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  1. Labour in Crisis
28 June 2021

Keir Starmer’s Labour desperately needs to stand for something

In his first piece since stepping down as an aide to Starmer, Simon Fletcher warns that Labour will not recover unless it offers a radical and distinctive economic alternative.  

By Simon Fletcher

The leader of the opposition and their staff occupy a suite of offices in the Norman Shaw South building on the parliamentary estate. Historic Labour posters line the walls of the corridors, many of them unchanged since the tenures of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, and now Keir Starmer. It is a privilege to work there. It is a listed building with stunning views of the Thames and across to County Hall, right at the heart of Westminster politics. 

But Labour’s presence in these offices also reflects a failure. Its leaders have now been working from here for too long. If there is one thing that every Labour person ought to have in their minds when they enter that office, it’s that we’ve got to get out of this place. 

I have been fortunate enough to work in Norman Shaw South under three Labour leaders. As I am no longer there, it seems appropriate that I should try to make a contribution to the conversation about how Labour improves its position, drawing on my recent experiences in the leader’s office. 

The Conservatives have cornered the market in he-said-she-said exercises in self-justification by former aides. If you have come here for that, I am afraid you will be disappointed. 

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Keir Starmer’s election constituted the strongest possible mandate for an incoming Labour leader. In the one-person, one-vote election, he secured a convincing majority among party members and affiliated supporters having already won the backing of a majority of Labour MPs. Unlike his two predecessors, Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband, he enjoyed an enviable mandate from all sections of the partys electorate. With that unusually strong position came a reservoir of goodwill. 

Of course it was never going to be a breeze. Starmer became leader in the most unusual circumstances imaginable. The Covid-19 lockdown changed not only the context of conventional politics but even how politics is done: how meetings happen, how speeches take place, how parties speak to voters and campaign. 

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The reason it is so often said that being leader of the opposition is one of the most difficult jobs in politics is because it is true. I’ve seen how thankless a task it can be for whoever occupies the position. You control relatively few events yourself. You are defined to a great degree by how you respond to an agenda set by others.

For all this, in the early months of Starmer’s leadership, voters responded well to Labour’s navigation of the Covid crisis. This strong start ought to have been a foundation for the revival of a beleaguered and defeated party.

Yet Labour now once again trails the Tories by a double-digit margin in the polls. A great part of the goodwill that was secured by Starmer’s victory has been eroded. And Labour is still seen as divided.

These things are connected. Central to a great deal of these problems is the leadership’s failure to secure its base – both internally and externally – and to define itself. If neither members nor voters have a strong sense of what Labour stands for, the party is inherently vulnerable. 

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So what has happened to Labour’s position? The Conservatives are undeniably enjoying a vaccine bounce. Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley has dated the beginning of Labour’s present woes from when the UK’s Margaret Keenan became the first patient in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine on 8 December 2020. But the vaccine bounce cannot explain everything. In particular, in England, it does not explain the loss of votes and support to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. It cannot explain the decline of Keir Starmer’s ratings among Labour supporters. And despite the vaccine bounce, on 18 June the Lib Dems won the Chesham and Amersham seat from the Tories on a swing of 25 per cent. 

If we chart the course of the polls since Starmer became leader, we see that Labour made impressive and steady advances during 2020, at times moving ahead of the Conservatives. Given the tendency for electorates across the world to give incumbent leaders the benefit of the doubt at times of national crisis, this represented a solid recovery by Labour. 

Starmer’s net approval rating was similarly impressive and remained positive in 2020. But throughout this period, negative sentiment steadily rose and eventually surpassed positive opinion in the spring of this year. As the polling expert Chris Curtis tweeted in January, “one trend that has stood out… is that Starmer’s approval rating has been declining fairly consistently.”

Crucially, at this stage a major factor was dissatisfaction among Labour voters. Polling by Opinium found that among 2019 Tory voters, Starmer’s approval rating fell from -2 in June 2020 to -17 in January 2021. Among 2019 Labour supporters, it fell from +78 to +35. 

The base was not secure. Labour could not rely on approval from its core vote – people who stuck with the party in 2019. It is considerably harder to advance in politics if people who don’t support you believe that you can’t or won’t win. You have to be an attractive prospect and losing support from your own base resonates beyond it.

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The voters who returned to Labour in the aftermath of the 2020 leadership election were primarily those who voted Labour in 2017 but then defected to the Lib Dems or the Greens in 2019. 

At first, for some of these voters, that Labour had started afresh under a new leader was enough to win them over. Politics, however, is not static. It is a process. Retaining the support of these voters, and of core Labour voters, required more work – particularly as the party had to simultaneously pursue the harder-to-reach voters who deserted Labour for the Tories or the Brexit Party in 2019. 

