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20 Apr 2021

Politics and Society

How much can Keir Starmer do as leader of the opposition to improve the performance of the Labour Party in the opinion polls? There’s only a finite amount of agency he has in opposition, and there is a debate about whether he is using it in the most effective way – particularly as the Conservatives have a seven point lead over Labour in the recent voting intention opinion polls.

However, we also need to think about the unprecedented structural challenges facing the opposition leader.

First, it’s worth pointing out that the Labour Party has never had a new leader who has served a full term in opposition and then won a general election. It has only had three election winning leaders since the War.

Clement Attlee had served in the wartime national government before leading Labour to victory in 1945. Harold Wilson took over as leader of the Labour Party just over a year before winning the 1964 election; Labour then lost the election in 1970 and Wilson stayed on as Labour leader in opposition to Edward Heath’s Conservative government.

He went on to form a minority Labour government after the election of 1974, but by then had six years of Prime Ministerial experience under his belt. Tony Blair, completing the trio, took over as Labour leader following John Smith’s death in 1994, two years into John Major’s second term as Conservative Prime Minister.

Meanwhile Callaghan and Brown both took over from predecessors (Wilson and Blair, respectively), lost general elections and then only served short stints as opposition leaders after their defeat.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have historical models in successful full term opposition leaders in Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron.

All this means that the Labour party, and indeed Starmer, have no template for a successful full term opposition leader, and neither, it could be said, does the country. It is thus difficult to describe what a successful strategy for Starmer entails, given the lack of precedent.

Maybe Labour needs two leaders to see it through a parliamentary term in opposition, to shift it back to a party of government.

Opposition leaders cannot replicate past successful strategies – since, as we’ve seen, there’s nothing really to draw on – and they cannot lift from the Conservative template given the two very different electoral coalitions, history, party membership and internal structures.

Against this historical backdrop, Starmer has set out a ‘critical friend’ opposition strategy during the pandemic in order to avoid the perception that the party was attempting to gain political advantage from the nation’s nightmare. This was a reasonable strategy in May 2020, when the nation did not expect to still be experiencing lockdowns a year later.

But even this poses strategic problems for Labour. There is no comparable case to this ‘once in a generation’ crisis that has stretched on for this period of time. During the two world wars and Spanish Flu, Britain had various forms of political coalitions in government – and I’m not sure that the political economic consequences of the world wars can be equated with a pandemic in peacetime.

Starmer is doubtless hoping that a new post-pandemic national sentiment similar to the post-war ‘mood’ is emerging from the electorate as Britain slowly emerges from the crisis.

Yet Labour’s 1945 general election victory was one born out of experience in government rather than skilful opposition – Attlee served both in the first minority Labour government and in the war coalition cabinet. This experience established his national profile and granted him credibility as a serious statesperson, and so Labour was then well placed to fight the snap general election in 1945.

Lastly, Labour is hemmed in by the unpredictable structural changes in British politics and economics after the pandemic. It is unclear whether the electorate will have a new enthusiasm for big state intervention and spending after more than a year of blunt state intervention in their lives.

The lack of belief and agreement among the electorate in the structural causes of inequality as seen in the response to the Sewell Commission– let alone any consensus around further post-pandemic redistribution – is worrying for Labour.

The economic outlook also remains uncertain, with the possible return of inflation, which would tighten the constraints on both the Government’s and opposition’s economic strategies.

The volatile nature of Britain’s political economy is a challenge for any opposition deciding what an electorally and economically feasible policy platform will look like by the next general election.

Imagine Starmer and the Labour Party are currently in a ship in the middle of the pandemic storm. The proverb ‘sit tight in the fishing boat despite the rising wind and waves’ comes to mind. Labour needs to first survive the storm before it can assess where to go next.

The structural changes in Britain’s political economy mean that Starmer must proceed with caution, as he will not know what awaits him on the other side of the pandemic. However, Starmer does need to ensure he builds a narrative that will define him and the party before the Conservatives do it for him.

He risks re-fighting the last general election – dominated by Brexit and the so-called ‘Red Wall seats’ – rather than focusing on a unifying message that particularly appeals to the middle income voters who have not voted Labour for more than a decade.

He must also ensure that he has the best team ready to drive home that message as soon as the storm subsides.

By Matthew Lloyd, PhD student in Political Sciences at Queen Mary University, London.

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