Labour's Electoral Strategy
UK Labour under Keir Starmer is seeking to appeal to both socially liberal and economically centrist voters and socially conservative but economically left-leaning ones.
Editor’s note: The Liberal Patriot is pleased to present a new series of articles on the 2024 UK General Election from our friends at Labour Together—a London-based think tank closely connected to Keir Starmer’s leadership election and subsequent policy agenda. The three pieces will focus on Labour’s electoral strategy, its industrial policy, and its views on Britain’s role in the world.
On a cold, rainy night in December 2019, the British Labour party went down to its worst General Election defeat in decades. Conservatives won a number of seats in Labour’s former industrial heartlands in the North and Midlands of England, dealing a psychological blow to Labour’s self-image as the party of Britain’s working class. Like center-left parties across the developed world, structural changes in the economy and the subsequent decline of trade union membership eroded the solidity of Labour’s vote. And like other center-left parties in recent years, Labour also faced a challenge from a populist right that channelled concerns about immigration and identity issues.
A time-traveling Labour supporter from December 2019 would be astonished at the turnaround in the party’s fortunes. Today, betting markets have Labour as strong favorites to win the next General Election, with many polls predicting a landslide victory over the Conservatives. Our time traveller would, of course, have skipped over a period of extraordinary turbulence. The years since 2019 have brought a global pandemic, war in Europe, and political convulsions within Britain—including the bizarre 49-day premiership of Liz Truss. But it was also a period which saw the election of Keir Starmer as Labour’s new leader and an internal transformation of the party. Labour has learned lessons from 2019, and those lessons have allowed the party to play the hand it has been dealt over the last few years to its advantage.
Lessons From 2019
Understanding the Conservatives’ landslide victory of 2019 and its subsequent unravelling means understanding how the way people vote has changed over the last decade or so. Historically, party choice in the UK was strongly linked to views on economics: someone who felt strongly that the government should redistribute income to make the country more equal would be much more likely to vote Labour than someone who thought the opposite. Views on so-called “values” issues—for example on whether the death penalty should be re-introduced or whether immigration was good for Britain—played less of a role in party choice.
But rising concerns about immigration during the 2010s changed this dynamic. Over the last four elections, the most socially conservative voters (who also tend to be the most skeptical of migration) have become more reluctant to vote for parties perceived as being socially liberal, including Labour. At the same time the most socially liberal voters became more reluctant to vote for the Conservatives and smaller hard-right parties such as the UK Independence Party. The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union held in June 2016 (in which 52 percent voted to leave the EU) reflected this new divide in UK politics. Those with the most socially conservative views were nine times as likely to vote to Leave than those with the most socially liberal views.
Yet “values” voting never completely dominated British politics. Voters who were both socially liberal and economically left-wing were very likely to back Labour. Those who were socially conservative and economically right-wing were very likely to vote Conservative. But this leaves two groups of volatile, “cross-pressured” voters who do not have a natural home in either of the main parties: socially liberal but economically right-wing voters and a second, much larger cluster of socially conservative but economically left-leaning voters many of whom had formerly backed Labour.
By the time of the 2019 General Election, the political environment had become highly polarized around the issue of Brexit. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson successfully consolidated support from both economically right-wing and economically left-wing social conservatives by promising to “Get Brexit Done.” Labour had supported holding a second referendum on Brexit, but the party was unable to consolidate the socially liberal vote which had largely voted to remain in the EU. Worries about its hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn kept economically right-wing and centrist liberals within the Conservative fold.
A New Leader, A New Strategy
For Labour, the 2019 election demonstrated the futility of trying to win a General Election by only appealing to its core left-wing and liberal vote. Under Corbyn, numerous polls had found that socially conservative voters believed Labour did not share their values. Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer adopted a more balanced approach to “values” issues, deliberately positioning the party in much the same place as the median voter. Take, for example Starmer’s response to a statue of a slave trader being thrown into a river by Black Lives Matter protestors in 2021: he stated that the monument should never have been there in the first place, but that it was wrong to remove it illegally. On Brexit, meanwhile, Labour has made clear that it now accepts the result of the referendum.
Labour’s attempts to appeal to social conservatives have been made easier because attitudes on many issues have become more liberal in the UK. This includes immigration, where concern reached its peak just before the referendum and declined sharply immediately afterwards. Now, a majority of Britons believe immigration has overall been positive for the UK. Other “culture war” issues have little resonance. Attempts by the Conservative government to weaponize identity issues, particularly around transgender rights, generate much sound and fury in the right-wing media but have failed to have much impact on a largely indifferent electorate.
It is the economy which has taken centre-stage in the last two years. The sharp rise in energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit Britain particularly hard, with inflation reaching 11 percent in October 2022. The Bank of England raised interest rates sharply in response, clobbering many mortgage holders with hugely increased payments. This was devastating for the Conservative vote. Opinion polls consistently show that the cost of living is the most important issue to voters, and that the government is not trusted to handle this issue. Labour Together’s research from February this year found that those who are very worried about their finances are now six times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative.
Labour has responded by making “security” a major theme in its policy and communications strategy. This reflects both the immediate financial insecurity being felt by many voters but also a more profound sense of uncertainty resulting from the shocks of the last few years, including the Covid pandemic and the rising geopolitical threats from China and Russia. For example, the party’s policies on climate change are now described as delivering energy security—making the UK less dependent on foreign despots such as Vladimir Putin.
