By Sam Gordon Webb
Complacency in all facets of life is a dangerous ball to roll. In sport, it loses games. In relationships, it destroys futures. In politics, it loses elections. And if Labour truly believe that the next election will prove critical in reversing the trend of NHS decline and economic destruction, complacency could surely be no more dangerous. ‘Events, dear boy, events,’ said the former Conservative PM Harold Macmillan of what tended to pose the greatest challenge to prime ministership.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that the Conservatives stand a greater chance of winning in 2024. Sunak’s premiership, bar an extraordinary turnaround of epic proportion, is unlikely to survive beyond the next General Election. Sir Keir Starmer has every reason to lick his lips at the prospect. But it is still a prospect, and not a definite outcome.
If Brexit taught us anything, it is to take nothing for granted. Boris Johnson’s demise from emphatic electoral success to bitter dismissal is testament to this truth. But the argument for less self-approbation stems not only from the past, but from statistical research.
Sir John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, arguably the face of political analysis, suggested the following outcome come December 2024 if council elections were to be accounted for: Labour 35%, Conservatives 26%, Liberal Democrats 20%, while others would get 19% of the vote. The Tories won just under 55% in 2019, with Labour holding just 30% of seats in the House of Commons. Such a victory would hardly go down in history as one of the party’s great days.
Worse still, Michael Thrasher of Oxford’s Nuffield Politics Research Centre suggests that had council elections been the real thing, Labour would have 298 seats compared to the Conservatives on 238 – hung parliament territory.
Given Tory woes in recent times – including devastating reports into mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the revolving door of number 10 (three PMs in two months) – such a result would be disastrous. 2010 Déjà vu. Sir Keir would be heralding over a party yet able to beat outright the ‘chaos and derision’ of Tory rule. But the problem for Labour goes far beyond issues of internal complacency. Voters are less than certain too. A recent YouGov poll indicates 22% believe Labour would have a narrow overall majority, with 17% expecting a hung parliament.
“I’m waiting for them [Labour MPs] to give me a reason to vote Labour”, said one student I spoke with. “I’m not sure where they stand on the issue of trans rights for example”. I asked if they sympathise with the necessity of having to appeal to different strands of voters within the movement as a whole.
“It shouldn’t matter if trans rights don’t appeal to people elsewhere. It’s about doing the right thing. I’m baffled”. I discussed the voting intentions of 12 graduates who typically swing between Labour and Green. One thing unites them; “f**k the Tories”. “Boris Johnson is a liar”. “Our public services are chronically underfunded”, and “the economy was ruined by Truss”.
Labour to the rescue. Or not. ‘Politics, at least in my opinion, is like a ping pong match where all the players care about is serving the winning shot. They’re playing with fire. I don’t trust anyone in Westminster.” A PhD student disagreed. “If I had to choose between four more years of Tory cuts, versus a new chapter, I’d choose the latter”. The lesser of two evils, I suggest. “He (Sir Keir Starmer) talks a lot of sense. He’s a respectable human being. And that’s what we’re severely lacking right now”.
Is Labour haemorrhaging votes to the Green Party? Perhaps. Young voters seem less than convinced by the party’s so-called Blairist aesthetic. “I voted green this time,”said a 22 year old biomedical student. “Global warming matters to me more than anything. At the end of the day, everything depends on us getting a grip of the issue.
The cost of living crisis is partly down to climate change, and if we fail to act now the problem will only worsen”. In the last few days, the party added to its much heralded ‘Green Prosperity Plan’ – a local power plan allowing households across the UK to receive discounts on their bills providing their area signs up to new green initiatives. Enough to tempt the doubters? One young worker remains unconvinced. “We need the Labour Party more than ever, but I feel like they’ve been caught out. It’s all good and well saying that you’ll be better than the current mess, but how can we know for sure?”
The answer to that is perhaps unanswerable, not to mention unfair to expect any party to prove their worth until gaining access to the keys to Downing Street. Despite certain misgivings, Labour is a party on the brink of making history. Winning an election would be one thing. Winning it after losing 60 seats in 2019 would be golden. Only six Labour Prime Ministers have graced the highest office in the land, only around 11% of the total number of post holders since the 18th century. Perhaps the shadow cabinet would do well in learning from the mistakes of the past, most notably losing 665 councillors in 2007 before losing on Election Day. He told reporters that “People will understand that if you could come from worse results and win a general election [in 2005], there is no reason why we can’t do the same this time”. It never transpired. Sunak and his adversaries most probably suspect an analogy in Blair’s struggles – or lack thereof – in 2005, helping to guide Labour away from complacency and the Tories towards a never-say-never, anything-is-possible mentality.
Labour veteran Andy Burnham told reporters after the elections in May “you always have to guard against complacency of any kind”. Does he smell trouble? Only a few weeks ago Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf accused Labour of celebrating before they’d won over the Rutherglen by-election,which took place after former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier’s suspension by the Commons for breaking COVID regulations. The opposition leader made the journey up to the outskirts of Glasgow to put pressure on the heels of Scotland’s largest political party. Will it work though? Only time will tell.
It does seem reasonable to feel that the nationalist movement has been troubled by the party finances scandal currently engulfing it (former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was arrested earlier this month pending further investigations into allegations that the SNP mismanaged £600,000 of donations). Labour is easily capitalising on these events.
Further research carried out by YouGov suggests that the SNP are likely to lose more than half of its current seats to Scottish Labour, down by 48 seats. The country’s central belt, including pro-independence stronghold of Glasgow, is expected to turn red in all but one constituency. Scotland swung in favour of the SNP in 2007’s council elections, and haven’t looked back since.
The optimism at Labour HQ could be easily forgiven as issues mount for Sunak’s administration. Many in the Government still believe (at least in theory) that the next general election is theirs to win, despite tanking the economy and overseeing various lockdown blunders. Instead of preparing for opposition, delusion has blurred Tory HQ. They could win. Could being the operative word. Denial versus complacency – which is worse?
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