Tuesday 7 June 2022

Why Isn't Labour 20 Points Ahead? (Again)

Following Monday night's no confidence vote on Boris Johnson, a layer of MPs breathed a sigh of relief. On the opposition benches. For the polls that have been consistently favourable to Labour are reflective of an anti-Johnson sentiment rather than anti-Tory feeling or enthusiasm for the works of Keir Starmer. And this will continue for as long as Downing Street's tenant remains in situ. Why isn't Labour doing better? We visited this issue in January last year. Then, the party had just slipped behind the Tories and ahead of it lay the dismal local election results and the loss of Hartlepool. And now, after a calamitous year of pandemic failure, a cost of living catastrophe, and the public exposure of Johnson's thoroughly dishonest character, it's reasonable to expect Labour to clean up.

Trying to explain what's happening, a superficial survey by Ben Walker of Britain Elects suggests Labour is held back by the party's unpopularity (in marketing speak, the brand is tarnished), and is trailing the Tories on the economy. Counter-intuitively it leads on living standards and how to protect them - that's polling for you. Ben also notes Keir Starmer isn't a negative, but nor is he much of an asset. The Starmer effect is neutral. But again, why? Does it come down to these two simple factors? No.

There are two interrelated difficulties Labour has to navigate. Recalling the Corbyn interlude, between 2017 and 2019 politics was polarised. Though it wasn't much commented on at the time, Theresa May lost her majority but attracted a substantial voting bloc who remained wedded to the Tories up to the point where her position completely dissolved at the 2019 EU elections. As we know, Boris Johnson picked up the pieces and added to this solid base. Labour's Brexit position, which was not an easy one fell apart and the election was lost. But Johnson's Leave bloc stuck with the Tories well into 2020, lifting him even higher during the most dangerous moments of the pandemic. There's been an awful lot of water under the bridge since then and the bodies have piled high, to coin a phrase. But the reasons why Johnson was popular two years ago applies to that solid 30-35% of the electorate who, despite everything, are still prepared to back the Tories.

"Ah!" a wiseacre Labour strategist might note, "we can - and are - easily out polling the hardcore Tory vote." And we should hush such foolishness. This is true, but as of March this year about 11-12% of 2019 Tory voters are moving to Labour. About five per cent of the same have moved into the "don't know" column, which means when push comes to shove they're probably going to slide back to the Conservatives and the small-to-middling poll leads Labour keep posting evaporates.

We have to acknowledge that the smaller parties have scooped up some of Labour's vote. Since Scottish Labour's debacle at the 2014 independence referendum, about two percentage points have been lost to the SNP. The Liberal Democrat performance at the 2019 election, which saw them put on four percentage points has, again, probably resulted in a permanent loss of one or two points. And the consolidation of the Greens have also peeled away between two and three per cent. Six to seven points gone from Labour's coalition helps explain wy we're not seeing bigger leads in the polls, while double-digit margins are rare and fleeting. If only something could be done?

It can, because this is politics and not some force of nature. My argument has never been that left wing policies are a magic bullet that can overcome Labour's issues, but taking a clue from the party's name and rooting its message and politics in the labour interest is a good place to begin. But this is what Keir Starmer will not countenance. Rather than beginning with the base Labour has and building out from there, Starmer has adopted from New Labour the idea the party's working class base is culturally conservative, roughly correlates with the people Johnson won in 2019, and whose aspirations are at odds with what the labour movement is trying to achieve. And so we're left with a strategy that does three things. It declares fealty to the flag and British institutions, which looks inauthentic and try hard. It's conspicuous about not offering anything, and lastly when the party does take a position on something it's been so focus grouped to death that policy is well behind where public opinion is. Lockdowns, free school meals, universal credit increases, and the windfall tax - in each instance party positioning tailed, not led the electorate.

The consequence of this is exactly what we see in the polling. Starmer is rendering permanent the 2019 splits in the anti-Tory forces, and is left trying to put together a non-aggression treaty on the down low. Beats the hard job of political struggle and winning support back, I suppose. But by refusing to stand up for the labour interest, he's not only alienating people who should be on board he's not even contesting the Tories where they're the weakest and Labour is the strongest: on housing, on jobs, on living standards. This is the Labour leader who thought it smart politics to greet Rishi Sunak's energy bill wheeze with a plaintive cry of "where's he getting the money from?" Starmer has no gravitas because his leadership has no gravity. And so those Tory don't knows and others who might be persuadable to switch, if they haven't already, are just left to their own devices with the Labour leader hoping abstract appeals to patriotism will win them over.

If Johnson hangs on, it's possible this weak sauce strategy could be enough to see Labour over the line and into Downing Street in two years' time. But if not, then Starmer's preference for effectively doing nothing and not being his opponent falls to bits. What might work, however, is building a strong, rooted Labour politics now while the advantage is with him. But this requires recognising what the party is, its position in politics, who the people are who support it and why, and how this is the base for drawing in wider layers. And so far, over two years into his leadership, Starmer's shown scant interest in that.

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Anonymous said...

I’ve been saying it since he became leader, we need to be offering the electorate something other than just competency. Critical comments and finger pointing and shouting Tory sleaze at every opportunity alone will not and does not cut though with the average man on the street. Seen as he’s dropped all the pledges on which he was elected, people need to know what we stand for now on everything. Sadly this isn’t happening and most folk haven’t got a clue what we stand for anymore. We should be putting these self serving bastards to the sword, but until we have a clear and popular manifesto that will not be happening. Yet another deep sigh moment

Ken said...

Why 20 points? Oh, I remember, where Labour should have been when May was PM.

Anonymous said...

Cry more, Ken. If Labour should have been 20 points ahead in 2017 then after 195k covid deaths, cost of living and party gate (not to mention a media that has treated Starmer with kid gloves despite all the skeletons in his DPP closet) they should be absolutely hosing the Tories now.