Sir Keir Starmer’s keynote speech rounded off a week of crises for his party and the country. While Labour members and union affiliates argued over changes to the party’s system for leadership contests, the nation went to war on the petrol station forecourt, energy companies collapsed and retailers warned of a nightmare Christmas ahead (does anyone know when we’re next due a ‘normal’ one?).
Running at around 90 minutes, the leader used his speech to make up for lost time. Last year’s awkward monologue to camera was hardly the moment he’d dreamed of, nor a proper opportunity to set out his stall.
Now that the dust has settled and the circus moves on to Manchester for the Conservatives’ turn, what are the key issues Labour need to navigate to find a way back to Downing Street?
By the time the next General Election rolls round, Labour will likely have been out of power for longer than it ruled under Blair and Brown.
If, as expected, the election happens 2024, first-time voters will have just started primary school during the London Olympics, turned ten as the UK voted for Brexit and been in their early teens when we first heard of coronavirus.
What do these young Brits want from a Labour government?
According to the IEA, two thirds of people under 35 want to live in a socialist economic system. Even more think the free market is primarily to blame for climate change and the housing crisis. And young people are angry at the idea they will bear the biggest cost to fund the care system.
These issues – climate, housing affordability, social care – speak to a breakdown in intergenerational fairness that now defines our political debates.
Being radical on the right issues
So a question for Sir Keir is: who do I need to appeal to most? On the evidence of Wednesday’s speech, he’s trying to do a bit of everything.
Radical in places – such as his Green New Deal (and rightly highlighting the retrofit challenge as key to unlocking a net zero future), an end to charitable status for private schools and an ambitious target to improve mental health services.
Elsewhere there’s a focus on “responsibility”, his “serious plan for government”, Labour as a “party of patriots” and spending taxpayers’ money sensibly. Starmer’s four principles of work, care, equality and security – plus a big emphasis on the family – are designed to appeal in equal measure to left and right.
The resignation of shadow minister Andy McDonald was a reminder of how difficult it will be to manage factions and build unity. And an awkward moment on Marr about the semantics of nationalisation suggested that drip feeding the party’s policy platform over the next few years could be a recipe for confusion among voters.
Making Brexit Work
Is Brexit done? Will it be done by the next election?
Labour’s leadership is hoping so. The party’s Brexit spokesperson told a fringe event that remainers needed to “get over” it.
Starmer was the architect of the party’s 2019 Brexit policy – seen by some as responsible for Labour haemorrhaging votes across England. This is still at the forefront of strategists’ minds and there’s a desire to move the debate on, despite the sense that we’re only now seeing the real impact of the vote to leave.
Driver shortages, supply chain problems and the fuel panic are bringing Brexit back into focus. How big do these crises need to get before Labour shifts strategy again to challenge the principle of Brexit itself, rather than a failure to properly manage it?
The Labour leader needs a keen eye on the numbers. To win a majority, he’ll have to pick up a massive 123 seats from other parties.
Most in Labour know a coalition is probably the best it can hope for. Yet 2015 is a reminder that being seen to work with the SNP – or even appearing to countenance a second referendum – is too big a gamble.
One way out of this bind could be to throw support behind electoral reform. It’s a risk, but calculations suggest it might be one worth taking.
As a manifesto pledge, it would appeal to Lib Dems and Greens, and could be used to negotiate an agreement to govern together. If implemented, it would slash the SNP’s seat share in Westminster – and potentially do the same to the Tories. Polling suggests the public is increasingly ready to support changes to the voting system, and a sizeable majority want to see parties working together.
Risk and reward
Electoral reform might not be a big vote winner – yet without it, the path back to power for Labour looks rockier than ever.
Starmer’s objective during his first year in charge was obvious. Distance himself from the previous leader and be seen by voters as sensible, safe and capable. Mission accomplished.
But with the electoral odds stacked against him, he can’t rely on competency alone as a reliable route to Downing Street.
He needs to be bold too – and before long he’ll need to start rolling the dice.
James Snowdon is an account director at Camargue