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25 June 2024

Can Labour satisfy its new voters?

Tory supporters who “lend” their votes to Keir Starmer’s party will expect something in return.

By Freddie Hayward

At Kettering Buccleuch Academy yesterday, Keir Starmer fielded questions on whether Arsenal will win the league (yes), his favourite subject at school (music), and whether he owns a pet (he has a cat called Jojo). He made a gaggle of high school students laugh at his avuncular anecdotes and advice – which is no mean feat. His promise to hire more dentists even prompted spontaneous applause from one enthusiastic sixth former.

Starmer is improving as a politician. That is not necessarily a compliment. But it is helpful for Labour during a general election.

Ten minutes’ drive from the school, in the Northamptonshire village of Geddington, Rosie Wrighting, a 26-year-old former Asos buyer who wears Adidas Sambas and is standing for Labour, was knocking on doors in this Tory-held seat. Geddington sits within the Kettering constituency, a semi-rural marginal that has been Conservative since 2005. The polls suggest it’s a close race between Wrighting and the incumbent, Philip Hollobone. In 1997, Labour won it by 189 votes.

Geddington is a Hot Fuzz-esque model village where the vicarage actually contains a vicar. King Edward I used to hunt in the area, and erected a stone monument to his dead wife outside the Star Inn. Beside one front door, rhubarb reached up to a thatched roof. This is not your traditional Labour seat. Wrighting compared notes about the village fete with residents. “I need to feed [the kids] and get them to a cricket match,” one hurried, undecided mum told the canvassers.

Some in Geddington have voted Tory all their lives. But, Wrighting told me, “there is apathy here”. Most residents we spoke to won’t be voting Tory again. But the alternatives don’t inspire them. One man confided in me that although he was “fearlessly liberal” he thought the local school was turning his kids into weak automatons. “And I’m the one who will have to spend time with them!” He wanted low taxes for small businesses, and LGBTQ rights for all. When I asked him to describe Starmer in a word, he paused, grimaced and said: “not negative”.

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The picture was different in the kebab-shop-strewn town centre of Kettering. Shirtless kids rode around on electric scooters. One 16-year-old barista in a coffee shop was unenthused about Labour’s plans to lower the voting age. A few people I spoke to on the high street said they wouldn’t vote because the politicians had failed. They were angry even to be asked. A former nurse, who watches GB News every day with her husband, is leaning towards Reform. She’s not a “racialist”, she assured me, but she didn’t like the number of Turkish shops in Kettering.

While Starmer was taking questions in the school and the canvassers in Geddington were incanting that Labour had “changed”, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) released a withering appraisal of the shallowness and dishonesty with which both parties were courting the public. Paul Johnson, the IFS director, said the refusal to engage with the need to cut taxes or raise spending in the short term means people will vote into a “knowledge vacuum” next Thursday, adding “as the population ages these choices will become harder, not easier”.

Labour claims economic growth will solve all its problems. But the risk here is that should the party be forced to raise taxes or cut spending – or if it fails to rebuild the country in the way it has promised – then it will drive people into the arms of Reform. At the same time, all those Tory voters who “lend” their votes to Labour – as many Labour voters did for Boris Johnson in 2019 – will grow angrier and more disillusioned. Labour is poised to win countless Tory seats, where people will expect something for their vote. And if Labour wants to keep its promises not to raise taxes, as Wrighting promised on the doorstep, then public services could take the hit. The backlash would be swift and painful. In Kettering and Geddington lies the crux of Labour’s problem.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The Conservative wipeout]

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