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9 May 2024

Keir Starmer should be wary of dismissing the Labour left

As the Greens rise, Labour should remember how Ukip and its successors have haunted the Conservatives.

By Freddie Hayward

Dismiss the cranks, the bigots, the disgruntled, the lost and the angry at your peril. David Cameron’s 2006 quip that Ukip was full of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” came back with a force that ejected him from office. Nothing speaks more to the complacency with which he viewed rising Euroscepticism and anger towards mass immigration. This is not pure hindsight: Nigel Farage pointed out at the time that Ukip got 2.6 million votes in the 2004 European Parliament elections.

Is the same going to happen with Labour and the Greens? That question came to mind yesterday when Peter Mandelson said that the latter party were “becoming a dustbin, a repository not only for climate activists, but for disgruntled hard leftists”. The local elections exposed a small but persistent problem that Labour has with chunks of the progressive and Muslim vote. As David Gauke writes in an intriguing column today: “Starmer has been intensely focused on winning over those who voted Tory in 2019 but, as time goes on, he may also have to worry about those who cast their vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party.”

Gauke goes on to urge Labour’s leadership to heed the lessons from the Tories’ attempt to both co-opt and repel the Ukip/Brexit Party/Reform UK entity to its right. He advises Labour to stick to the centre, not to over-promise or run towards ideological purity.

We should remember that the Greens barely resemble a proper party. Their co-leader set-up deprives them of a figurehead the media can latch on to. Dispersed authority does not suit 15-second news bulletins. At the same time, the Greens have a disparate offering, designed to appeal to local voters at the cost of penetrating the national narrative. Their coalition is incoherent: Nimbyism, the socialist youth, pro-Palestinian sentiment and, in the words of one Labour aide, “shire Tories high on organic veg”.

Some Labour sources are confident that the Green vote will narrow at the general election as people coalesce around the anti-Tory candidate. Others are confident that the Greens will be swept away by the first wave of proper media scrutiny. “They will take care of themselves,” another aide said.

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The Lib Dems, resigned to fighting Tories in the rural south, see the Greens as Labour’s problem. One Lib Dem official remarked: “It’s a flip of a coin whether they end up with two seats or none at the next election so it’s high stakes.”

But Ukip showed that insurgents can divide a party and cause problems for the leadership without winning any parliamentary seats. Ukip and its successors have haunted the Conservative Party for more than a decade. Though the Greens are an incoherent vehicle for those who resent Starmer’s lurch to the centre, and the overall story remains Labour’s growing dominance, Labour will need to watch with care.

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

[See also: How big is Labour’s Gaza problem?]

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