Labour Party: The soft-left returns
“Vote Labour, win a toaster”, was David Axelrod’s damning indictment of Labour’s 2015 campaign pitch.
The mundane disappointment of Labour’s offer in 2015, encapsulated in its vote in favour of welfare cuts in the middle of the leadership campaign, was one of the driving causes behind the membership’s turn to a more radical option in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Between 2015 and 2019 the offer turned from a political toaster to a radical programme of social reform which, whatever flaws it may have had, could never be called mundane.
Labour has now picked the man they believe will lead the Party from that wilderness. In a cautious but competent campaign, Starmer has stood on a platform of common sense, deep rooted Labour values, and touched upon a policy focus that reflects the Ed Miliband era. This is a significant shift back to the soft-left and away from the previous leadership ideals led by Corbyn and McDonnell.
The Labour membership, despite its popular demonisation, has responded to political reality. 2015 showed how it had lost some of its core purpose and self-identify (in the views of many), Corbyn was the answer to this ill. However, the experiment is now over and has in some ways flipped. Now it is the Conservative party which has the radical true-believers at the heart of its power base. In choosing Starmer, Labour has elected to present itself as the adult in the room, attempting to hold Johnson to account.
Beyond the internal battles that lie ahead for Starmer, what are Labour’s priorities in 2020? The current crisis, and its aftermath, will define this Government’s legacy, more so than Brexit, the position Starmer takes on this will be crucial for how he is viewed in the years to come. Starmer has so far sought to position himself as the grown-up, seeking to avoid party politics. If he can pull this off, it very well may increase the pressure on a No. 10 team that is perceived as struggling. The public’s ultimate verdict on this Government’s handling of the crisis may well be much more in the balance in a world where a viable alternative exists.
Over time there are suggestions that the Opposition will harden its stance as the critical voice, but there is little appetite to play politics right now. Just as important to Starmer’s Labour will be answering growing questions around devolution, the safety net for UK citizens, and presenting its vision for a post-Brexit Britain. Therefore Starmer must make a decision on those within the Party wedded Corbyn’s ideals – will they remain, or be purged, listened to, or side-lined? What he does with these ideologues will shape his next moves.
It remains the Government’s strategic imperative to win re-election by retaining the voters of those in Northern Labour seats who first voted for them in 2019. It is not known how Starmer will be perceived on the doorsteps in these same Northern seats Labour must recapture to get back into power. Can the Human Rights Lawyer from Kings Cross St Pancras really win back the votes of the Red Wall, and reclaim Labour’s Scottish heartlands? This will be the true test of his leadership in the minds of many Labour members.
First published in our weekly Political Capital newsletter
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