The challenges facing Labour in 2021 are not the same as those it faced when it was led by Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, or even Ed Miliband. Over the course of the last few decades, its reputation for competence, economic or otherwise, has been trashed. And that matters. Cast your eye over the chart below, for instance.
The last time Labour had more than 30 per cent support on the issue of who was best placed to manage the economy was in the closing days of the 2010 general election campaign – when it was still in government.
The last time this figure was over 40 per cent was August 2005. And the last time it was more than that was, according to Gallup, months before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Parties that lead on the economy lead the country, and though the economy may mean different things to different people (debt and deficit vs cost of living), it is a useful political barometer. Labour in 2021 is not simply behind on this metric: it is 16 points behind. Until that changes, there is little hope of the party getting back into government.
But it’s not just the economy. The party brand is tainted. In the eyes of voters, Labour may have the nation’s best interests at heart, and be tolerant and in-touch. But it’s not ready for government, nor does it have a clear sense of purpose. Nor, crucially, is it a competent force. It’s a party that doesn’t know what it stands for, and it cannot be trusted, by a plurality of Britons, to take big decisions.
The 11 years Labour has spent in opposition haven’t been kind to the party. It’s appeared rudderless, unwilling to adapt to an effective offensive. In the most recent local elections, Labour seats in council areas of the north-east and urban Midlands fell to other parties; local Labour movements and their administrations were seen as too “establishment”.
Not relevant enough to the identities and priorities of voters on the ground, the party has taken, and will continue to take, a hammering. Most of those living in the UK today identify as fairly or very patriotic (61 per cent). Patriotism means different things to different people, but just 35 per cent associate the same term with the Labour Party.
So can Labour recover? Of course, but it will be hard. At present, nationally, they’re up only slightly on their 2019 vote share. The Tories, meanwhile, owing to an unhappy base, are down around four points on 2019, with two to three dozen of their seats going red as a consequence.
But in the so-called “Red Wall” seats, some of the most marginal and vehemently Leave-supporting locales in the country, Labour is not up – and nor are they down. In 2019, the right united: a combination of the Ukip and the Conservative 2015 vote shares was reflected, in most areas, in the Conservative vote. But hypothetical polling shows that vote is now in the throes of splitting, with a small chunk either intending not to vote or to vote for Reform UK, the right-wing populist party.
It seems unlikely this will remain the case until the next general election. The recent German general election, in which the Christian Democrats did better than expected, teaches us that parties with disaffected electorates often rally voters in time for polling day.
Meanwhile, in the case of the “Blue Wall” seats – affluent and traditionally Conservative constituencies with a disproportionate number of graduates – we find a curious increase in voters leaning towards Labour.
At present, according to YouGov, the Conservatives are polling below their 2005 vote share in these seats (the same year that they lost a third successive general election to Labour). Labour, meanwhile, may have gained only one to two points nationally since the 2019 general election (34 to 35 per cent) but in Blue Wall seats it has gained six points, a performance almost equal to that at the 2017 general election, when it won 40 per cent of the vote.
These figures suggest that Labour is building support in new places. But Blue Wall seats have been so safely Tory – few were even worth targeting by Labour – that banking on the Blue Wall is a far riskier strategy than seeking recovery in the Red Wall.
So are there any genuine signs of recovery for the Labour Party? Not where it matters. But this is not cause for despair.
Keir Starmer, who spent – and seemingly enjoyed – his conference season in metaphorical punch-ups with the party’s left is more disliked by the country than liked. But three in ten voters have a neutral opinion of him. Though he is less well-known than Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband, he is also less unpopular than they were.
The approval trend for leaders of the opposition tends to be downwards. Starmer is replicating that trend, but because he is less well-known and irritating fewer voters, he’s faring better than his recent predecessors.
However, given those predecessors lost general elections, that’s a low bar. Labour in 2021 has its own identity crisis. To repurpose Neil Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech, it’s a party “outdated, misplaced [and] irrelevant to the real needs” of the country it seeks to govern. It doesn’t speak the same language on identity, and despite appearing tolerant and caring, it commands low confidence on handling the country’s finances. And while Labour under Starmer is in a better position than under Corbyn or Miliband, his predecessors still cast a deep shadow over the party today.
The party might have found new voters in the Blue Wall but, bluntly, these are the wrong voters in the wrong part of the country. With a weak Tory vote, success is not impossible. But there’s more work to be done, and that work will begin, and end, with the Tory-backing electorates in the Leave-voting heartlands.