The Labour Party: Unity and the Centre Ground

(Photo: BBC)

By Fayyez Patel – Regular Contributor

12th December 2019, Labour’s worst general election performance since before the war, the Conservative’s biggest majority since the days of Thatcher and the highest share of the vote received by any party since 1979. A resounding Conservative victory, but perhaps an even more resounding rejection of Corbynism and Jeremy Corbyn himself. Prior to the general election, Corbyn had a negative 58 approval rating with some pollsters, the worst of any leader of the opposition since polls began. In an era of unprecedented political polarisation both at home and abroad, Corbyn offered voters a socialist alternative much further left of anything elected in Britain before. With a crew of unpopular front benchers and an indecisive stance on Brexit, the single biggest issue of the election, backing Boris Johnson’s snap-election was undeniably naïve and fatal for Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader, resigning him to the history books as possibly the worst ever leader of either of the two main parties.

 The subsequent Labour leadership contest yielded two serious potential replacements: Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer. To many, Long-Bailey represented a continuation of failed Corbyn policies, albeit with a slightly less polarising figure at the helm of the party. To most Labour party members, Keir Starmer was the only candidate who could even dream of winning a future election. Following Starmer’s election, Labour surged in the polls and even briefly overtook the Conservatives towards the end of 2020, a stark contrast to the 24 points behind Corbyn left the party in. The most observable difference between the two leaders is their political inclinations; Starmer has significantly shifted the party away from the far left-wing rhetoric, and instead has attempted to win over the large moderate portion of the electorate alienated by Corbyn.

The new look Labour party under Keir Starmer is almost unrecognisable from the divisive party Jeremy Corbyn left behind. Somewhat ironically, the moves to remove division and unite the party have caused new factional division. The far left and so called ‘Corbynistas’ of the party are beginning to become agitated with Starmer’s approach of supporting the government more and opposing policy less on ideological grounds. It appears the socialist utopia once dreamt of by the most loyal of Corbyn’s supporters is well and truly a long forgotten about fantasy. It is well accepted that Boris Johnson’s Conservative party is far more united than the current Labour party. Uniting the party may well be the single biggest challenge faced by Keir Starmer in his own bid to become the next prime minister, after all, would an undecided voter choose to lend their vote to a party that can’t even get its own house in order, let alone govern the entire country? Probably not.

In the most basic of terms, the Starmer strategy can be boiled down to two factors: greater party unity and appealing to a broad base of voters. Positioning the party closer to the centre of the political spectrum would appear to be the most sensible way of achieving these two goals. Throughout history, Britain has always leaned to the right of politics. By the time Keir Starmer can lead the Labour Party into a general election, the only previous Labour leader to have been successful in securing governance at a general election in the previous fifty years will be Tony Blair whom achieved this by repositioning the party from a left-wing party of opposition to a centre-left party appealing to a far broader group of voters. This is the best chance Labour have in securing election success. The previous fifty years have seen a general theme at Westminster whereby both the two main parties have been given a large time to implement change, with the Conservatives holding office for 18 years between 1979 and 1997, Labour the following 13 years and since then the Conservatives have been governing since 2010. The previous two changes of parties have seen both Tony Blair and David Cameron repositioning their respective parties much closer to the centre to break the other parties’ stronghold of office.

In 2005, David Cameron won the Conservative leadership contest on the grounds of modernising the party and making them electable. The post-Corbyn Labour Party has drawn many parallels to this; a party seemingly out of touch with nowhere near a majority of MPs in the House of Commons to show for it. Cameron saw himself as a one-nation liberal Tory MP who could appeal to swing voters and even traditional Labour voters. Despite being a Conservative, Cameron ran in 2010 having held talks with the centre Liberal Democrat party regarding a potential coalition. Since then, the Conservatives have strengthened their Parliament majority whilst simultaneously shifting further to the right at every subsequent general election; a blueprint for Labour to follow perhaps.

“Evolution, not revolution!” Following the catastrophic failures in 2019, Labour ought to learn the lesson that Britain will almost always reject a complete upheaval of its government’s political position. However, a gradual evolution may be the best tactic to employ if Britain was to ever delve into any sort of left-wing state again in the near future. So, whilst Keir Starmer attempts to make Labour electable, he must win the support of the left-wing factions within his party. Furthermore, the left of the party must also realise that supporting Starmer’s centre-left approach is necessary in overcoming the Conservatives and winning Labour a first general election since 2005, after this Labour may be able to gradually implement more left-wing policies.

If Starmer is to be the lynchpin of a gradually more left-wing state, he must also start to win back traditional Labour voters who have deserted the party over the last decade. In 2019, the so called ‘red wall’ was decimated and began to return many Conservative MPs to Westminster. Working class voters are twice as likely (54 percent vs. 27 percent) to vote Conservative compared to Labour according to a March 2021 YouGov poll, mainly due to social policy stances – particularly surrounding immigration – adopted by the two parties. Whilst the once Labour loyal Scotland, is now firmly in support of the SNP with 48 out 59 Scottish seats currently held by Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

It remains to be seen whether or not Keir Starmer can become only the third Labour leader born after the party’s creation to win a general election, but with the next general election being more than three years away, the upturn in poll results a year on from his election as party leader may provide quiet optimism for the Labour Party.

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