The recent ‘vaccine bounce’ enjoyed by Boris Johnson, which has seen his approval rating climb above that of Keir Starmer, shows just how much work Labour have to do to win power at the next general election . For the party to win elections and leave behind its recent history of setbacks and internal discord, a more fundamental transformation of its priorities is required. While Starmer’s centrist reputation and conduct in Parliament make him a better candidate than his predecessor, this alone cannot end Labour’s travails. A more serious shift is necessary, and Starmer will inevitably have to look for inspiration in the party’s previous stories of campaign success, such as those of Blair and Attlee.
Without change, Jeremy Corbyn’s controversial legacy threatens to dog Labour. Its chances of forming a government will stay contingent on the Conservatives’ failure to preserve their voter coalition despite delivering Brexit, committing £160 million to making UK industries more environmentally friendly and adopting such centre-left economic policies as raising corporation tax. Under these circumstances, conditions for garnering as substantial a Labour majority, as enjoyed by Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, would require an enormous amount of public ire with the Conservatives to evaporate their entire mandate. This is not realistic. What will be needed is for Labour to develop into a strong alternative to the Conservatives in its own right.
Remembering how much Labour had pivoted towards progressivism under Corbyn, Starmer might precipitate at least a partial ideological return to the New Labour of the 1990s. At first glance, Blairism seems the natural alternative to Corbynism. In 1997, Tony Blair inflicted a landslide defeat on John Major’s Conservatives and won as many as 418 seats nationwide. His programme is often described as “the sliced white bread of British politics” because of its broad-church appeal. Though retaining several distinctly socialist policies, including the minimum wage, Blair purged proposals for high taxation and a weak stance on law and order from the party programme.
Back then, this helped re-cast Labour in the eyes of the general population as an appealing party to govern the country and a potent alternative to the Conservatives. It also helped build rapport with those who had hitherto been unable to brook Tony Benn’s radicalism and Neil Kinnock’s triumphalist rallies. It produced a movement capable of simultaneously preaching and implementing left-wing ideas, and of being regarded positively by those who were more centrist and centre-right leaning.
Blair often made great play of his faith and Christian values; while he is unlikely to go as far, Starmer has made steps in this direction. In an article for The Church Times he discussed the importance of Christian values, stating that the “community has always been at the forefront of social activism, seeking justice and speaking truth to power”. His attempts to win over traditional working-class Britons by emphasising civic duty and family values could similarly reinforce Labour’s standing among minority groups, many of whose members are socially conservative, such as Muslims from the Indian Subcontinent and British Jews.
Yet, this approach alone is insufficient. The general election has altered the composition of the parliamentary Labour party, empowering several MPs, who have overtly championed radical proposals like the Green New Deal. Their voices might be few, as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott have now been marginalised, but the fact such opinions have percolated into the top of the party creates pressure on Starmer to renege on his moderate agenda and indulge the radical left. Such a u-turn from his agenda would have minimal potential to bridge the divide between the predominantly urban, progressive Labour voters and those communities in the former ‘red-wall’.
Rather than returning to Blairism, Starmer should borrow from Clement Attlee’s playbook. Although the latter, like Blair, constructed a broad coalition of voters to beat none other than Winston Churchill in the 1946 general election, he reconciled radical party initiatives with the prevalent public sentiments at the time. His rhetoric promoted nationalisation not through revolutionary calls to punish the arbitrary 1%, but through promises to deliver “a prosperous peace” and economic freedom for the “gallant men and women” in the military and on the home front and make Britain a home fit for its war-time heroes.
More importantly, he was a moderator: he listened to his Cabinet members and heeded the public opinion as he invoked the Christian faith in his speeches and facilitated Britain’s nuclearization. If Starmer aspires to unite the Labour Party and the nation behind him, he must concentrate on further developing this important skill.
Labour’s revival depends on Starmer’s capacity for building consensus between different Labour-leaning and centre-leaning demographics. Drawing on Attlee’s and Blair’s successes would greatly strengthen Starmer’s repositioning of Labour.
Dan Mikhaylov is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on the Middle East, global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.