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20 June 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 6:42am

The Labour 2019 election review is a blueprint for Starmerism

Labour will have to bridge cultural divides while uniting voters over the economy, the election review concludes. We’re already seeing the strategy in action.

By Ailbhe Rea

The Labour Together 2019 general election review has been released, concluding that “issues of leadership, Brexit and a manifesto package seen as undeliverable” catalysed deep underlying trends to fracture the Labour party’s voter coalition and deliver its worst election defeat since 1935.

Many will read the report looking to learn more about Corbyn and Corbynism: and, indeed, they will, in the comprehensive breakdown of the 2019 election strategy on the ground and the in-depth analysis of problems at the heart of Labour’s election machine. 

But the report reads even more fascinatingly as a document, not about Labour’s past, but Labour’s future. It isn’t so much an analysis of Corbynism, as a blueprint for Starmer and Starmerism.  

The review identifies, in extraordinary detail, the deep cultural and demographic shifts that have been fracturing Labour’s voter coalition for several decades, and the central problem moving forward. In brief, those with the most most socially liberal views make up the majority of Labour’s 2019 “core vote”, but just 21 per cent of the total electorate. This is “barely half of the proportion needed to achieve a winning vote share,” the report notes. On immigration, crime, and patriotism, there is a stark fault line between Labour’s core and the rest of the electorate.

Managing these differences will require a careful mediation, understanding and bridge-building between different groups, while not departing from Labour’s values and principles. As John Denham, who held a marginal seat for Labour for many years, has observed in the past “Labour does not need to agree with the voters on everything, just that we should not disagree with them on everything”.

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There is, however, an unexpectedly strong consensus on economic issues between different parts of Labour’s potential voter coalition. The review cites, for example, specific polling on economic positions among older and pro-Brexit voters:

Therein lies a blueprint for Starmerism, and we’re already seeing it in action. The report is unflinching about the options available to the Labour party if it hopes to win again: a renewed “tough-on-crime” emphasis, or a firmer anti-immigration stance, would both see Labour improve on its 2019 vote share but would fail to deliver above the 2017 result, the report finds. Instead, there is only one sustainable option to achieve a broad enough voter coalition to win:

 “A strategy that builds greater public support for a big change economic agenda, that is seen as credible and morally essential, rooted in people’s real lives and communities. 

This economic agenda would need to sit alongside a robust story of community and national pride, while bridging social and cultural divisions.  

The message of change would aim to enthuse and mobilise existing support and younger voters while at the same time being grounded in community, place and family, to speak to former “leave-minded” Labour voters. 

The bridging approach across divides would need to neutralise cultural and social tensions. Such a strategy could achieve more than 40% vote share, but would require an exceptional leadership team able to navigate building and winning trust of this very diverse voter coalition.”

Remember the above, because it is likely to form the basis of Labour’s next general election campaign. Indeed, we have seen it already. 

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, the culture war that is increasingly dividing the British electorate was in full evidence: outraged opposition backbenchers asked the Prime Minister about his plans to appoint someone who doubts the existence of institutional racism to set up the new commission on racial inequality; Conservative MPs asked in turn for reassurance on the protection of statues and former soldiers. 

Keir Starmer, meanwhile, dodged these divisions, and focused his questions entirely on the issue of child poverty and hunger: consensus-building, “morally essential”, to use the language of the report, and rooted in an implicit awareness of family and community life. 

We saw it too in Labour’s response to Black Lives Matter: Keir Starmer and the parliamentary party took the knee for George Floyd and supported peaceful protest, but the Labour leader, on his new LBC phone-in show, which reaches exactly the voters Labour needs to win back, notably did not support the way in which the statue of Edward Colston was toppled. Expect this to be a theme of the Starmer leadership: social liberalism, tempered with a firmer position on law and order, all the while deflecting from the cultural areas that divide voters, and shifting the conversation onto the firmer economic ground that unites them.  

As the election report acknowledges, this is much easier said than done. In the above example, many Labour activists in younger, socially liberal categories were furious that the party leader could not unequivocally celebrate the toppling of a statue of a slave-trader during international anti-racism protests. Interestingly, the report suggests that its findings “should form the basis of a political education programme across the party”, from its most senior MPs to the wider Labour movement, and that “all parts of the Labour Party need to recognise the scale of the electoral task with a shared understanding about what it will take to rise to it”. This will involve, implicitly, the education of the left of the party in the need to bridge a divide over cultural issues.

It is one thing for the leader to pursue a strategy of bridging cultural divides; it is a much trickier demand of parts of the Labour movement that place stock by the purity of their positions, and are likely to perceive compromise as “triangulation”. 

There is much more of interest in this report: in dissecting the growing electoral divides that have afflicted Labour’s voter coalition, it paints a wider picture of the growing divisions within modern Britain. It is fascinating, for example, that “Progressive Cosmopolitans”, “Younger Instagram Progressives”, and “The Green Left” are markedly less likely to identify with the phrase “I am proud to be British”, while large majorities in every other group do. Similarly, these groups sharply differ from the rest of the electorate on whether they agree with the sentiment of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, reflecting profoundly different instincts on crime and retribution. 

The Labour election review is clear about the electoral everest ahead of the party if it is to win back power: it needs a historic swing of over 10 per cent to gain a majority of one seat. No major party has ever increased their number of MPs by over 60 percent, which is what Labour would need to do to win in 2024.

But the review also sets out the beginnings of a path ahead to get there. It will involve, it argues, a bold economic vision, a story about community, family and Britishness, and some deft footwork to pull together a broad coalition across cultural divides.

Watch carefully as Labour begins this process in the months and years ahead. It will be a useful framework for understanding, not just the Starmer project, but the dominant forces in British politics in the years to come.