high for a party expected to win a landslide, but Labour generally did well where it needed to and looks well-placed to win over the support of many of those voting for smaller parties.

The Greens had a good set of results (gaining 74 seats), but Labour can expect to be able to squeeze their support at a general election. It is also true that the party is doing relatively badly with Muslim voters, but this is not likely to be crucial in terms of the number of Labour MPs elected. The party’s majorities in heavily Muslim seats are big enough to cope with some loss of support.

It is very likely that, at the next election, left-of-centre votes will coalesce behind Keir Starmer as the best way to oust the Tories. Nonetheless, a problem is emerging for Labour from the left. It is easy to see how – after an election – the party’s support might fracture.

Being in government requires compromises. Compromises with the electorate to build a big coalition of support; compromises with reality to govern effectively. Starmer has shown a ruthless capacity to do just that, and Labour supporters have been sufficiently hungry for power to allow him to do so. The success of the Greens and other candidates standing on a pro-Palestinian platform, shows that this tolerance may not be inexhaustible. Starmer has been intensely focused on winning over those who voted Tory in 2019 but, as time goes on, he may also have to worry about those who cast their vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party.

There has been some talk of the Greens being the Reform UK of the left; winning over the more ideological supporters of a governing party disillusioned by the experiences of office. It is a plausible scenario in the medium term. Labour, therefore, should give some thought as to how to handle this risk and learn from the Tories’ experience.

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For the Tories, minimising any losses to their right has long been a priority. In 2015, David Cameron won a small majority even with Ukip on almost 13 per cent. Since the Brexit referendum, which drove centrists away from the party, satisfying the Ukip-adjacent element of the Tory coalition has been the priority but ultimately these voters’ demands have not been satisfied. Rishi Sunak is now caught in a pincer movement as he loses votes to both the left and the right.

As Labour tries to build and maintain the largest and most sustainable coalition of support that it can, there are, I think, five lessons to be learned from the Conservative experience.

First, be very careful about over-promising. The temptation is to hold your support together by making big promises that cannot be delivered, or at least only at a disproportionately high cost. One might get away with it for a while, on the grounds that a new government gets the benefit of the doubt, but eventually it fuels disenchantment. For years, the Conservatives promised to bring immigration down to the “tens of thousands”. This was popular with many voters but impractical. Now they promise to “stop the boats”, but no one expects them to do so. For Labour, environmental pledges that cannot be delivered may play the same role.

This is closely related to the second lesson. Do not validate criticisms that you cannot address. The Tories sought to close down the space occupied by Ukip, then the Brexit Party and now Reform UK by adapting their agenda to issues such as Brexit, immigration or the culture wars. For the most part (December 2019 is the notable exception), this has simply conveyed the sense to right-wing voters that their grievances are legitimate but the government has failed to address them. This only encourages your supporters to go elsewhere.

Third, do not put too much power in the hands of your party members. They are too easily spooked by a party that outflanks the government and whose values they probably share.

Fourth, this is not just about good politics but good policy. Do not pursue a policy of economic self-harm just because it helps hold together your voter base in the short term. Brexit was once a vote-winner for the Tories but the economic damage that has resulted has made the task of winning re-election that much harder.

Fifth, remember where the voters are. This, I would argue, is a simpler task for Labour. Annoyingly, there are quite a lot of right-wing populist voters and occasionally it is possible for the Tories to win a parliamentary majority by concentrating on winning their support (again, see 2019). There is no evidence that the UK will elect a government that is principally focused on winning the support of left-wing activists. If Labour has to choose which voters to keep on board (and sometimes it might), potential defectors to the Greens will not be its biggest problem.

At a time when our politics is more fragmented and volatile, a Labour government will face a threat from disillusioned supporters who want greater ideological purity. To remain in office, it should handle such a threat with greater strategic discipline than the Tories have managed. Chasing after the voters to its left would be a mistake.

[See also: What Keir Starmer can learn from John Smith]

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