Labour must repair its relationship with Leave voters if they want to win again
I cannot see a way to get a hearing from these voters until they hear an acknowledgement from Labour that it did not respect their views on Brexit.
Politics has it all, excitement, surprises, dread. Perhaps Keir Starmer may have experienced the full gamut of emotions, and a few sleepless nights in recent weeks.
After a strange year, while the PM was running live TV briefings, Starmer has endured a muted year, few visits and conference speeches by zoom. Perhaps we should not be surprised that he has yet to imprint his personality on those members of the public who do not follow politics closely.
The biggest elections since the 2019 general election and the largest Starmer will face before the next general election, there was a lot riding on Thursday 6 May.
For the fifth time in six years, Labour made net losses in annual local elections.
Voting patterns established in the Brexit election of 2019 have been reinforced, not least with the Conservative’s Hartlepool by-election victory.
What conclusions might Labour draw and what can it do about it?
First, addressing a problem, requires understanding it. Labour must repair its relationship with Leave voters who voted Labour all their lives but broke away to vote Conservative. Regain their trust. I cannot see a way to get a hearing from these voters until they hear an acknowledgement from Labour that it did not respect their views on Brexit. Tough medicine to swallow, but necessary.
Focus positively on the electorate, their views, their concerns, not the internal membership
Second, perhaps Labour under-estimated the huge, pent up joy, during the vaccine roll-out, as people could see normality returning. I volunteer regularly at vaccination centres. I saw that joy first-hand. Unlike a tax cut, or new spending, this was a shot in the arm for every family in the country. Yougov polling shows the vaccination programme has 88% approval. Perhaps Labour should have simply backed beating the virus 100% - and stayed close to the public mood.
This “vaccine effect” also benefited Mark Drakeford in Wales and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon. On TV almost daily, they too were rewarded for managing this crisis well.
Third, Mark Drakeford’s leadership also shows how choice of issues matters. His community-focused pledges included (forgive my shorthand): beating the virus; helping children to catch up; a greener country; community safety and new jobs for Wales. Pledges that were simple, relevant, and reflecting the real challenges faced by the Welsh people post-pandemic. Those pledges almost mirrored the ones used in my home borough of Doncaster, where the Mayor was rewarded with re-election.
Labour’s success in Wales, and most regional Mayors, gives Starmer strong spokespeople beyond London to advance Labour’s cause. Working as a team, these personalities can help Labour’s message cut through beyond the big cities.
Fourth, don’t underestimate Boris Johnson or wait for the government to fail. Focus positively on the electorate, their views, their concerns, not the internal membership or interest groups. Beyond the Red Wall seats, Labour must rebuild in Redditch, Harlow, Carlisle, Peterborough.
Finally, manage the party’s post-election disputes and define your leadership. I recommend Harold Wilson’s advice: “The Labour Party is like a stage-coach. If you rattle along at great speed everybody inside is too exhilarated or too seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop everybody gets out and argues about where to go next.”
Pause for breath, and Starmer will fall victim to endless criticism. Strike out, take a few risks, some bold ideas, and chivvy his shadow cabinet to run with the message, and he can leave the critics trailing.
Tony Blair adopted a similar strategy in opposition and in so doing, you define yourself to the public.
As life and politics returns to normal the outcome of the next election is not yet determined.
Caroline Flint is the former Labour MP for Don Valley (1997-2019) and a former minister in the Blair and Brown governments.
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