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The Grand Entrance. Sir Keir Starmer’s electoral challenges

April 5th, 2020

So passes Jeremy Corbyn.  He hands over to his successor a party in the doldrums, with just 202 MPs, most representing seats in the largest metropolitan areas.  If Labour are to win an overall majority of one at the next election, they will need 124 extra MPs. That would require a uniform national swing of over 10%.  Such swings are exceptionally rare. The last time it happened was in 1997. So Labour better hope that Sir Keir is a new Tony Blair.

In practice, Labour could lead a government in a hung Parliament with fewer seats.  The Conservatives have no obvious Parliamentary allies at present, having burned their bridges with the DUP over Brexit, so Labour can probably form a government so long as Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems tally a combined 320 seats or so.  If the SNP and the Lib Dems stand still, that means Labour “only” need a further 55 to 60 seats to take power. That will still require a swing of 5%, which is still chunky by historical standards. 

Let’s survey the scene as it stands now.  First, the good news. Even as Labour have gone backwards, some seats have swung to them.  The following 12 Labour-held seats have been won by Labour since 2015: Bedford, Weaver Vale, Sheffield Hallam, Warwick & Leamington, Canterbury, Gower, Battersea, Putney, Bristol North West, Portsmouth South, Brighton Kemptown and Leeds North West.  This is a disproportionately metropolitan set of seats, but even so, Bedford and Weaver Vale suggest that there is more going on than just that.

Labour have comprehensively won the battle with the Lib Dems for urban progressives.  There is not a single Lib Dem-held seat in Labour’s first 250 targets. And if the Lib Dems were not going to make advances against Labour led by a leader tainted by accusations of anti-Semitism and half-heartedness on Brexit, they probably never will.  

That means that Labour are fighting on two fronts (the Conservatives and the SNP) rather than three.  The new Labour leader will need to consider carefully how ambitious he wishes to be. If he wants to aim for an overall majority, he will need to take on the SNP – there are 17 SNP-held seats in the first 124 Labour target seats, and if he is to aim for an overall majority without taking seats from the SNP, he will need to take seats such as Somerset North East on a swing of 13%.  This would be a colossal endeavour.

So he needs to weigh whether to aim for incremental gains this time, working with rather than against the SNP, or whether to dream big.  That is not an easy decision to make.

Labour could spend far too much time lamenting the loss of seats that now look like distant prospects.  They had never lost Bolsover before last year. It is now their 67th target, behind Northampton South and Altrincham & Sale West. Newcastle-under-Lyme, held by the Labour party for 100 years but now held by pb regular Aaron Bell, is safer for the Conservatives than Uxbridge & South Ruislip, the Prime Minister’s constituency.  Labour held Mansfield from 1923 to 2017. It is now their 200th target – if they take it, they will win a landslide.

I absolutely get that Labour members will feel that they ought to represent traditional working class constituencies.  They should ask themselves why the constituents of so many of those constituencies feel differently. In the meantime, if they want to put their moral crusade into practice, they need to have a strategy to build support in those areas which are presently most receptive to their message.  This may well not be those traditional working class constituencies.

So, for example, Labour can probably form a minority government without taking Rother Valley (target number 76).  They might not even need Sedgefield (target number 61). They are right to mourn the loss of seats like those. They should not see their only or even most plausible path to power as lying through such seats.

If Labour are to make progress, they will need to do so in their top 100 targets.  What do those constituencies look like?

The answer is surprisingly suburban. If Labour is to form even a minority government, on a uniform national swing that will include MPs for Chipping Barnet, Chingford & Woodford Green, and Wycombe.  Labour have only ever held one of these seats, Wycombe, and that only in the 1945 Parliament. Still, they took Canterbury and Kensington in 2017: precedents are made to be set.

A slew of traditional marginals remain marginal, despite Labour’s poor performance.  High Peak, Watford, Broxtowe, Warrington South, Wolverhampton South West, Peterborough, Stroud and Aberconwy are all essential wins for Labour next time around.  They are all still eminently achievable on reasonably normal swings.

What do these seats, and seats like Milton Keynes (North and South), Ipswich, Derby North and Lincoln, also all on the must-win list, all have in common?  First of all, they’re not particularly metropolitan. So the present incarnation of Labour must exert some pull on some groups other than urban professionals.

Nor are they especially deprived or especially insular.  Some (Warrington South, both Milton Keyneses, Peterborough) are the product of post-war planners, some have seen a regular influx of newcomers.  

In fact, if you were to sum up many of Labour’s targets, the word you would use is “middling”.  You could imagine The Office being set in them. You could not imagine them being the location for W1A.  

It was Aneurin Bevan who said that:

“The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism … The argument is about power … because only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct.”

If so, Labour need to bring their priorities in line with those of middling Britain.  I suggest that means talking more about transport and less about trans rights, more about housing and hospitals and less about Hamas.  Labour talked about fitfully such bread and butter subjects under Jeremy Corbyn but without great focus.

So Labour need to find a voice for parts of Britain that are not particularly affluent but don’t necessarily look like backdrops for Billy Elliot or Hovis adverts.  But who knows, if they find that voice, perhaps they will be heard by voters in their former heartlands too?  

Alastair Meeks