The six trip hazards that await a Starmer government

Labour has unveiled “six first steps for change”—but in a fractured Britain, the political journey they point to remains perilous
May 22, 2024

Many in the Westminster village, journalists and politicians alike, love a winner—and that really is about as far as the thinking goes. Now that Keir Starmer is 20 points ahead, some of the same people who prematurely wrote him off, when he crashed and burned at the 2021 Hartlepool byelection, are weirdly entranced by the consciously workaday “six first steps for change” that he unveiled last week.

It’s a strangely numbered set of first steps to take en route to Starmer’s five “national missions.” But most Westminster-watchers were less concerned with how it all fitted together than they were impressed with the fact that he’d etched his six steps on a pledge card. This was deemed to certify the alchemical transformation of the mundane (a border force reorganisation, some extra teachers, ASBO-tribute “respect orders”) into magic. Why? Because a previous “winner,” Tony Blair, also had a pledge card. 

Fixate on winners, and you’ll attribute disproportionate power to their campaigning. In reality, all politics is relative, and the main driver of relative standing is usually the government, not the opposition. For all of Blair’s undoubted talents, the disintegration of John Major’s administration explained far more of his 179-seat majority than his five-point pledge-card. And whatever the merits of today’s 61-year-old Keir Starmer, they can’t be so different to those already possessed by his 58-year-old self. It is not some shift inside the soul of Labour’s leader which accounts for the extraordinary swing in his fortunes over the last three years. Nor is the biggest change any decision he’s made. Instead, it is found on the government bench. The Conservative party has gone from rolling-out vaccines to rolling leadership crises.

Excessive faith in winners, then, clouds understanding of how we got to where we are. It also clouds judgment about where we are headed. Boris Johnson was the all-conquering hero of a realigned political map in December 2019, but by Summer 2022 he was a defenestrated zero. In retrospect, it seems obvious that tensions in his electoral coalition, the incoherence of his programme and flaws in his character were bound to cause the unravelling. But few saw it coming—the scale of his victory blinded most commentators. 

Labour’s vast poll lead today, and its many impressive local election results, suggest that the party is now broad enough—or hazy enough—to mop up the full range of voters it needs to win, and in all probability with a landslide. Inevitably, victory will be followed by a brief burst of lobby pieces hailing the surprisingly interesting virtues of being “a bit boring.” The mania for the dull won’t last, however. The same local election results that produced so many victories also revealed hairline fractures in the Starmer coalition.

No matter how spectacular the polling day arithmetic proves to be on 4 July—now that Rishi Sunak has finally called a snap election—these emerging divides could, in office, widen into serious schisms, threatening the best-laid plans for sober and steady governance. These political splits could overwhelm even modest policy change. To avoid a repeat of the mis-reading of Johnson’s fortunes, let me follow Starmer’s six steps with “six slips”—the places where, within a couple of years, the next Labour government could trip up. 

1. Young, diverse Britain

Amid generally excellent local and devolved election results there were striking pockets of trouble for Labour. This was particularly so in the young and diverse inner-cities, where—within seats like Poplar & Limehouse and Bristol Central—analyst Dylan Difford reports a vote share that plunged by nearly 30 points from a notional December 2019 baseline. There is polling evidence that ethnic minority voters, a large proportion of whom are Muslim, have been turned off the party by its hesitancy in wholeheartedly condemning Israel’s bloody campaign in Gaza. Defections over the issue saw the party lose control of a couple of large councils, including my own in Kirklees. For the most part, though, the damage is hidden because Labour votes have recently piled so high in the cities that it can—in the context of a good year overall—“afford” substantial losses. Things could be very different amid the vicissitudes of government. All the more so because, as the Greens’ rise to being the largest party on Bristol council underlines, it’s no longer safe to bank disgruntled anti-Conservative votes on the grounds that they have “nowhere else to go.”

2. The grey vote 

From accepting Brexit, to prioritising defence to putting out Union Jacks at every opportunity, Starmer’s leadership has focused laser-like on the older, security-conscious and patriotic types who his strategists have identified as the “hero” voters for redrawing the political map. Where Blair talked up a “vision of a young country,” ageing demographics leave Starmer consciously courting an old country: already by 2019, the median vote cast was by someone well over 50. And yet the one truly “brave” plank in the Starmer platform, “bulldozing” through the planning laws, could alienate many older homeowners the moment this abstract rhetoric is translated into (literal) concrete, obstructing cherished views. 

Absorbed by its own recent history, Westminster politics is paralysingly cautious about “tax bombshells,” which have blown up in past elections, but strangely complacent about other potentially explosive subjects, simply because they have not been significant issues in a past general election. Planning is one of these. Tremendous care is needed to get planning reform right: a London-dominated political class has less feel for the issue than those who regularly knock on doors in middle England. The dangers of the smallest mis-step are redoubled because opportunistic Tories, localist Liberal Democrats and conservationist Greens will ensure that NIMBYs of every ideological hue have somewhere to escape.  

