New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. The Weekend Report
25 May 2024

What could go wrong for Labour?

Shadow cabinet ministers believe the biggest risk is that voters regard the election as a foregone conclusion.

By George Eaton

For the first time in almost 20 years, Labour is entering a general election campaign as the unambiguous favourite. This rare status explains the jubilation on the faces of MPs at Westminster this week. Their mood was enhanced by Rishi Sunak’s farcical election announcement. No 10 failed to respond to two entirely predictable events: rain and the presence of Steve Bray’s sound system (the anti-Brexit protester has routinely played “Things Can Only Get Better” on a Wednesday).

Next came Sunak’s surreal visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast followed by Michael Gove becoming the 77th Tory MP to flee a sinking ship. “The government controls the timing of the election but you would think we control it,” one Labour insider wryly observed.

The party had long anticipated that May would be a politically pivotal month, not only because of the local elections. Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, they knew, would point to improved economic data – higher growth and lower inflation – as proof that the UK had “turned a corner”. It was in order to pre-empt this that Rachel Reeves delivered her speech in the City of London on 7 May, accusing the Conservatives of “gaslighting the British public”. To aides’ satisfaction, this charge was repeated to Sunak and Hunt in media interviews as they sought to shift the economic narrative.

Reeves’s speech was followed by the launch of Labour’s six-point pledge card on 15 May in Thurrock – an event at which the shadow cabinet resembled a government-in-waiting. Some inside the party believe that this intervention helped “smoke the Tories out” as the opposition set a relentless pace.

Labour’s campaign will centre on two familiar political messages: that it is “time for change” (the latter word emblazoned on Keir Starmer’s lectern) and that voters are worse off than they were 14 years ago. Though the Tories are desperate to turn the election into a referendum on the opposition, the tide is against them. Polling by More in Common conducted after Sunak’s announcement found that 70 per cent of the public, including 41 per cent of 2019 Tory voters, believe that it is “time for change” while only 30 per cent want to “stick with the plan”.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

“We usually lose,” Pat McFadden, Labour’s dour national campaign coordinator, has regularly reminded shadow cabinet colleagues as he seeks to ward off complacency. But to some, this now resembles an election that the party cannot fail to win. Not only is Labour polling more than 20 points ahead of the Tories – a position from which no governing party has ever recovered – it also leads on the economy, and Keir Starmer outpolls Sunak as the country’s preferred prime minister (by 35 per cent to 19 per cent).

But in an era in which precedents have been continually broken, these numbers are of little comfort to some. “Opinion polls and elections make me nervous,” Ed Miliband quipped in his speech at the think tank Common Wealth’s fifth birthday party near London Fields on Thursday evening. He added: “The country is ready for change but the country is fed up with politics; that is the paradox of the moment or the truth of the moment. We’ve got to show people that they may be fed up with politics – they are fed up with the government – but there is something better.” (The shadow climate change secretary’s Great British Energy has been put at the centre of Labour’s campaign.)

When Miliband lost in 2015, pollsters had put the chance of a Tory majority at just 1 per cent – the same number as today. This, as Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director, has continually told the shadow cabinet, is an age of electoral volatility. In his presentation last December, he showed eight examples of polls turning against the apparent front-runner, including the 2015 and 2017 UK elections, the 2017 Norwegian election, the 2019 Australian election, the 2021 German election and the 2023 Spanish election (one shadow cabinet minister called them “the slides of doom”).

“It’s not just about undecided voters, there’s a whole bunch of people in the Labour column and a whole bunch of people in the Tory column who could change their minds,” a Starmer aide said.

What could make them do so? Recent British elections are replete with examples of volatility: “Cleggmania” in 2010, the SNP surge in 2015, Labour’s comeback in 2017. Starmer’s team have sought as far as possible to guard against unwelcome surprises.

Deploying an analogy beloved of Lynton Crosby, the former Conservative election strategist, insiders speak of having “scraped the barnacles off the boat”. Plans such as Labour’s £28bn green investment pledge were dropped because aides feared they would not survive the intense scrutiny of a general election campaign.

Though the party has held back some policies, the manifesto will not feature any radical surprises. Labour has learned from Theresa May’s ill-fated social care plan (the “dementia tax”), sprung on an unsuspecting electorate in 2017. John McDonnell’s 2019 promise of free broadband – which bemused rather than attracted voters – is cited as another cautionary tale.

An underappreciated but crucial part of Labour’s strategy has been avoiding policies – a property tax, say – that could frighten disillusioned Tories into turning out. “When the Labour Party reassures Middle England that it doesn’t need to worry, a whole bunch of Middle England doesn’t show up to vote,” said Marcus Roberts, YouGov’s chief of public data, recalling that Tony Blair won fewer votes at every one of his victories than John Major in 1992.

The greatest electoral risk to Labour remains an unexpectedly resilient Conservative performance – think 2010 rather than 2015 (David Cameron’s Tories held a similar number of seats to Starmer’s Labour). But what of the smaller parties?

In an SNP-dominated Scotland, Labour hopes to win 30-plus seats (up from just two at present). John Swinney’s party is recording its worst ratings for a decade and tactical votes from pro-Union Tories could prove pivotal.

The Liberal Democrats, who have aspired to supplant Labour at previous elections, are overwhelmingly focused on ousting Conservative MPs. As leader Ed Davey told me earlier this year, “We’re not fighting each other. We are both fighting the Conservatives. The way the electoral map worked out in 2019 means we’re not in each other’s way.” Of the Lib Dems’ top 30 target seats, only three are Labour-held – Sheffield Hallam, Cambridge and Kensington – while 23 are Tory-held.

What of the Greens? Though talked up by commentators as “Labour’s Reform”, this election is unlikely to prove their moment. Co-leader Carla Denyer may well win in Bristol Central (currently held by the shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire) but the party’s other two target seats, North Herefordshire and Waveney Valley, are Tory-held.

Yet less direct threats remain. Protest votes over the Gaza war – a spectre that will haunt the entire campaign – could deny Labour victory in some marginals. Shadow cabinet ministers fear that emphatic opinion poll leads could depress turnout. “I hear this conversation on the doorstep all the time, that we’ve got it in the bag,” the shadow transport secretary, Louse Haigh, told me recently. “I worry therefore that people will stay at home or risk their votes elsewhere.”

Yet the increasingly comical Rishi Sunak hardly resembles a man about to lead the greatest comeback in British electoral history. Starmer, as so often, is being spoken of as a “lucky general”: partygate, the Truss debacle, the SNP’s implosion, Sunak’s ineptitude – all of these have redounded to his benefit.

But the Labour leader’s team contest this narrative. They point to the ruthless decisions Starmer took near the outset of this parliament: to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, to impose austerity measures at party HQ, to confront Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism, to remove the unpopular Richard Leonard as Scottish Labour leader. Only now are the full effects being felt. Tory failure has never been a guarantee of Labour success – as much of the past decade proves.

Elections are won and lost over years, not months. It wasn’t the Sheffield rally that denied Neil Kinnock victory in 1992 and it wasn’t the bacon sandwich or the “EdStone” that cost Ed Miliband in 2015. Such journalistic myth-making obscures far deeper trends: whether a party and a leader are deemed worthy of office. Starmer’s Labour – on every metric that counts – is.

“You can’t fatten a pig on market day,” Crosby is fond of saying of elections. Whatever may befall them in the heat of the campaign, Starmer’s team are confident that they have fattened the pig.

[See also: What will Labour’s campaign look like?]

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

Topics in this article :