At times of crisis, people care very little for party politics. As we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic – and previously amid the 2008 financial crisis and the 9/11 attacks – voters are naturally more worried about the preservation of life and livelihood than they are about who is up and who is down at Westminster.
In the long term, crises do matter for party politics though. They matter because they create, and perhaps more often catalyse, forces in our political economy that shape our expectations of the state and those who lead it. This is why the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader should trouble the Conservative Party; more so than it would have legitimately done a couple of months ago.
During Starmer’s initial media appearances, there was much that sounded familiar from the Miliband and Corbyn eras. In an interview with the BBC last Sunday (5 April), Starmer said that there needed to be a “reckoning” with the excesses of the market economy, that we “can’t go back to business as usual” and that the plight of the low paid an issue “previously last, now needs to come first”. Indeed, the refusal to junk Labour’s left-wing manifesto wholesale is one of the reasons why Starmer won his party’s leadership so convincingly among activists.
In a pre-coronavirus crisis world, such an approach would have made easy pickings for Conservative high command. The airwaves and social media waves would be saturated by now with images painting Starmer as the latest iteration in a timeline of weak and vacillating Labour leaders – who would rack up our debts and tax us to oblivion. The fundamental message would have been a simple one: Labour hasn’t changed.
But the world has changed – and it’s changing fast. Public support in the UK for a more interventionist and redistributive state has been on the rise for several years. As much as ministers may protest, there were shades of this message in both Vote Leave’s victory in 2016 and Boris Johnson’s landslide win in 2019. What’s more, private and public polling during Corbyn’s leadership often showed that it wasn’t so much the policies that caused problems for the Labour Party – but the character of the former leader and the public’s doubts over his competence.
The coronavirus crisis has catalysed such attitudes, as recent polling by Portland during the pandemic has demonstrated. There has been overwhelming support – and demand – for the government’s vast fiscal response to the economic emergency that has developed. We have seen calls for intervention, in a variety of forms, against large businesses who are not acting in the communitarian spirit of the time. And the focus has increased, too, on the pay and conditions of public sector workers, not to mention lower-paid employees in the private sector.
It is fanciful to think that such attitudes will recede entirely once the worst has passed. The government’s current poll ratings are – to put it mildly – soft. And unless Conservative strategists think through their political response over the next 12 months, rather than just the next 12 weeks, they will be in for a grim shock. A presentable, competent-sounding leader of the opposition, especially one who leads a party of the traditional left, will in time be able to exert political pressure on a number of fronts: public sector pay negotiations, reforms to executive remuneration and corporate dividends, taxation of wealth and assets, and EU trade negotiations, to name just a few.
None of this is to sugar-coat the challenges facing Starmer. There are plenty of rogues in the institutional Labour Party and associated movements who risk contaminating his efforts through their vituperative tone towards business – and their more extreme arguments on national security.
I suspect Starmer will find it less easy to connect with voters in northern seats the Conservative Party won for the first time at the general election, than he will with voters in London and the south. The UK’s departure from the EU has not disappeared as an issue and Starmer risks alienating various parts of his potential coalition if he prevaricates rather than decides. And many of the flashpoints I set out above are well within the gift of a competent, hardworking and intellectually robust Conservative political operation to address.
As someone who spent this day in 2015 at the nerve centre in Tory HQ working on efforts to undermine Ed Miliband, I know that a lot can change in five years. It is foolish to predict what the result of the next general election will be. But Starmer’s transition to leader of the opposition will give the more accomplished breed of Conservative strategist pause for thought. Politics is far from people’s minds today. It will be back though and the Conservative Party cannot afford to be complacent.
Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser who worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy