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Starmer’s vision silenced Labour sceptics – but disillusioned voters will be a much tougher crowd | Rafael Behr


Combine confidence of success with dread of disappointment, and you get the nervous excitement at Labour’s annual conference this week. On paper, the facts line up to make a Labour government look inevitable: opinion poll leads, byelection victories, demoralised Tories practically craving release into opposition.

But for a party that has swallowed a lot of defeat, a diet of promising data doesn’t ease the gut feeling that something could still go horribly wrong. In the hotel bars and around the conference fringe, everyone knows that Keir Starmer is very probably Britain’s next prime minister, but there has been a provisionality to that view that falls short of faith.

Partly that is recognition that voters don’t like to feel their support is taken for granted. But there are deeper reasons to resist complacency. Labour strategists know their road to power has to pave over a bog of public contempt for politics.

That is why Starmer’s speech to conference on Tuesday explicitly posed the question: why Labour? He knows that national readiness to be rid of the Tories is not an embrace of the opposition. That is why his answer was dense with references to “security”, “healing”, “shelter”, “the hope of the hard road”. Starmer knows that his target audience feels shaken by years of economic volatility and burned by the dodgy pyrotechnics of glib promises.

Indecision is hard to measure, but some polls suggest as many as one in six voters have no current preference.

Labour is ahead on issues that usually settle elections – trusted more than the Tories to run the economy, for instance – but a majority say they just don’t know. Starmer is rated as a more capable leader than Rishi Sunak, but not by miles. His personal approval rating looks more like the negative scores Ed Miliband and Neil Kinnock were getting shortly before their defeats than the positive endorsements that propelled Tony Blair to Downing Street.

In terms of parliamentary arithmetic, Blair didn’t have far to travel. But Starmer needs to gain 123 seats for a majority of one. The necessary swing is about 12 points, which is within the bounds of current polling but extremely rare for a general election. The last time it happened was Clement Attlee’s 1945 landslide.

Usually, there is a late tilt back to the incumbent government. Then again, not much about British politics in recent years suggests that what usually used to happen is a reliable guide to what will come next.

One trend that scrambles any predictive signals that precedent might send is the unravelling of traditional party identities. The 2019 general election looked superficially like a restoration of the old two-party duopoly. Around three-quarters of all votes were shared between Labour and Tories.

Keir Starmer calls on Tory voters to back Labour – video

But that tidy distribution masked volatility that had been building for a generation, and was supercharged by Brexit. The Tories’ 2019 landslide completed a conversion of Labour’s leave-voting heartlands that was already in evidence in the previous election.

Boris Johnson bagged the glory for toppling the “red wall”, but the majorities he had to overturn had been eroded by Theresa May. She gets no credit because she also blew her party’s majority elsewhere.

That shock result in 2017 obscured more than it illuminated. Labour’s voter coalition was an unstable coalition of people who wanted Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister and people who really didn’t, but felt it was safe to register an anti-May protest because polls suggested she couldn’t actually lose. The closeness of the 2017 election gave the Tories a double advantage two years later. The red wall was on wobbly foundations already – and anti-Corbyn voters weren’t taking any chances.

Johnson’s whopping victory gave an illusion of decisive realignment to what expressed, in reality, millions of people losing the habit of voting for any party by default.

These are the undecideds who give Sunak a slender hope of blocking Starmer’s path to a majority. They tend to be socially conservative, anxious about the cost of living, concerned about illegal immigration – and deeply sceptical about politics in general.

They are not clustered in the red wall but live across the country, often in suburbs and small towns. “Stevenage woman” is the (typically crude but not inaccurate) demographic personification. She is a working mother in her forties, with a salary that is stretched thinner every month. She voted for Brexit and Johnson, not with any fixed ideological agenda but on the basis that things very obviously needed shaking up.

Then Johnson turned out to be a cheating, lying charlatan, and Brexit delivered none of its promised benefits. Those disappointments don’t translate into a natural swing of the pendulum to Labour, but leave it suspended somewhere between apathy and despair.

This may be the most poisonous effect of Brexit: Johnson squandering so much hope for radical transformation on a plan that was destined to make life harder for the people who invested the most hope in it.

It debased the currency of political promises, making it harder for any subsequent prime minister to earn trust. Sunak faces the additional weight of incumbency. Winning from Downing Street will be tricky when, according to one recent survey, 62% of people say Britain is going in the wrong direction and 77% agree with the proposition that the country needs “a new team of leaders”. A straw for the prime minister to clutch is that only 42% are confident Labour has that team.

The gap between demand for something new and trust in the opposition explains why Sunak used his speech at last week’s Tory conference to pitch himself as the true change candidate, with Sir Keir Starmer the knighthood is always stressed – as the agent of a failing status quo.

The strategy is to seed suspicion of Starmer in the minds of undecided voters and pray for an economic recovery that makes people think twice about regime change. It is the longest of long shots, but maybe the only one available.

It means a year of scorched-earth politics, using the king’s speech, autumn statement and spring budget as platforms for campaigning provocation instead of serious government: cutting taxes, for instance, knowing it undermines any prospect of sustainably funding public services, purely in order to make Labour squirm over whether to raise them again.

So far, Starmer has successfully swerved these traps, but at a cost. Dodging and weaving has allowed the Tories to depict the Labour leader as a slippery character who will say anything to get elected. Much the same is said by leftwing dissenters.

One of Starmer’s tasks at this week’s conference was to look less like a man sneaking up on power and more like a leader striding with purpose and a destination in mind. Anyone tuning into his speech on Tuesday should have been satisfied on that front. The party faithful in the hall were positively inspired. But the next challenge is reaching the people who actively tune out, who can’t say which party they might support because they don’t think party politics has any answers.

This is not a hurdle that previous opposition leaders have faced. It is hard enough persuading voters to trust Labour with power. Starmer has the additional challenge of persuading people that government of any kind can still be a receptacle worthy of trust. This is why the stakes are so high. Sunak plans to make the race as shallow as possible. But the question on the ballot paper will be as deep as they come: whether British democracy is still capable of delivering meaningful change. It is an argument Starmer can win, must win, and it shouldn’t even be close.



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