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  1. Election 2024
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15 April 2024

Can a Labour government avoid early unpopularity?

Shadow cabinet ministers fear the public backlash against a new administration will be swift.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer likes to recount that when he became director of public prosecutions, he visited Crown Prosecution Service offices around the country in order to assess the institution’s problems. 

He will not have the same luxury if he enters No 10 this year. The atmosphere in the country is one of impatience. Starmer is striking a balance between promising a brighter future – one with more buses and doctors and dentists – and warning voters that change will take time. Some in the shadow cabinet already admit in private that a backlash against a new Labour government will be swift. The worry is that the problems the new government would face are so intractable that voters expecting an immediate improvement in their lives will be disappointed and angry. A glorious victory could quickly turn sour. 

The conditions are already there. Stagnant pay, broken public services, high immigration, hotels occupied by refugees, higher taxes: these problems will not disappear because a different person sleeps in No 10 (a fact that bypasses some Tories). If Labour takes office, it will assume responsibility for these problems. Every late train, or dentist queue, or boat in the Channel will be blamed on him.

The question is how Labour can prevent this perception from taking hold. The narrative some in the party think they need to construct in their first few months in power is that at least some progress is being made towards national renewal. Quick wins, in other words. Insiders suggest swift action on childcare, planning reform and sewage as priorities. The party also hopes to sign security pacts with the EU and Germany at the same time as restoring Britain’s reputation with the Global South. The expensive Rwanda scheme, Labour has said, will be scrapped. 

The second narrative Labour will need to promote is about its perilous inheritance. The party is already pushing the argument that the mess left by the Tories will take years to clean up. Liz Truss’s mini-Budget has become its version of the former Labour cabinet minister Liam Byrne’s 2010 letter, which stated “I’m afraid there is no money”. The more blame the party can shift on to the Tories, the more time it will have to deliver.

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Others argue that managing perception is not Labour’s priority. As one source said: “The lesson from the Conservatives is you can use your time in government to chase headlines, but in the end if you fail on the fundamentals – is the economy improving, is the NHS doing better, etc – then news management can’t save you.” This echoes the line in Starmer’s conference speech last year that “politics should tread lightly on people’s lives”. In other words, Labour would quietly get on with governing the country, unbeholden to the daily political churn. 

And yet – the news won’t stop just because No 10 wants it to. Politics operates on two planes, or twin tracks. The first comprises the retail offering that politicians trot out on the broadcast round. Speak to Labour insiders about health and they will eventually concede that a policy such as hiring more nurses with revenue raised from tightening non-dom rules is not a comprehensive plan for the NHS. It is important. But it is designed to show voters concerned about healthcare that Labour is onside, not resolve problems such as the UK’s ageing population and low productivity in the public sector. Tinkering with taxes such as alcohol duty is another example. The various levelling-up funds are a third.

The second plane is the overarching purpose of a government. What a government actually wants to do once it has offered the media something to feast on. Austerity. Brexit. Net zero. These are objectives that take years to deliver. In Labour’s case, its primary long-term plan is to achieve a carbon neutral energy sector by 2030. Other examples – such as reforming the NHS and defining a defence strategy – will only materialise once a review has taken place in government. Likewise, the bulk of Labour’s New Deal for Working People will go through a consultation process. Long-term economic growth – which underpins so many of Labour’s plans – takes time. Building infrastructure such as Northern Powerhouse Rail takes time. Reforming the public sector, by increasing the use of technology, takes time.

Backlash against a new government is not inevitable. Events could intercede. Boris Johnson was buoyed by the swift Covid vaccine rollout and his uncompromising initial response to the invasion of Ukraine. Likewise, the civil war within the Conservative Party is unlikely to end simply because it has left government. It is more probable that defeat will catalyse a long period of introspection as it did with Labour in the 2010s. The Conservative Party must decide whether it is a national conservative, libertarian or centrist liberal party before it can muster an alternative to Labour. A weak, disunited opposition will create space for a Labour government to make mistakes.

There is concern, however, that talk about a honeymoon period is premature. Frustration with Labour is already building, some think. As one aide put it: “Anyone in Labour who is worrying about the honeymoon ending after an election needs to have their head checked. It could easily end before.”

[See also: Harold Wilson’s lessons for Labour]

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