Broader changes in public attitudes towards the role of the state have also helped Labour. In 2010, when Labour left office, only 31 percent of the public backed more taxation and spending. Today, 55 percent say taxation and spending should be increased. After the financial crash, 41 percent said the government should definitely reduce income difference. Now, 53 percent feel that way.
Finally, Labour has also been the beneficiary of some extraordinary self-sabotage on the part of the Conservatives. To the surprise of no one who knew him, Boris Johnson proved a chaotic and dishonest prime minister. Johnson was eventually forced to resign in summer 2022 but was succeeded by the even more disastrous Liz Truss. During her busy 49 days as Prime Minister, the sterling crashed and Britain’s pensions funds nearly collapsed; these episodes proved disastrous for the Conservatives’ reputation on the economy. Her successor, Rishi Sunak, has managed to steady the ship but has not improved Conservative electoral prospects.
How Labour Might Lose
Labour’s change in strategy has allowed the party to take advantage of both Tory mistakes and wider trends. But much of its current lead in the polls comes from disenchantment with the government rather than enthusiasm for Labour. A recent poll found that less than a third of respondents thought that a Labour government would make a positive difference to “people like you.” Over 40 percent did thought it would make no difference or did not know.
This reflects Labour’s caution over setting out radical-sounding policy. Despite the dire state of institutions such as the National Health Service, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has been careful to discourage the idea that a Labour government would embark on a spending spree on public services. Labour is understandably wary of repeating the mistakes of 2019 and alienating socially liberal voters who have more centrist views on economics. And it can reasonably point to a 20-point lead in the polls as evidence that its current approach is working. Many Britons will have made up their minds about the stupefying incompetence of the Conservatives and concluded that anyone else would be an improvement.
But due to a strategy which seeks to alienate as few voters as possible, relatively few voters have directly switched to Labour. Of those who voted Conservative in 2019, around ten to 15 percent say they will now vote Labour, whereas around 30 percent say they don’t know who they will vote for or would not vote. Analysis of previous elections show that “don’t knows” generally will turn out to vote, and recent research from YouGov suggests that they are more likely to lean towards returning to the Conservatives rather than voting Labour. If this indeed happens, then Labour’s polling lead will be substantially reduced.
The timing of the election could also benefit the government. Most commentators expect that the next General Election will not be called for another year, and it is possible that there could be a substantial economic recovery within that time. Inflation is finally falling, and wage increases are now outstripping price rises. Rishi Sunak has also made much of his pledge to tackle illegal immigration into Britain. If things improve (almost certainly because of wider forces rather than government policy) some disgruntled former Conservative voters may feel warmer towards the government.
Given their current disastrous polling numbers, however, it is still difficult to see how the Conservatives remain in power after the next election (barring a politically impactful and completely unforeseen event taking place, of course). But there is an enormous difference for Labour between winning a solid majority and winning power at the head of an unstable minority government. The depth of the problems facing the UK will need Labour to be in power for at least two terms and make tough policy choices, some of which may not pay off for several years. Center-left governments around the world are either losing power after a fairly short period in office (as in New Zealand) or becoming deeply unpopular after not being seen to deliver (as in Germany). If Labour wins the next election, the party will want to win it decisively.
This reality presents Labour with a strategic dilemma. A cautious approach risks an economic recovery encouraging voters to drift back to the safety of an incumbent government while simultaneously disincentivising progressive voters from turning out. Labour has been accused of not offering a compelling narrative about why it should be elected and how it would transform the country. If it does not have a story about why voters should stick with Labour over the long-haul, the party with find itself vulnerable if it struggles to deliver immediate gains during its first term.
A bolder strategy would fully acknowledge the depths of the problems facing the UK and prepare the country for potentially painful decisions that might not yield short-term results. But this approach risks splitting the coalition Labour has carefully assembled. It would delight its core voters but potentially drive currently undecided Conservative voters back to the government in fright.
Labour’s last party conference in October hints at how the party might deal with this challenge. Keir Starmer’s keynote speech at the conference made much of Labour’s bold plans to accelerate homebuilding in the UK. The Conservatives have failed to deal with Britain’s growing housing crisis because their core vote comes disproportionately from people who already own their own houses outright. This group has little to gain from building more houses but could lose out due to lower house prices, while Labour’s younger and more financially insecure voters have more to gain and less to lose. There’s always political risk in advocating transformational policies which create winners and losers, but Labour is carefully seeking areas where the risk to its own coalition of voters is relatively low.
Labour probably has around a year before the next election to tell a more coherent story that explains why only a center-left government can address the deep and acute problems facing the UK. This narrative will need to be resilient if the economy improves and leads some voters to dial down their antipathy towards the government. Labour will also need to carefully choose a set of cornerstone policies on which it offers a clear and transformational difference with the Conservatives but which does not alienate too many of the voters it needs to win.
Labour has already persuaded both socially liberal and economically centrist voters and socially conservative but economically left-leaning voters to give it a hearing. On what could be another cold and rainy winter night next year, the party will find out whether its has done enough to fully win them over.
Christabel Cooper spent fifteen years working as a data analyst in the private sector, including analysis with DataPraxis on the 2019 General Election result. She also led extensive research and polling with YouGov after the Brexit referendum. She was formerly a Labour councilor in Hammersmith and Fulham.