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Inside Labour’s war against complacency

As an election year dawns, Team Starmer are refusing to believe the hype around them.

By George Eaton

The Labour Party has a talent for losing elections. Over the last century, it has held office for just 33 years and has produced just six prime ministers. The Conservatives, by comparison, have held office for 67 years and produced 14 prime ministers.

It is the burden of history that explains Labour’s caution at the outset of this election year. “You’d think we were level-pegging with the Tories, not 18 points ahead,” said one aide of the disciplined mood at the party’s headquarters in Southwark, central London.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor and junior chess champion, likens Labour’s position to being “a rook ahead” after 30 moves against “an opponent that usually beats us”. At a recent shadow cabinet meeting Pat McFadden, the party’s national campaign coordinator, put the same point even more bluntly: “We usually lose.”

A similar mood prevailed before the party’s landslide victory in 1997. “Yes, the Tories are fighting like ferrets in a sack, but complacency is the absolute danger of the Labour Party,” Tony Blair remarked in an interview with the New Statesman that year. “This election is not yet won. I discount the polls. I don’t believe them. I think it’s going to be a far tighter and harder race than they suggest. These people have won four elections in a row and they are not going to hand over the keys of Downing Street without a fight.”

Today, echoing a phrase used by Blair on the campaign trail in 1997, shadow cabinet members describe themselves as “eternal warriors against complacency”. But how nervous should Labour be? And how did a party that once appeared condemned to opposition recover so swiftly?

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If Labour is obsessed with avoiding complacency, it is partly because it could otherwise be so tempting. In polling history, no opposition has ever lost from a starting position this strong. “The best news for Labour in the last 12 months is that the Tories have basically gone nowhere,” Professor John Curtice, the leading psephologist, told me. “The current average for them is 25 per cent, which is exactly what it was in the immediate wake of Rishi Sunak becoming prime minister.”

Crucially, Labour also leads as the party best placed to manage the economy (by 28 per cent to the Tories’ 19 per cent) and Keir Starmer leads Sunak as the public’s preferred prime minister (by 31 per cent to 19 per cent) – the two metrics that are often the most reliable predictor of election results. In 2015, while Labour might have enjoyed a headline poll lead, it trailed the Tories on the economy and Ed Miliband trailed David Cameron.

But less comforting graphs are available. In a presentation to the shadow cabinet on 5 December, Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director, 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”).

“Polls do not predict the future,” McSweeney warned the shadow cabinet’s 31 members. “Nobody has voted in the general election; change won’t happen unless people vote for it.”

Rather than taking false comfort from polls (which McSweeney likened to driving while looking in the rear-view mirror), he urged Labour’s frontbenchers to “win every day”. Swing voters can swing back – the party’s duty is to ensure they don’t.

The last decade has been defined by electoral volatility: David Cameron’s unexpected majority in 2015, the collapse of Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Labour’s 2017 surge and the Tories’ 2019 triumph. One of McSweeney’s recommended reads is a book that anatomises this trend: Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World (2019).

Published by the team of academics behind the British Election Study, it explains how a process of “partisan dealignment” – weaker party loyalties among voters – has interacted with wider shocks, such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, to trigger electoral earthquakes.

[See also: Is Anas Sarwar ready?]

Since Starmer became Labour leader in 2020, volatility has largely worked to his advantage. A more promiscuous electorate has swung away from the Conservatives – and the Tories have given it plenty of excuses to do so. Curtice cited two key turning points: “partygate”, which cost the Conservatives five to six points in a matter of weeks, and then Liz Truss’s calamitous premiership, which depressed the party’s ratings by a similar amount.

When Sunak became prime minister in October 2022, some in Labour feared that the Tory party’s talent for reinvention would be proved yet again. But “rather than making the political weather, Sunak has been dragged down by it”, said Marcus Roberts, YouGov’s chief of public data.

Instead of boosting support for the Conservatives, the Prime Minister’s personal ratings – which far outstripped his party’s when he entered office – have “dropped down to join the Tories’”.

In 2017, critics such as the former chancellor George Osborne accused the Conservatives of trying to launch a “personality cult” around a leader with no personality (Theresa May). In autumn 2023, the Tories sought to relaunch Sunak as a “change candidate” with no vision of change. As they have pivoted away from this approach – witness the return of David Cameron – Labour has taken note.

In November, the party held a special strategy meeting of its National Executive Committee (NEC) at its Newcastle office to assess the year ahead. Ellie Reeves, Labour’s deputy national campaign coordinator (and sister of Rachel), told those present that the Tories were now pursuing a “better the devil you know” approach. They would seek to make the election a referendum on Labour rather than on their record in government. In response, the party would emphasise four themes: that it is time for a change; that the Tories have failed and will fail again; that Starmer has changed Labour; and that the party has a long-term plan for the country.

At the same meeting, McSweeney reminded the NEC of the electoral Everest that Labour needs to scale. To win a parliamentary majority (326 MPs), the party must gain 128 seats. But to achieve a more stable majority, McSweeney added, Labour would have to gain a quarter of all seats in the House of Commons (162). This would require double-digit gains in every nation and region.

By contrast, the task facing Blair in 1997 was far less daunting. After the gains made by Neil Kinnock at the 1992 election, Labour had 271 seats, meaning it required only 59 more for a majority (out of 659 seats at the time).

