Where next for Labour?

Regardless of the outcome of the London mayoral election, Thursday’s results were a massive setback for the Labour Party. To have lost Hartlepool is bad enough for them. To have lost it by a margin of 23 percentage points is a disaster.

It is quite clear that the UK’s traditional left-wing party has some serious thinking to do. Fielding a Remainer in a 70%-Leave constituency probably wasn’t a great idea. But the issues run deeper than that. Faced with an incumbent Conservative government that has tacked leftwards on the economy, having proven its commitment to ‘levelling up’ through its generous spending throughout the pandemic, Keir Starmer is left with little to say on economic issues. He may be able to challenge the government in specific instances, but it is the big-picture narratives that captivate voters. It is for that reason, too, that squabbles over Boris Johnson’s flat renovation have failed to resonate with voters. Keir’s wallpaper photo-op came across as tone-deaf at best, conceited at worst.

So, as the pandemic (touch wood) appears to be subsiding as a major issue in the UK, and the country approaches normality, how is Labour to woo voters back? Will their narrative be persuasive? The answer is that, whatever vision or policies Labour presents, none of that will have much to do with their electoral success. Their fortunes will have more to do with the actions of the incumbent government. If the Conservatives, hypothetically speaking, were to reverse their Keynesian approach to the economy, and instead opt for a Cameron-esque approach, Labour would be given a lot to say on economic issues. Furthermore, if a genuine scandal were to arise (i.e. not just “who paid for who’s wallpaper?”), Keir Starmer would by default be given an advantage. But basing your fortunes entirely on what the opposite side does is not a particularly reliable, or wise, strategy.

Although the current administration would probably avoid such a radical approach, Labour could potentially form an electoral pact with the other left/liberal parties. Assuming this involved Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, this would involve fielding one candidate from one of these parties against the Conservatives. When the Lib Dems and Greens formed a pact in the 2019 election, the effect was minimal. If Labour were to join in, however, the impact could be huge. In 2019, their combined vote share would stack up to 46.4%, compared with the Conservatives’ 43.6%. This, combined with regional parties in Scotland and Wales, which lean left, would lead to a significant majority for a Labour government in coalition with other parties.

However, there are many caveats to this. Firstly, in order for the pact to occur in the first place, Labour would likely have to demonstrate a commitment to electoral reform: in other words, it would have to promise to help change the electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation. This is because the Lib Dems in particular are negatively affected by the current voting system, so making this commitment a precondition for a pact would make sense for them. Labour, on the other hand, tend to benefit from FPTP – giving them disproportionate number of seats in Parliament compared to their actual vote share – so they may be reluctant to support proportional representation unless they absolutely had to.

Secondly, it is not clear that Labour and the Lib Dems are natural allies, being left-of centre and centrist respectively. Although they may be broadly aligned at the moment, with Keir Starmer presenting as a (relatively) moderate leader, this may change in the future. If Keir’s successor were to be much further to the left, some antagonism may be present between them and the Lib Dem leader, as there was between Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson. This would complicate any electoral pact, perhaps making it impossible. Thirdly, the Conservatives can always form their own pacts with right-of-centre parties. In 2019, the Brexit Party received 2% of the vote. Had the Conservatives formed a pact with them to allow them to stand in several constituencies unopposed by Tory candidates, seats like Hartlepool would not have been won by Labour in 2019 in the first place.

Though the short-term looks overwhelmingly positive for the Conservative Party, it is important that no major policy errors are made, or that promises of ‘levelling up’ are left unfulfilled. Conservatives should celebrate the current success, but take heed of the looming hazard of a left-liberal election pact.

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