Labour Together’s report into the 2019 election addresses this tension between retention and expansion. It is a fair-minded document and its findings have been presented and discussed at shadow cabinet meetings a number of times. 

As it says, “Labour needs to build a winning coalition of voters which spans generations, geographies and outlooks. This requires holding on to our current voter base (which should not be taken for granted), mobilising and inspiring more younger voters to turn out for Labour, as was achieved in 2017, while at the same time building a bridge with former Labour voters who are very distant from Labour presently, and attracting more swing voters.” 

Labour Together repeats its point that to win, voters cannot be taken for granted: “Many city-based and academic seats were lost by Labour to the Liberal Democrats and even the Conservatives in 2005 and 2010. High levels of switching and tactical voting among these electorates mean Labour cannot take for granted advances it has made in these areas over recent elections.”

It further emphasised that “too often Labour has taken for granted the support of BAME voters.”

All of this is correct. One hazard for Labour during the second half of 2020 was that the charge that we were only interested in one group of voters – former Labour voters who opted for the Tories or the Brexit Party in 2019 – began to stick. Some also began to believe that we were focus group-led and inclined to abstain rather than take a position. 

We had the worst of all worlds: failing to win over Tory and Brexit Party voters while losing support among Lib Dem and Green voters and, at the same time, seeing satisfaction decline among core voters. 

We have to be honest that one of the biggest causes of this quandary was a lack of definition. There are many things that have to be done between now and a general election, some of them tactically very difficult, but without more definition the voters will find it hard to form an opinion.

An early bush fire over what Labour stands for came in the case of tax in the summer of 2020. The party’s line was that nothing should be done to take demand out of the economy, either through spending cuts or tax rises. 

But it is one thing to say there should be no tax rises during an economic crisis and another to be unable to signal the progressive values that will shape your long-term approach. Faced with questions last July over whether Labour would support tax increases on higher earners – such as those earning over £80,000 – frontbench MPs struggled to defend the principle that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden. 

Among the consequences of this were reports that Starmer’s leadership campaign commitments had been jettisoned. In situations such as this, consequences flow: members and strong Labour supporters react with dismay or at least irritation; the wider public cannot work out where Labour is coming from. 

The most common complaint, raised repeatedly, is that people do not know what the party stands for. It follows that the way to drive Labour’s support back up is to grab people’s attention and provide more definition so that they know the party stands for something – and for something big and relevant. This is necessary both to secure Labour’s base and to forge a wider electoral coalition. 

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Labour has gone from Ed Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn and now to Keir Starmer. It is reasonable in these circumstances for voters to be uncertain where the party stands and to want to know more.

If there has been a question mark over where Labour stands, then the party’s right has sought to fill the vacuum. One of the most inexplicable features of Labour in 2021 is the failure to dispel the notion that Peter Mandelson is a guru for the party leadership. The Tories have grandees; in rather less colourful language, Labour has stakeholders. The party inevitably engages with senior stakeholders of all types who have experience and ideas to contribute. But the Mandelson story has taken on a life of its own: each of his highly newsworthy interventions sticks like a barnacle to the leadership, whether it reflects their thinking or not. Wherever Mandelson’s comments go, a phrase such as “it is understood that the New Labour ‘spin doctor’ has been advising the current leadership” quickly follows.

In his lively talk to students at King’s College London, Mandelson recently elaborated his view that 2010 was the crucial moment when New Labour was delegitimised: “The defeat of David Miliband by Ed Miliband was then an absolutely pivotal moment in the breeding and fostering of the negative associations [about New Labour].”

He continued: “Ed saw it as his political mission, and still does, to reinject traditional ‘socialist values’ as he saw them, and to validate the sort of ideological outlook he learnt at his father’s knee.”

This is all very well and very interesting but Labour is hardly likely to unite if it is still fighting, among other things, the “wrong brother” wars, particularly when Miliband is now a leading member of Starmer’s shadow cabinet.  

In Tony Blair’s case, he argued in this magazine that Labour “needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.” His is really an argument for the break-up of Labour as a social democratic party connected to the labour movement. A “total” deconstruction is not a small matter. If pursued, it would be a confrontational folly. It is not something you could do, even if you wanted to, and still have time to fight an election anytime soon.

There are of course those who want Labour to spend this parliament replaying all the old tunes: “Now That’s What I Call Labour 1985”. But the old playbooks aren’t going to work. It is not possible to spend four years fighting each other mercilessly and then expect the public to see us as a vote-worthy prospect. The next general election could be as soon as 2023. If so, we may well have just two annual conferences before facing the country – Labour doesn’t have time for a civil war.

