The Recovery and Labour’s Long Road Ahead

The Labour Together Election Review, released for public consumption on Friday is undoubtedly tough reading for anyone sceptical about the performance of the current Government.

In brief, Labour need to gain 123 seats to achieve a 1 seat majority. Achieving this scant majority would require growing the Parliamentary Labour Party by 60% in a single election. Moreover, to win the next election without major gains in Scotland, where Labour current only have 1 MP, the party would need to win seats such as North East Somerset, the seat currently held by Jacob Rees-Mogg with a 26% majority.  Even with change in Scotland the party would need to win 16 seats in the country, 15 from the SNP.

However the fatalism of the report is a product of the pre-Coronavirus political situation.  The report wrongly claims that the electoral shift required has never before been achieved, it has.  In 1945, after a national crises of unprecedented scale, Labour gained 239 seats. Crises shape democracies: the national recovery from and popular remembrance of the pandemic will be a crucial element of the next election. This does not minimise the challenge Labour faces, but it does cement the importance of its response to the crisis to its electoral future.

Labour’s tactical response to events thus far has been defined by its laidback caution. Whilst Labour rhetoric has hardened as more Government errors have come to light, the Party has been largely content for scientists, business groups, the media, footballers and indeed the Government’s own backbench to lead public opposition to Government policy. This is a marked contrast with the almost hourly commentary that came from the previous administration.

Yet on a strategic level, Starmer has maintained a laser-like focus on the plan for ending lockdown. Indeed the Labour Leader first raised the question of Government’s plan for easing lockdown on 12 April 2020, 8 days after he was elected Leader of the Labour Party and several days before the virus is believed to have reached its peak in the UK. Part and parcel of Starmer’s “constructive engagement” with the Government, including facilitating communication between Government and the unions, was his polite yet firm request for an exit strategy. Further to this, his Treasury and Business team are currently carrying out their own consultation on the Green recovery.

Labour has consciously gotten out of the gate early on the issue of economic recovery. They will be eager to place themselves at the centre of the conversation around rebuilding hoping it increases their economic credibility. They have worked hard to ensure they have the tools required with a leadership team friendlier to business than their predecessors, and closer to Europe than their opponents, Starmer has the back catalogue of policies left by his predecessors. Despite their abysmal presentation in 2019, proposals like the Green Industrial Strategy offer blueprints of what a recovery could look like. Their continued relevance brings us back to Labour Together’s election review.

One of the most surprising elements of the review, billed as “tough reading” for the party’s members, is that it does not advocate a clean break with its past. Far from it. It recommends that economic change be at the centre of Labour’s future campaign for Government with a focus on rebuilding the party’s economic credibility. Whatever the ideological core of a new campaign, Labour will want to very publicly root its new policy offering not in the academia and abstract policy design of the 2019 manifesto but on findings and recommendations developed through engagement with business. Whilst the core of Labour’s economic offering will remain the language they use, company they keep and battles they choose to fight will continue to change.

With an early focus on the importance, shape and long-term impact of the recovery, Starmer may have found the vehicle through which he believes he can achieve this shift without alienating his party or scaring off the voters the Party had retained.

In the same way Johnson remodelled the Conservative Party as the party of Brexit, making sweeping changes to party doctrine for the purpose, Starmer may well be looking to make Labour the party of the recovery.

First published in our weekly Political Capital newsletter