After the 2019 election, when the party was left with just 202 MPs, it was often forecast that Labour would require a bigger swing than in 1997 (10.2 points) simply to achieve a majority of one. But the party’s path to victory now appears less treacherous.

First, in Scotland, Labour is now almost tied with the SNP in Westminster polls and is hopeful of winning 20-25 seats (it currently holds just two). Previous forecasts assumed a static Scottish electoral map – but the SNP’s hegemony is cracking.

“For every ten seats that Labour wins in Scotland, that’s roughly half a million fewer votes that it needs in England and Wales,” said Roberts. “So if Labour gains 20 seats in Scotland, it doesn’t need another million votes in England and Wales.”

Second, anti-Tory tactical voting, the force that helped propel New Labour to three consecutive majorities, has returned. In the ten seats the Conservatives have defended in by-elections since 2019, voters have usually rallied behind the most viable anti-Tory challenger, whether Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Peter Kellner, the former president of YouGov, has calculated that tactical voting may be worth an additional 20 seats to Labour. That the Lib Dems are openly concentrating their efforts on the Tory-held “Blue Wall” in southern England is further to Starmer’s advantage.

Third, as McSweeney noted at Labour’s NEC meeting, the party is gaining votes where it matters most. At the 2023 local elections, Labour recorded its biggest swings in the pro-Leave, working-class areas that delivered a Tory landslide in 2019. The party’s vote had become overconcentrated in big cities and university towns: while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour achieved 40 per cent of the vote in 2017, it won just 262 seats (only four more than Gordon Brown in 2010). By attracting more of the swing voters who ultimately decide elections, Labour’s path to a majority has been eased.

Faced with all this, some might imagine that the Conservatives have conceded defeat in advance, that Sunak is dreaming of a future in California, not Downing Street. Labour, unsurprisingly, is keen to dispel this notion. It notes that the Tories have raised the national spending limit for general elections from £19m to £34m, a sign that they believe their party donors will dig deep. “No one spends £34m on a lost cause – unless they’re Chelsea [FC],” a Labour source wryly observed.

Since its creation in 1834, the Conservative Party has never won five consecutive general election victories. But unprecedented outcomes have been a feature of British politics in recent history. Could the “natural party of government” yet recover?

As Labour enters campaign mode, its centre of gravity is shifting away from Westminster. Starmer is spending more time at his office at party HQ in Southwark, where most shadow cabinet meetings are now held. For months, Labour has been preparing for a May election – a position that aides say remains unchanged following Sunak’s attempt to dampen speculation. Shadow cabinet members, as the New Statesman first reported, have been instructed to finalise all policy for the party’s manifesto by 8 February.

It was Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that the Budget would be held on 6 March that triggered renewed talk of a spring election. Labour is relaxed about the prospect of the Conservatives using the occasion to introduce new tax cuts. “The Tory party is very good at telling us what they’re going to do, saying ‘we’ve created a trap for Labour’ and giving us about three months to plan how to avoid that trap,” an aide remarked.

Should Hunt unveil cuts in income and inheritance tax, Labour’s response will be twofold. First, the party will ask “the Reagan question”: are you better or worse off than you were four years ago? For the first time in modern history, British households are projected to be poorer (by an average of £1,200) at the end of a parliament than they were at the start. Second, Labour will remind voters that the Tories have introduced 25 tax rises since 2019 – a message that has helped deny Hunt and Sunak electoral credit for the 2-percentage-point cut in National Insurance.

What of Labour’s own economic vision? The New Statesman understands that Reeves has been invited to deliver this year’s prestigious Mais Lecture in the City of London, an address previously given by Nigel Lawson in 1984, Tony Blair in 1995 and Sunak in 2022.

Much recent discussion has revolved around a pledge Reeves made in a previous speech. It was at Labour’s 2021 conference that she first promised “an additional £28bn of capital investment in our country’s green transition for each and every year of this decade”.

Since then, confronted by the end of the age of cheap money, Labour has issued a series of caveats to its £28bn pledge: it would only be met in the second half of the next parliament, it would include existing government investment (currently £8bn) and it would be subject to Labour’s fiscal rules (to reduce debt as a share of GDP and to avoid borrowing for day-to-day spending).

Such economic caution – Reeves has also ruled out announcing any further tax rises – has prompted ubiquitous talk of a “Ming vase strategy” (the item that Roy Jenkins suggested Blair was carrying across a “highly polished floor” before the 1997 election). The charge is that Labour has embraced political quietism in preference to radical change.

“I can’t think of an example of Labour creating a mandate in government,” Jon Cruddas, the party’s former policy coordinator and the author of the new book, A Century of Labour, told me. “To me at the moment it’s a pretty elusive target, Starmerism. Some will say ‘well, he travels light and that’s good’. I’m not sure it allows for a durable Labour government.”

But aides insist Starmer’s programme is far more radical than such critics allow. One cited the Labour leader’s pledge last autumn to “bulldoze” the UK’s restrictive planning laws – made as the party campaigned against pro-nimby rivals in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election.

While Starmer’s team has absorbed electoral lessons from New Labour, the party’s interventionist policy programme – expanding workers’ rights, creating a publicly-owned energy company, establishing a National Wealth Fund – is more redolent of Wilsonian corporatism than Blairism.

Together with Clement Attlee, Blair and Harold Wilson are part of an exclusive club: Labour leaders who have won have a majority. Is Keir Starmer destined to join them? For Labour, success depends on refusing to believe the hype.

[See also: To win, the Tories need to defy electoral history]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously