Labour must always be prepared to fall short of victory
As the chimes of Big Ben rang out on Thursday 1 May 1997 at the beginning of the 10 o’clock news, my family and I crammed into our living room in Blackburn.
“Congratulations,” said my brother, Ed. “You’re going to be the next home secretary.”
Inexcusably, but not irrationally, I heard myself shouting at Ed not to tempt providence yet again. I had spent 18 years in opposition, with one false dawn after another. The worst had been the 1992 election when even the exit poll predicted a hung parliament. John Major won outright.
For all the premature euphoria that Labour is bound to win the next election, not since 1945 has the party overcome such a large Conservative majority in one election. In 1997, we were fighting to overturn a relatively small 21-seat Conservative majority achieved in 1992, compared with today’s huge 80-seat majority. Labour won no more seats in 2019 than we had in 1983.
Despite all the hurdles, Labour will win at the next election
The Conservatives may be tired, divided and lacking in imagination, but they will not quit the field without a fight. The Uxbridge by-election in late July shows how brilliant the Conservatives are at seizing on a Labour policy – in this case, the new ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) charge for outer London – and making it the defining issue. Labour should have walked that election. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s commitment to clean air is commendable, but his inflexible application of Ulez, regardless of local differences, is not. It ignored the timeless truth that those who are penalised by a policy feel this more acutely than those who may benefit from it. Never make the best the enemy of the good.
With advances in digital targeting, the Uxbridge approach will be repeated many times. For example, every alleged failing of the Labour-led Welsh government will be highlighted ruthlessly, especially in England. Infelicitous statements by Labour candidates will have been assiduously filed for use in the campaign. We will need to win around 125 seats just for a bare majority in the Commons and, in many cases, the result will depend on a handful of votes.
Keir Starmer and his team know all this, which is why they have been so focused on clearing the political land mines in our way. But Starmer also knows that detailed preparation for government is equally crucial. If Labour wins, new ministers will find an official machine desperate to do its best to turn our policy proposals in opposition into workable propositions in government. How quickly and effectively they can do this will depend, above all, on how many of those policies have been carefully thought through and costed in opposition.
One of the many reasons why Tony Blair won such a thumping majority in 1997 and again in 2001 was because for three years, from 1994 to 1997, he pushed his shadow cabinet to produce all manner of detailed position papers, and to have them stress-tested for cost and political saliency.
My experience as shadow home secretary was no exception. On my first day as home secretary, I was presented with six ring binders of briefings, based overwhelmingly on our preparatory work in opposition. Of course, I was also at the mercy of “events” – things that had just happened – but without a clear programme, we would have been knocked off course very quickly, and we could never have repeated our 1997 success in 2001 (or won the 2005 election).
It’s my belief that, despite all the hurdles, Labour will win the next election. But there will be no substitute for caution, care and relentless hard work right up until Big Ben bongs at 10pm on election night.
Jack Straw, former home secretary and former foreign secretary under Tony Blair
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