The year is 2024 and a man with great hair is about to address the nation. The papers are already awash with pieces comparing the remarkable turn of events to that of the last time a barrister turned Labour leader stood here on the steps of 10 Downing Street. The landslide election victory also bears striking similarities to that of 1997, as does the implosion of the Conservative Party in a well of in-fighting and despair. As a thick blanket of grey cloud looms over Westminster, the hope of the majority is that Sir Keir Starmer can lead the nation through to more stable times.
The above scenario is of course incredibly presumptuous, but my attention this week was drawn to polls that put Sir Keir as the most popular opposition leader since Mr Blair. I think most people would agree that he has had a good pandemic. His calm and composed ripping apart of the Johnson administration’s dither and delay has been rather masterful. The Labour Party also has the pivotal advantage of not being responsible for any of the difficult decisions the Government has had to make, which may inflate its poll ratings while the public are at the mercy of those choices.
For all Starmer’s clever politicking, though, from the well-timed questions to the well-crafted op-eds in Tory-leaning papers like The Telegraph, there still remain two enormous roadblocks to a Labour victory in 2024. The first is Scotland. Labour have been as yet unable to offset their Scottish losses, and it seems unlikely they will win unless they manage to gain back seats north of the border. Unfortunately for Starmer, as Johnson has had a bad crisis, Nicola Sturgeon has had a good one despite a seemingly flawed basis for that appraisal.
The SNP looks set to romp home in next year’s Holyrood elections, and it is the Tories who have built themselves up as the unionist opposition, not Labour. The spectre that surely haunts Labour’s prospects is IndyRef2. A Scottish vote to leave the UK would paradoxically do extreme damage to the Tory Party, while also increasing the electoral influence of the English Conservatives.
Policy is also a major stumbling block for Starmer’s Labour. The party learned in the 90s that it wasn’t good enough simply to have a compelling brand – the policies needed to chime with the swing seats of the day. But unlike back then, the conundrum Starmer faces now is greater. How can he unite the socially liberal Corbynista types in the big cities with the more socially traditional voters of the Red Wall? How can he align the desire for fiscal competence that older voters in Middle England have with the looser approach demanded by many young university graduates?
The current debate over transgender rights demonstrates the difficulty of navigating these issues, and therein lies the problem. I don’t think it’s possible to align those groups right now. The bread and butter of politics leans far more on cultural matters than it used to, and bringing together two diametrically opposed groups seems impossible. The hung parliament of 2017 offers a look at the high-water mark for Labour support right now: a large, but very asymmetric share of the vote.
A glance back at 2010, however, shows just how much politics can change in a short space of time. If unemployment rises dramatically, and the Government fails to present a compelling vision for a new normal, then the gap between different sections of the electorate could be bridged. At the last election, the Tories united free marketeers and authoritarian protectionists – Labour needs to do something similar. Only if lots of different groups have good reasons to vote Labour will the scenario I posited at the beginning of this article become a reality.
Starmer faces a huge challenge yet.