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There's little enthusiasm for Labour. Does it matter?

Labour leader Keir Starmer and the party's canddiate in East Worthing and Shoreham Tom Rutland (Alamy)

5 min read

People may dislike the Government but it is difficult to see how Labour win a landslide when there is such little enthusiasm for them as an alternative. Or is it?

Get them in a dark corner and most Labour MPs will admit that they are surfing into office on a tidal wave of revulsion against the Tories and a ripple of enthusiasm for Labour. A chance encounter with a Labour shadow minister last week confirmed how well Labour’s strategy is working. “There’s no enthusiasm for us out there,” he said. “People do not expect government to do much any more. All we can do is influence things at the margin”. While people are eager to see the back of the Conservatives government, the prospect of a Labour one arouses little positive enthusiasm. Few people particularly want Labour to win. They just want the Conservatives to lose.  

A Labour candidate told us he had never experienced anything quite like it. Canvass returns confirmed the polls. Labour was well ahead in its target seats in the area. Yet he detected no enthusiasm for the party. This is largely because of the vanishing hope that the exercise of public power can improve our lot for the better. What distinguishes this election from the ten we've closely observed or participated in is the high level of public cynicism, even indifference, and disturbing for Labour, lack of enthusiasm for the likely winners.

Labour may have a huge lead in the polls, but asked why Labour is so far ahead, only 10 per cent think it’s because Labour has the best policies; 30 per cent think it’s because the Conservatives were doing badly, and 54 per cent  think it’s because it’s “time for a change”.

When asked whether Labour have become so cautious that it wouldn’t actually make much difference who was in power, 49 per cent agree compared to 46 per cent who disagree. Even among Labour voters 43 per cent think this is the case.

Asked for their view of Labour, 46 per cent agree that “I am not enthusiastic about them but they can’t be any worse than the Tories”, compared to just 27 per cent who thought they would change Britain for the better.

Another poll asked how voters would respond to a new Labour government and found the “wouldn’t minds” came out on top (49 per cent), compared to just 29 per cent who would be “delighted”.

At this point, we should fess up. If you haven’t already worked it out, all of the above paragraphs are not from this contest but come from the one in 1997 that generated a landslide for Tony Blair’s Labour.

The first sentence is, word for word, from Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, in April 1997. The next bit comes from the Sunday Times. Then we have a bit from a letter to the Guardian – written by a professor of politics, as it happens. The last two lines of the first paragraph were written by a young upstart academic called Cowley in the Independent on Sunday. The first bit of the second paragraph is from Steve Richards in the New Statesman. Then we have an extract from a leader in the Observer. The last sentence is Des Wilson in the New Statesman. This was the only one that required some slight editing to remove a reference to the date; apart from that, and a change from the authorial singular to plural in two cases, they are verbatim.

All of the data similarly come from polls conducted in 1997. The first one, for example, is NOP, with the write up in the Sunday Times concluding “there is very little public enthusiasm for Labour’s policies”. The second was Gallup in the Telegraph.  The third is another Sunday Times poll. The last came from the Telegraph, with Tony King – the John Curtice of the 1990s – concluding that “there are still no signs that most voters view the prospect of a Labour government with positive enthusiasm."

You cannot move for the same narrative today whether Labour is 12 or 23 points ahead. It comes from both left (as a criticism) and the right (where it is a straw to clutch). You similarly could not move for it in 1997. All the above material really is just a small sample of what was published at the time.

In 1997 not everyone saw this lack of passion as a negative. Peter Riddell, in the Times, noted that he could find little enthusiasm for Labour “or of high expectations of what the party would do in office”. But this, he felt, fitted the needs of the country. Peter Kellner, writing in the Observer, felt the lack of enthusiasm was a positive – a deep desire to get rid of the Conservatives was more likely to survive the election campaign.

And Steve Richards wondered if it all mattered. “Does it matter if Labour wins a big majority without a great wave of positive enthusiasm? Of course, it would be better if a new government were elected on a clear, radical alternative agenda, which has generated a sense of a new era dawning. But perhaps it is not possible to defeat a party so deeply entrenched in power in such a manner."

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