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The three big challenges facing Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer's statement on new lockdown measures will be aired on BBC One and BBC Radio 4. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor - Credit: Archant

Political historian GLEN O’HARA surveys the challenging electoral landscape facing the new Labour leader and identifies the three theatres of operations in which he must engage.

Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

No-one cares about party politics at the moment. The coronavirus emergency looms over everything. Most voters are worried sick, first and foremost about their loved ones, but also about their jobs and livelihoods.

Even so, politics will assuredly resume in earnest one day. Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, will then face the task of dragging Labour back from the brink of unelectability. On the face of it, this is an almost impossible challenge: a grand total of 124 seats from an overall majority, having lost seats that have been Labour since before the Second World War, how can he even hope to succeed?

In fact, nothing is set in stone, and the electoral battlefield is no exception. As president Kennedy once said in another context, ‘however fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbours’.

So it is with voters, too. Many armchair psephologists make the mistake of seeing different groups among the electorate like Lego, as if actual people were different snappable bits of a potentially larger whole that have to be carefully scrutinised before they can be clicked together.

In fact, what Starmer is attempting to do – look more professional, sound more considered, work in a more orderly fashion – could appeal to everyone, not just the swing voters or ‘persuadables’ of lore.

Although like all leaders of the opposition he waits on events, he can seek to broadcast widely and not retreat towards different coalitions of narrowly defined demographics or interest groups.

He might be making a little bit of progress. The first few polls since he was elected have seen Labour put on a point with pollsters BMG, two points with Redfield and Wilton Strategies, and three points with YouGov and Opinium.

Small beer, perhaps – and nothing to write home about among previous small bumps for new leaders – but welcome nonetheless.

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His own personal ratings are promising if not stellar, full of ‘don’t knows’ but at least among the positives: Ipsos Mori recently gave him a net score of +5, while his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn started out at -3.

Starmer is also making a series of characteristically cautious rhetorical moves. You can already see the outline of a post-coronavirus politics in two central Labour charges against the government, couched perhaps in emollient language, but a potentially fruitful line of attack in the future.

Number one, shadow ministers worry ministers failed to prepare adequately for a pandemic that was always going to come one day. Number two, they imply with their questions that the government has no really worked-out exit strategy from the present lockdown.

Both allegations could one day be incendiary. Yes, the government rides high for now. One of the last three voting intention polls have them ahead of Labour by 19 points, and two more give the Conservatives a 21 point advantage. But that is very much a ‘rally round the flag’ effect, as the government’s reaction to an all-encompassing story blots everyone else out of the narrative.

This unprecedented situation is boosting incumbents’ ratings almost everywhere, from the Canadian Liberals to the Christian Democrats in Germany. It will almost certainly not last.

Yet the outline of Starmer’s structural problems remain quite apparent through the appalling death statistics and the dreadful economic data. Labour’s situation is indeed unpromising, but breaking it down into its individual components could make it seem less daunting – as well as explaining why Starmer is first seeking a general politics of tone and style that might get Labour at least back to the starting line everywhere.

It is easiest to imagine the new leader’s electoral challenge as a multi-sided game of political Monopoly in which he is playing against many opponents – each forbidding in their own way, and each demanding that he stretch himself in a different direction.

Starmer must fight on at least three different battlefields. The first is among those new Conservative gains across non-metropolitan England and North Wales. Here, many more socially conservative voters once thought of as on the ‘left’, when we come to look at economic questions, have now decisively broken away from Labour and look askance at its liberalism, internationalism and embrace of change.

What is more, there are a number of seats where the Tories might hope to move forward on this battleground in the future: ex-Labour chair Ian Lavery’s seat in Wansbeck, and Yvette Cooper’s in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, are among them.

All is not lost in these seats. As the political scientist Paula Surridge has demonstrated, a large reservoir of Boris Johnson’s new voters still identify as ‘Labour’, and they sit in the middle of the left-right debate about economics, rather to the left of other Conservatives: if the post-Covid debate shifts around to who will pay for today’s spending, Starmer could still recapture these types of voter, or at least prevent any more losses.

If he is only able to stand still in traditionally ‘Labour’ areas, where can Starmer look for gains? There is a suspicion that he might appeal very much in liberal, pro-European southern England: places that are left-wing with a small ‘l’, but were put off by Corbynism.

Hailing from Surrey himself, with an unidentifiable accent and as one of Labour’s most identifiable pro-Europeans, he is in a good position to appeal in places where young people, commuters and graduates are puffing up Labour’s numbers: Wycombe, perhaps, Basingstoke, or Welwyn Hatfield. His favourability numbers with Liberal Democrat voters in these seats are good; he might attract tactical votes and floating preferences.

The problem is that there aren’t all that many of these seats: using degree level qualifications as a proxy for education and taking only those seats where Labour is in second place now, Cardiff University academic Thomas Prosser has shown that there could be as few as eight of them.

Most have very big majorities, and without the acute pressure of the Remain versus Leave furore, the churn of voters to the left may slow.

If he wants to push the Conservatives out of No.10, on this battlefield Starmer will also have to rely on Lib Dem gains in London and (increasingly their new heartland) South East England. There’s a precedent here, because Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown tacitly worked together to unseat Tories in 1997; both ended up with more seats that they would have done without behind-the-scenes collaboration.

There were quite a few liberal pro-Europeans who couldn’t stomach Labour in 2019: Starmer will make it easier for them to kick incumbent Tories in Wimbledon, Esher, Guildford and even John Redwood’s Wokingham. There are up to about 20 seats that look like this.

Starmer’s third problem is Scotland. Labour is now again down to just one seat in Scotland, as it was between 2015 and 2017, and is quite frankly clinging on to not just respectability but viability. Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour’s leader, is a virtual unknown in his own country, leading a divided party that evokes the worst of the darkly comic Corbyn years: in January, only 6% of respondents told YouGov they trusted him (46% trusted first minister Nicola Sturgeon). The most damning statistic for Leonard was not the 38% who didn’t trust him, but the 55% who didn’t know – often, no doubt, because they had never heard of him.

Starmer needs to win at least a scattering of seats here, for three reasons: first, to push his own seats total up as far as possible, since every win would give him added legitimacy as prime minister; secondly, to reinforce his bargaining position as against the Scottish National Party in the inevitable negotiations that a hung parliament would bring; and third, to draw the sting of the Tory allegation that Scottish MPs are running the show.

It can be done. Scottish seats are small, in terms of voter numbers if not geography. They sometimes host three- or even four-way fights in which margins can be tight. If the SNP trips up, there is the opportunity to pose as the local unionist opposition; if Labour can mount a targeted, focused operation, as in 2017, there are four seats at least within a 5% swing. That may not sound like a lot, but Starmer will have to take what he can get.

The overriding quandary for the British left is this: is there a politics that can appeal among older Labour seats that have been slipping out of the parties’ grasp for a decade or more, those seats in more prosperous parts of the country that are just coming into view as potential gains, and a Scottish system that seems to be squeezing them out?

Starmer’s answer is that radical policies divorced from the wilder shores of Corbynism can do the trick. The many Monopoly markets he must dabble in would strain even a political maestro, but Labour is not quite out of the game on any part of the board.

It strains credulity to imagine Sir Keir succeeding on all three battlefields, but on one or two he could still carry the day. Whatever the odds right now, that could still land him in Downing Street.

• Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2012) and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is currently working on a history of the Blair government of 1997-2007.

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