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The author is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London
Corbynites sound solid. New policies have increased. And voters were encouraged to look at the party leader again. Labor’s annual conference in Brighton ended on a high note. So should the Conservatives be worried when they meet in Manchester this weekend? Probably not. But there is no room for complacency.
To be brutally honest, no matter what it does now and then, Labor has probably already lost the next general election – mainly because it lost the last one so badly.
Admittedly, Keir Starmer can draw some hope from the fact that voters are pretty footless these days: somewhere between a quarter and a third of the people fluctuate between each election in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Less than 20 percent think of themselves as very strong supporters of a political party, with the so-called core vote for both the Tories and Labor now not much more than 25 per cent. Voters also decide later and later: almost a third of us nowadays do not decide for whom to vote until the real election campaign is underway.
Unfortunately for Starmer, this does not mean that ‘there is still everything to play for’. Most of us who study elections have given up the idea of ’uniform swing’ (where all constituencies change in the same way). After all, there are more parties with support in different parts of the country than there have been.
But it still reiterates that Labor would need a swing of more than 10 percent to achieve just one miracle in two or three years, namely an overall majority of only one seat.
This kind of Tory-to-Labor boom has only happened once in the last 75 years, in 1997. And the fact that it gave Tony Blair a majority, not just a single seat, but 179 of them, only increases the pessimism surrounding the chance of his successor- even his chance to form a kind of progressive coalition government.
It also reflects the loss of Labor in Scotland, but it also reminds us that the Conservative party’s predominantly English support is now so much more effectively distributed than that of its biggest rival. ‘While Labor is accumulating votes in places where it does not really need them — increasingly in urban Britain, with its younger, better-educated and ethnically diverse voters, the Tories are winning in the suburbs and in smaller towns where voters are more likely to be white,’ a little older and have to leave school without going to university.
Those voters are less likely to pursue identity politics, which seems to have such a cord with the social liberal members of the Labor Party – especially when it comes to issues such as race and immigration, law and order, and Britain’s place in the world, not least the relationship with the EU.
Boris Johnson’s recent decision to appoint Nadine Dorries as Secretary of Culture, as well as the retention of Priti Patel as Home Secretary and David Frost to tackle Brexit, suggests he intends to hit the bruise further in hopes that it will ensure him the continued guarantee. voter support in the so-called Red Wall of the former Labor seats in the Midlands and the North.
But this strategy is possibly riskier than it seems. In the first place, the poll shows that voters — even the political scientists submitted by TAN (traditionally-authoritarian-nationalist) as opposed to GAL (green, alternative, liberal) —are far less interested in cultural wars apparently Tory politicians and newspapers crying about ‘wakefulness’.
For the other one, quite a few voters are actively turned off by it. And some of them live in the so-called Blue wall – seats in London and the homelands, some of which are credible opposition targets, especially as they become increasingly clear which party (Labor or the Lib Dems) should support people if they want to deprive their Tory LP.
In reality, however, Johnson probably does not need to lose much sleep with this score – at least not yet a few years. What worries him and his party much more is that his relationship with many of the voters who switched to the Tories in 2019 is transactional rather than romantic.
The switches wanted a government that would get ‘Brexit Done’, but especially to continue with the bread-and-butter issues they care about the most. When it comes to their economic values, many of them still have it more in common with Labor than the Tories, of which most MPs (not the least Chancellor Rishi Sunak) is still (perhaps uncomfortable for the prime minister) many Thatcherites at heart.
However, any failure to actively ‘rise’ and actually end austerity to improve public services, coupled with a loss of confidence in government economic management, can still be costly, if not fatal, for the Conservatives. Manchester: memento mori.