Back in February, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves were in a confident mood. Speaking to a group of the UK’s foremost business leaders in the City of London, the Labour Leader and Shadow Chancellor launched their prospectus for growing the economy – “mission number one” for a Labour Party desperate to reclaim power after a generation in the wilderness.
The positive response from those in attendance reflects the marked recovery in Labour’s standing since the disastrous 2019 General Election, which saw Labour suffer its worst defeat since 1935. Keir Starmer inherited a party at rock bottom with barely 200 parliamentary seats, but has succeeded in making Labour a viable electoral proposition once again through a combination of his own skill and the political convulsions that have plagued the Conservative Government.
Thursday’s local elections underscore the progress the Leader of the Opposition has made. Labour achieved notable successes in areas where they will need to win at the next General Election, from Medway and Swindon in the south to Stoke-on-Trent and Blackpool further north. The Conservatives suffered sizeable losses – over a third of the seats they contested – to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. But oppositions often score spectacular successes during mid-term elections. The challenge facing Labour now is to turn this progress into a majority Government next year. Achieving that will require Starmer to take three key steps if he wants to win in 2024.
Step one: precisely diagnose the problems facing the country after thirteen years of Conservative rule. That must begin with a relentless focus on the parlous state of the economy and our public finances – and the tangible impact that is having on voters’ personal finances. Likewise, the political melodrama of recent years has damaged the UK’s standing in the world as well and prevented the Conservatives from achieving measurable progress on their key 2019 election pledges, especially around levelling up.
While each of these arguments will undoubtedly resonate with the electorate, voters will be looking for practical solutions.
Step two: develop a framework for putting Britain on a positive path. Starmer’s five ‘missions’ are designed to demonstrate that Labour has applied serious thought to what it might do in power and has serious, long-term ambitions to match. He must juxtapose the quantum of Labour’s ambition – turning the UK into a ‘clean energy superpower’, creating a new generation of homeowners, securing the highest sustained growth in the G7 – with the short-term and limited nature of the Prime Minister’s five ‘pledges’, all of which are focused on immediate challenges.
Rishi Sunak’s commitments may be easy to measure, but they do not define the kind of country or society he believes in. That gives Keir Starmer the political space to set out a comprehensive vision of the future.
Step three (and perhaps the biggest hurdle for Labour to overcome): develop a handful of specific, eye-catching policies that will appeal to voters. Having established his framework for the future, Starmer must alight upon a series of pledges that translate to improving people’s everyday lives. These should be objective-led, time-bound, and fully costed – cut NHS waiting times by X weeks, by Y date, at a cost of Z.
That is easier said than done. There are still questions about the financial credibility of Labour’s tax and spending plans. The Shadow Chancellor has been largely successful in preventing her Cabinet colleagues from making unfunded spending commitments. Confirmation last week that Labour is abandoning its previous pledge to scrap student tuition fees, saving at least £8bn in the process, is a sign that the Party is willing to take politically painful steps to demonstrate its financial probity. But overturning the electorate’s settled view that Labour is financially irresponsible will require iron discipline in the run up to the election.
There are signs that the Government has run out of political energy and ideas but, as polling day approaches, the focus will shift to whether Labour is now fit to take office. Scrutiny of Keir Starmer’s programme for government will intensify. If the next general election is held in Autumn 2024 , it will be half a century since anyone other than Tony Blair was elected as a Labour prime minister. The challenge facing the Leader of the Opposition is this: he must give people a positive reason to vote Labour and reassure those in the undecided column that he is a breath of fresh air, not an existential threat.
If you want to engage in this discussion, join us for our live event on Tuesday 13 June: What are the priorities for a Labour Government?, with Tom Watson (Baron Watson of Wyre Forest). The former deputy leader of the Labour Party and Chair of UK Music will be in conversation with Mark MacGregor (former Conservative Party CEO) to consider whether the Labour Party is ready for power, and what that means for businesses. Click HERE to register.