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Labour’s Path Back to Power

2019 was a historically disastrous year for the British Labour Party. The December election produced its worst defeat since 1935, giving Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s conservatives a crushing majority of 80 seats. Perhaps even more shocking than the size of Labour’s loss was the nature of its loss. Of the seats lost to the Conservatives, 43 were part of what was once called the ‘Red Wall,’ a group of Brexit-voting constituencies in the North and Midlands; most of whom had voted Labour for over a century. 

However, this year showed promise. Only nine months after its humiliating defeat in 2019, Labour—under the new leadership of Sir Keir Starmer—overtook the Conservatives in a national poll for the first time since July 2019. Despite winning over the strongly left-wing Labour Party electorate to become leader in April, Starmer is seen as more moderate than his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and was a far greater supporter of a second EU referendum when serving as Shadow Brexit Secretary.

What accounted for this sudden recovery? The answer is grounded in Starmer’s ability to win back support in vital ‘Red Wall’ seats, often from unlikely places such as the centrist, pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Specifically, Starmer’s strong actions against antisemitism, his embrace of patriotism, and his deft handling of the Covid-19 crisis have re-established Labour as a serious threat to the Conservatives.

Yet before analysing Starmer’s success, it is important to affirm that this success is material. Labour is still only polling around 40 percent, exactly the vote share Corbyn achieved in the 2017 election. However, leaving aside the fact that this had dissolved into 32.2 percent by the 2019 election, one must remember that under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, vote share means very little. Instead, elections are decided in a handful of battleground seats. Thus, where a party’s votes are is far more important than how many there are. By this metric, Corbyn failed. 

Findings by the Labour Roadmap group suggest that the increase in Labour’s vote share in the 2017 general election—an election they lost—was largely a result of Labour increasing support in seats it already held; Corbyn was very good at appealing to places that he didn’t need to. Conversely, polling by Opinium suggests that Keir Starmer is experiencing the opposite effect, with Labour up six points in ‘Conservative gain’ seats from 2019 and nine points in ‘Conservative hold’ seats. Thus, Labour’s revival depends not solely on the fact that Starmer is more popular than Corbyn, but that he is more popular with the most important group of voters. Labour finally has a leader who can win over the right voters, in the right places to win an election.

One potential reason for this perhaps lies with the centrist, pro-EU Liberal Democrats—a seemingly bizarre assertion when Labour’s main losses occurred in strongly Eurosceptic seats. Nevertheless, the Brexit-voting Red Wall constituency of Blyth Valley illustrates this point well. Labour lost this seat by only 712 votes, far less than the 2,151 votes the Liberal Democrats gained here. If Labour can consolidate this center-left, broadly more liberal coalition in Brexit-voting seats, they may well be on their way to winning back many of these seats. Starmer, being a more moderate politician than Jeremy Corbyn, is well placed to win back these Liberal Democrat votes, which could help explain Labour’s recovery in Red Wall seats.

Yet the Liberal Democrats, a party that gained only 11.5 percent of the vote in 2019, cannot explain Labour’s recovery alone. Starmer now has a net approval rating of 19 percent, compared to Jeremy Corbyn’s—40 percent in January 2020—such a swing indicates that attitudes towards Labour are changing across the country, not just in their liberal, center-left base.

One issue that may help explain this is Starmer’s tough stance against antisemitism. Previously, Corbyn’s repeated failures to tackle antisemitism in the party came to be one of the defining issues of his leadership. Though it is hard to quantify how much this affected Labour’s popularity, it was certainly a crucial issue for the party. Specifically, for many, the issue of antisemitism became a competency test for Corbyn—if he could not even tackle antisemitism in his own party, how could he negotiate a Brexit deal or protect the UK’s national security? In this case, antisemitism played into broader fears of Corbyn’s incompetence and inability to be prime minister, such that by November 2019 only 20 percent of Britons thought he would make a better prime minister than Boris Johnson.

By contrast, Starmer has sought to apologise for Labour’s failures and rebuild trust with the Jewish community, calling it his “number one priority.” For example, Starmer settled a legal case with antisemitism whistle-blowers who Corbyn’s Labour Party attacked. Public disavowal of antisemitism is not enough to win an election, but it is an issue Starmer had to tackle for the public to take him seriously. 

Another crucial element in Labour’s recovery lies in Starmer’s embrace of patriotism, distinguishing himself from Corbyn who was often perceived as unpatriotic. Former Labour MP Jenny Chapman—who lost her ‘Red Wall’ seat of Darlington in the 2019 election— argued that patriotism was a “real issue” on the doorstep and Corbyn “cleared the pitch. He walked away from the flag, he didn’t stand up for the national anthem, he didn’t dress appropriately for an important remembrance event.”      

Starmer has worn his patriotism proudly. In his speech to Labour’s conference in September, the candidate had one clear message to patriotic voters: “We love this country as you do.” Like the gun lobby and Fox News, hyperbolic patriotism is predominantly an American political quirk the UK has sidestepped. Thus, Starmer has not needed to be overly Jingoistic, but he has successfully sent a message to more traditional voters in the Red Wall that Labour is on Britain’s side.

While these two elements have been important, Covid-19 looms. There is a clear correlation between Labour’s growth in support and increased disapproval of the government’s handling of the virus. Whereas 72 percent of the country thought the government was handling Covid-19 well on March 27, only 31 percent did by September 2019. Anger over the UK’s high excess mortality rate has contributed to this growing dissatisfaction towards the government’s response

Starmer has managed this crisis tactfully, recognizing the desire in the country to move away from political point scoring at the outset of the virus. He has avoided politicizing the pandemic and has been working constructively with the government, but to be sure, has also been gradually increasing pressure on Johnson as his errors mount. Crucially, Starmer has drawn a clear contrast between his diligent, lawyerly approach and Johnson’s charismatic but chaotic nature. Indeed, the evidence now suggests that voters are recognising Starmer’s different approach and liking it—by September, Starmer led Johnson on who would make the best prime minister by four points.

Despite the progress, Starmer is undoubtedly facing an uphill battle. Serious questions remain as to whether one election is enough to overturn Johnson’s mammoth majority of 80 seats. Indeed, historically, Britain rarely elects Labour prime ministers; only four have ever won majorities. But despite all the challenges ahead, after less than a year leading the party, Starmer has shown that he could well be the fifth. 

Photo: Image via Wikimedia (Rwendland)