The ‘New Labour’: What is next?

Inderpal Lall – Economics Graduate, University of Nottingham

Thursday 12th December 2019 – an infamous day for the Labour party. In a recent interview, Bridget Phillipson, a Labour MP at the time and now shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said the election results were “at the upper-end of what could have been the worst-case scenario for the party”. The loss of 59 seats was the worst result for the Labour Party in 80 years, with many blaming Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and far-left policies for the failure.

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that in his first (virtual) conference speech, new leader Sir Keir Starmer assertively ended the Corbyn-era for the Labour Party. Starmer, a former defence lawyer who was part of Corbyn’s shadow Home Office ministerial team, Starmer has distanced himself from many of the issues that the preceding leader had faced, vowing to never let Labour’s trust be questioned on national security and to eradicate the link to anti-Semitism that haunted the 2019 election. Many votes were lost to these concerns, and this first conference solidified the notion of Starmer leading a ‘New Labour’ into the 2024 election.

The focus of this reinvigorated direction is to first gain the trust of the British public back, as well as solidifying Labour as a credible opposition to the current Johnson government. Sir Keir aims to do this by moving this ‘New Labour’ back towards the centre-ground of British politics – the 2019 election, to some, was a choice between two extremes on the political spectrum. Bringing the party away from the far-left is a ploy to demonstrate a competent and sensible character in running the economy, which is in stark contrast to many peoples’ opinion of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister. Despite not committing to any key policy initiatives as of yet, one key stance Starmer has taken is accepting the Brexit vote and following the slogan of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Many in the Labour Party feel like Corbyn’s ‘neutral’ stance on Brexit was in part to blame for the embarrassing defeat, and so it is refreshing for many to hear that Starmer is instead focussing on ensuring the current government negotiate the fair deal with the EU that has been promised over the past few years. Throughout the pandemic, it would have been very easy for Labour to have taken cheap shots at the Conservative government for a series of mishaps and U-turns. However, Starmer has instead used his position to be a constructive opposition by asking probing questions about government responses to ensure those in affected industries have had their voices heard. This stance has already had a positive impact for the credibility of the Labour party – YouGov polls show those who would vote for Labour has increased by 9 percentage points since the beginning of the pandemic (although this is also attributable to a deteriorating public approval of the Johnson government).

(Data, YouGov)

It is crucial that Starmer uses this time to listen to the general public and what they want. In particular, he must focus on the ‘Red Wall’ that Labour lost in the last election. The wall is made up of 63 seats in the north of England and Wales that have historically never voted Conservative. Following the Brexit vote, many of these seats were Leave-leaning, and so Corbyn’s stance on Brexit did not appeal to them at all. The result was that 33 seats in the “Red Wall’ voted for Boris Johnson’s government, turning the wall ‘blue’.

(Map, BBC via Yahoo News)

This was a major blow for Labour, and without these historically important seats, it will be difficult for them to be in power again. It is essential that Sir Keir regains the trust of voters in these regions, and he touched upon this in his conference speech. “Never again will Labour take you or the things you care about for granted. And I ask you: take another look at Labour. We’re under new leadership.” The statement was aimed at those in the north to show he is in touch with working families, especially during the pandemic. Another, albeit more difficult, group of voters that Starmer must win back is those in Scotland. In what was once a Labour stronghold, the Party now only holds one seat in the UK’s northernmost country, losing 40 of its 41 seats in 2010 to the Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon. Again, it would be very difficult for Labour to regain power without winning back seats in Scotland. Starmer recently visited the country where he stated a new independence referendum is not needed.

With four years to go until the next general election, Starmer has ample time to work on winning back voters in these two key regions. He is using this time to listen to voters, and so has not announced any policies that Labour would like to implement. It goes without saying these policies will differ from those proposed by the previous regime, and it is difficult for Starmer to commit to any policies at a time when the economy is uncertain, facing its biggest downturn since World War 2. How the Labour government goes against the Johnson government is an interesting debate. The current government have shown themselves to be incompetent and weak at times and so it may be the perfect opportunity for Labour to gain a foothold with those who are displeased. A criticism has been the ‘one-size fits all’ approach across all sectors of the economy for some of the schemes introduced during the pandemic. However, some of the economic policies introduced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak have been some of the most socialist policies ever seen in British politics, and so how Labour consolidates the rising national debt and an uncertain Brexit deal into their policy initiatives is a difficult proposition. Sir Keir Starmer certainly has a difficult task on his hands, but his goal is clear – ensuring the ‘New Labour’ can be a strong, credible opposition in 2024.

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