Tomorrow, as he sits in the House of Commons preparing to reply to a budget delivered by the most popular Chancellor in a generation, in the middle of a successful vaccine roll out, Keir Starmer may well be reminded of the cliché that his current gig as Leader of the Opposition really is the most thankless job in British politics.
We heard the outline of what Starmer might say in a speech on the economy delivered just under a fortnight ago.
Yet the crux of that speech was not any one policy announcement, or even the setting out of a broad macroeconomic approach. Instead, it was an assertion about the state of public opinion: the idea that ‘there’s a mood in the air which we don’t detect often in Britain. It was there in 1945, after the sacrifice of war, and it’s there again now.’
The logic goes that, if this is a moment where the public demand a paradigm shift in the way our economy works, the political context is likely to soon become much rosier for Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.
There is much to be said for the rhetorical (and sepia-tinged) comparison with 1945 for the Labour Party. However, this should be matched with a cold assessment of the current electoral reality.
Our new report, Unequal Britain, published by King’s College London, demonstrates the strategic dangers that lie in assuming that we are currently living through a ‘1945 moment’ – risking the possibility that Labour misses the nuances in public opinion, and fails to frame the argument in a way that exploits the genuine opportunities that do now exist for a party with clear and unifying intentions.
First, voters now think we are more unequal in March 2021 than we were in March 2020. Yet the assumption that there is an overwhelming consensus for change could lead Labour to misdiagnose the public mood. While 44% of people believe the Covid-19 crisis has increased the level of inequality in Britain, 39% believe it will make no difference, and the rest are unsure.
It is Labour Remainers (74%) who are most convinced that inequality has risen as a result of Covid-19. In contrast, 44% of Labour Leavers – the more social conservative part of Labour’s electoral coalition – agree that inequality has risen, not dissimilar to the number of Conservative Remainers (35%) and Conservative Leavers (28%) who feel the same.
Starmer is looking to unite a coalition of voters divided between left and right, and the social values issues that Brexit symbolised.
While a belief that Britain is too unequal is supported by a majority of Leave and Remain supporters of both parties, the idea that this crisis has made the situation worse is a more divisive question. Couching the debate in the context of Covid-19 is not necessarily the unifying argument many assume.
Second, the historical comparison with 1945 risks comparing two party systems that are now very different. Not only are there two axes of social and economic issues that roughly divide voters, but the politics of class plays very differently in this.
Some 62% of voters with a degree think we are now living in a more unequal country due to Covid-19, compared to 29% with education at GCSE level or below. This is different to the folklore of 1945 as a momentous rising of support ‘from below’.
The third problem – perhaps the hardest to stomach for Labour – may well be that voters will not inevitably see Labour as the right vehicle for progressive economic change.
As the graph below shows, the top concern among voters, when asked to choose from a range of inequalities, is geographic inequality between more and less deprived areas in the UK.
While it is hard to make the case that there has been much ‘levelling up’ since December 2019, the fact that the concerns of the public appear to coincide with the rhetoric that the Prime Minister adopted in the 2019 General Election is a sign that the Conservative Party has recently made the weather on questions of inequality.
Finally, a danger for Labour is that a ‘1945 moment’ might be interpreted as a moment when the public will look afresh at structural faults in our society. Yet there continues to be a mismatch between public opinion and reality on some of the structural effects of Covid-19.
Take the examples of generational and gender inequality. Over half of those who have left payrolled employment in the last year have been under 25. Yet on just over one in three voters (37%) say that young people are worse off economically from the crisis – against 31% think that the old and the young have been equally affected economically, and 20% saying that older voters have been worse hit.
Only 12% think women have been more economically affected than men, despite the UK not being immune from the gendered effects of the crisis that led the UN to warn that Covid-19 is likely to set gender equality back by decades.
It was the private view of Clement Attlee that if Churchill could have run as a President after the war – that is, on his own, rather than as the figurehead of a party – he would have won.
It was only the fact that Churchill had to go to an election ‘burdened with a discredited party’ that led to the Labour victory of 1945.
This gives two salutary lessons. The first is that election victories for the Leader of the Opposition are never as easy as they appear in retrospect.
The second is that Labour now has an opportunity to expose the Conservative Party’s answers on inequality as inadequate to the historic moment we are in. It just has to make sure it fully understand that popular moment first.
By Dr Alan Wager, researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe. You can read the full report ‘Unequal Britain’ here.