3. Working Britain

Labour’s most straightforwardly progressive “offer” concerns employment rights. Though the party’s New Deal for Working People was last year caveated with consultations and trimmed around the edges, a show-down with the unions recently ended with Labour recommitting to the core of its plan. For the million on zero-hours contracts, and perhaps another couple of million who work unreliable shifts or have other contractual insecurities, this is good news. The bulk of the workforce, however, who have secure jobs but squeezed pay, will not feel any early relief. This is especially true in the public sector, where austerity has left real wages lower than 15 years ago. No matter how shrewdly Starmer manages expectations, the reality is that the single-most important phalanx of current Labour loyalists are exhausted public servants hoping for a return to the better terms they enjoyed when their party was last in power. These days, more than half of trade unionists are public sector, too. If they’re banking on a payrise that Rachel Reeves’s fiscal rules preclude, expect not only industrial strife, but—given the unions’ internal role within Labour—political trouble too.  

4. Disillusioned dreamers 

A retreat from Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism towards centre-ground respectability was the obvious, and in some ways the right, lesson to draw from 2019. But the impressive 40 per cent notched up under this uniquely unsuitable front-man in 2017 should not be entirely forgotten. Even 2019’s eventual “worst defeat since the 1930s” ranks as such only because of the vagueries of our electoral system. Labour attracted a higher vote-share in 2019 than either 2010 or 2015. Indeed, across his two elections Corbyn’s Labour averaged 36 per cent of the vote, against the average 35 per cent it has managed across all 13 general elections of the last half-century. A substantial chunk of the population, if rarely a winning one, is drawn to audacious promises of transformation. After very publicly diluting his own climate plans, and having hugged the Sunak government so close on Israel that it’s tough to spot the difference between them, Starmer’s standing on university campuses and at music festivals is already akin to that of a pro-Vietnam war centrist in the 1960s. And if idealist apathy gives way to idealist animosity in power, Labour will discover that there are an awful lot more people on campuses and at festivals today than there ever were in the 60s.  

5. Disappearing activists

Disgruntled unions and disillusioned idealists have already thinned the ranks of the Labour activists responsible for on-the-ground campaigns. Labour’s reigning clique dismisses all those who joined up under Corbyn as “Trots,” but that betrays a wilful lack of curiosity. The joiners numbered in the hundreds of thousands, against the mere few thousand who ever get involved in fringe revolutionary factions. Those running the party today are too complacent about the loss of around 165,000 members, around a third of the total, at least some of whom might have come in handy when the going gets rough. It’s a worrying contrast with the mid-1990s, when membership climbed in the run-up to victory. And it’s a trend it is hard to envisage being reversed while the party remains on the wrong side of the Archbishop of Canterbury on capped children’s benefits, and the wrong side of the public on uncapped bankers’ bonuses.

6. Devolved Britain

The burgeoning army of regional mayors could create huge headaches for Starmer. Each has a personal mandate, which will feel very personal indeed now that Andy Street (until recently, the most powerful Conservative outside of Westminster) nearly held on in the West Midlands, and the controversial Tees Valley Tory cheerleader Ben Houchen actually did survive. The likes of Labour's Andy Burnham have retained huge majorities by making clear they are not party placemen, but independent local champions. In the northeast, Jamie Driscoll notched up over a quarter of the vote as an independent running against London Labour’s decision to block him. How much better would he have done running against a mid-term government rather than a resurgent opposition? The script, played masterfully by the SNP for many years (until the weight of internal problems caused it to fluff its lines) is to ignore the local opposition and run against an alien, metropolitan capital. Once the unpopular Tories are ousted from Westminster, some Scottish force or other could relearn the old trick—and thrive. As indeed may many of the mayors elected this month—irrespective of their red rosettes. And regional rage against the Whitehall machine could in time rebound on local parliamentary candidates on the government side. 

As I have stressed, all politics is relative, so the exact damage done by these prospective fractures will to some extent turn on what happens on the Opposition benches. If the Tory response to defeat is only more infighting, Trussian conspiracy theories, or wilder culture war rhetoric, the force of revulsion against them could be enough to hold a broad Labour vote together for a while.

But even with the Conservatives still in power, Labour’s progressive competitors are managing to make sizeable gains, at the expense of the official Opposition: the combined gains of Lib Dems, Greens and Independents in the recent local elections easily exceeded those of Labour. Those advances took the Greens to over 800 councillors, against just a few dozen in the 1990s. One new poll puts them at 11 per cent in the Westminster stakes. How high could that figure go when it’s Labour ministers saying “No” to union pay demands, “Yes” to controversial housing schemes, and having—in the nightmare scenario—to maintain a diplomatic pretence that a re-elected President Trump is something other than a dangerous, chauvinist buffoon.

Those who like to present themselves as being—in Starmer’s phrase—about “power, not protest” brush off the Greens as a joke. But as canny politicians from all parts of the spectrum—Charles Kennedy and Boris Johnson, as well as Ken Livingstone—have understood, there is always a considerable chunk of the electorate that is less interested in grappling with the intricacies of power than in protesting against something or other. Winning once you’re responsible for difficult times will rely on keeping at least some of them with you. Disregard them all with an unremitting establishment pose, and six steps forward could be followed by a long slide back.

This article was updated on 22 May to reflect the fact that the British government has now called a general election