***

Of course the most high-profile cases of conflict with the left have been in relation to its leading figures: first Rebecca Long-Bailey’s removal from the shadow cabinet and then, even more dramatically, the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn. But the question of the left’s place runs deeper than these instances.

As 2020 wore on, decisions on votes in the House of Commons, such as the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) “spy cops” bill and the overseas operations bill, resulted in rebellions that caused left-wing MPs to depart the front bench. Consequently, Starmer’s team was narrowed by default. Talented younger MPs from left-wing and trade-union backgrounds such as Dan Carden, Sarah Owen and Nadia Whittome were lost (although Owen has now returned). Difficulty was not limited to the Socialist Campaign Group but extended to the Tribune Group. 

Each individual decision that leads to a narrowing can always be justified on its merits, but the real question is the accumulated position. The gradual salami-slicing of a broad left from the frontbench is not purely a question of political management or parliamentary tactics. What happens in parliament is connected to wider developments in society. As Labour’s support has narrowed among voters, that has been reflected and reinforced by the composition of the front bench. A winning coalition with the public is related to a politically vibrant and inclusive internal coalition. 

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Not oversteering from Labour’s recent past was the top line of Starmer’s leadership bid, even prior to his candidacy being formally announced. It ran as a thread throughout the campaign: we would not trash the last Labour government, nor would we trash the last four years.

The package on offer fused Starmer’s reputation for competence with the members’ desire to retain their values and promised unity after a period of fractious divisions. The offer he made was broadly the correct one. Keir Starmer argued that the case for a “radical Labour government” is as strong as it has ever been. 

The centre of gravity in the Labour party is internationalist in outlook, pro-public services, anti-privatisation, for equality and increasingly focused on climate change. It is my contention that the solutions to most of Labour’s problems can be found within the party’s centre of gravity – if they are combined into a strategy for building a coalition of voters.  

Politics cannot simply be reduced to economics. But the economy is the key. Voters who have different views across social questions can and should be addressed through a vision for the economy that resonates with the majority. 

Liberal and left debate understandably devotes much time to the question of how Labour advances as the Tories exploit “culture war” issues and steal the opposition’s clothes for the purpose of “levelling up”. Yet the very fact that the Conservatives took positions on public services and infrastructure designed to appeal to Labour voters in Leave seats is a tacit acceptance that many of these voters lean towards a more interventionist approach – one that is to the left of where their newly-elected Tory MPs would usually be.

There is a strong argument to be made that the voters Labour needs to win, who backed the Tories or the Brexit Party in 2019, are in fact economically somewhat to the left on a left-right scale, including those who would be considered more socially authoritarian on an open-closed scale. There may appear to be few ways to build a coalition that spans core Labour voters, Greens, Lib Dems and former Labour voters that were lost to the Tories, but a bold, progressive position on the economy – including higher taxes on corporations and on the wealthiest – is the strongest potential route.

On entering the White House, Joe Biden proposed a first budget plan of $6trn of spending alongside tax rises for the richest, including a dramatic expansion of infrastructure, investment in broadband, and measures to tackle the climate crisis. The scale of what he proposed was enormous, a radical departure from neo-liberalism and trickle-down economics. Biden now faces the challenge of winning Congressional approval but his ambition and urgency cannot be ignored. It is this scale of change that the UK economy also needs. British politics – and Labour’s position within it – would be transformed if we could turn political debate to the need for an era-defining change in how our economy works.  Labour now needs to create dividing lines that put the Tories on the defensive. Building common ground with voters over the economy has the potential to unite large numbers of people across the spectrum.  

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The Hartlepool by-election defeat hangs heavy – not simply the result and its causes, or the arguments about party management and shortlists, but a framing question that Labour has to resolve. 

The reshuffle that began while results were still coming in reinforced the charge that Labour is focused on one set of voters against others. Significant victories in Wales and in the south-east and south-west of England do not compensate for the defeats in the North and the Midlands but they tell a more nuanced and interesting story.

In the wake of the Hartlepool defeat, Starmer emphasised that the party had changed but that it had not changed enough, and vowed to use the summer to conduct a major listening exercise. Labour, from the shadow cabinet down, does need to spend concerted, dedicated time in the areas it needs to win at the next election. It needs to be organised in those communities and it does need to listen to them.

But Labour must avoid creating the impression that it has fallen into a pit of self-loathing. That will only aggravate existing Labour voters and it will repel potential ones. People do not like to associate with parties that send a negative message about themselves. 

And what if the issue is in fact that what people want to hear is that Labour stands for something with conviction? During the Hartlepool by-election and other recent contests, voters’ uncertainty over what the party stands for was undoubtedly a factor – it is also an opportunity. If Labour is not to be left permanently stranded in opposition, it must now be bolder and leave people in no doubt about its intentions.