Labour’s paths to victory: the choices of Sir Keir Starmer

Labour’s paths to victory: the choices of Sir Keir Starmer

The wheel turns.  In 2005, Labour won 355 seats, a majority of 64.  The Conservatives got just 198.  But last year, the Conservatives took 365 seats, a majority of 80, while Labour secured just 202.  The two elections as close to exact reverses of each other as you’ll ever get for the major parties.

Labour would like to turn the tables again.  In order to do so, they’ll need to decide how this is achievable.  In essence, they have three possible routes (there are likely to be boundary changes before the next election but the same essential options will be available).

  1. Turn back the clock

Labour could try to reconstruct the same electoral map that took it to victory in 2005.  That has the merit of familiarity.  Labour would know what they were looking at and know that many potential voters had voted for them before.  If you believe that Brexit was a one-off electoral disruptor and that voters will return home afterwards, this would be an approach worth considering.  

On the downside, many of their voters in 2005 are no longer alive.  And many more have moved very firmly away from Labour in the intervening 14 years.  The world has moved on and many of the considerations that applied in 2005 no longer apply.  Against the idea that Brexit was a one-off, there is abundant evidence that the psephological trends are long term, as I have previously noted.

This approach is implicitly adopted by traditionalist Labour supporters, who argue that Labour should be there for “their” people.  Curiously, these are often the people who are most reluctant to ask themselves what Tony Blair offered the electorate that succeeding Labour leaders did not.

  1. Target the 2019 result

Labour could instead try to look at the electoral map from last year’s election and seek to build from there.  Here is a list of Labour’s targets for the next election.

This would require Labour to accept that they, and the electorate, have changed.  You can spend time mourning that Mansfield is now a very solidly Conservative seat or you can accept that there are much easier targets that would still offer Labour a route to an overall majority.  While the last election was undoubtedly won and lost on specifics, seats like Carlisle have been moving pretty steadily away from Labour since 2005.  A lot of that has nothing to do with Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn.  Indeed, you might argue that causation flowed the other way around. 

I have previously taken a look at how those targets differ from Labour’s self-image and what that might entail.  To date, Labour have given few external signs about having done much thinking about this.  

One big drawback of this approach is that the long-term trends have been highly unfavourable to Labour.  If they are to build out from the metropolitan party that they have become, they need to find a message that appeals to many more voters.  Labour would need to be positioning themselves not so much as post-industrial as technocratic – a return to early 1960s Labour under Harold Wilson.  They have not done that yet.

  1. Lean in

There is no particular reason to assume that electoral trends have stopped.  By 2024, demographics will have moved on still further.  As I have previously noted, individual constituencies have moved in radically different ways between 2005 and 2019.  Why should those psephological movements not continue?  Should Labour not target the electorate as it will stand in 2024 rather than 2019?

We might assume that recent trends will continue and that the realignment takes place evenly in each constituency at the average rate that it has taken place between 2005 and 2019 for the next five years (the first assumption is very doubtful, the second is obviously untrue).  This would allow us to scale up the swing in each constituency allowing for another five years and we can draw up a list of Labour targets by 2024 attainability.

Here’s my stab at the Labour/Conservative battleground target seats based on those assumptions:

This list is still more southern, suburban and average than the current 2019 target list.  If those trends continued as indicated, Labour would not even be largest party unless it took the Prime Minister’s seat in Uxbridge & Ruislip South.  Beckenham and Welwyn Hatfield would be easier targets than West Bromwich West and Penistone & Stocksbridge.

Now, obviously there are quite a few objections to this approach.  First, the long term electoral trends are in part a product of the parties’ positioning.  Secondly, you might argue following Brexit and Covid-19 that the trends will stop or go in different directions.  

However, the recently-released Focal Data MRP which undertook a constituency-level analysis of current polling is suggestive.  As well as Uxbridge & Ruislip South, Labour would on current polling take seats like Wycombe and Colchester, and only narrowly miss taking both Bournemouth seats.  Meanwhile, Nuneaton and Bishop Auckland would remain Conservative.

And, even more than working off the current target list, Labour would need to reconsider who they were and what they stood for.  Harold Wilson once said that the Labour party was a moral crusade or it was nothing.  What would Labour’s moral crusade be if they followed this approach?

The choice

Labour could reasonably follow any of these three approaches, though the first to me seems clearly the worst, given that you can’t turn back the clock.  Whatever they choose, they should follow that choice consistently.

In practice I expect Labour will not make a final choice between these approaches, just as they have failed to choose before.  They will note the changing landscape but they will ultimately use their self-image to formulate their offering to the electorate.  If so, they will probably underperform what they might otherwise achieve.

Alastair Meeks

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