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Labour is not much cop at winning elections. In its entire history, the party has won only five elections with a comfortable majority. The brutal truth is that Labour should be good at opposition because it has plenty of practice at it.
Just about every political pundit has advice for Sir Keir Starmer on how to avoid a fifth successive defeat, an outcome that would be dismal even by Labour’s own standards. To win, it is said, Labour needs to be seen as a solid government-in-waiting but also have radical policies to put before the public. It must challenge the Tories for the support of older voters while appealing to the young; and win back Brexit supporters in former “red wall” seats while at the same time hanging on to those who backed remain in 2016. There are, no question, easier jobs than being the leader of the opposition.
Ultimately, the crucial thing is that Labour is trusted to run the economy because unless it can demonstrate a basic level of competence voters will support the other lot, even if they have no real affinity with the Conservatives. That’s why the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, will stress in her speech at the party’s conference in Brighton on Monday that a Starmer-led government would tax fairly and spend wisely. Reeves’s message will be that the foundations of the economy are weak and need to be repaired. The danger is that promising prudence comes across as bland.
Being trusted is not the same as being rightwing. Clement Attlee had a radical programme in 1945 and was considered a safe pair of hands. But Attlee had been deputy prime minister during the war, a period when he was effectively in charge of the home front and when the domestic economy was being run along quasi-socialist lines anyway.
Tony Blair won three elections, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and the lesson he draws from that hat-trick of victories is that Labour has to occupy the centre ground in order to defeat the Tories. Starmer faces a tougher challenge, though, because by the time Blair became Labour leader in 1994, John Major’s government was in deep trouble. Britain had crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday, taxes had gone up, what was left of the coalmining industry had been shut down, and the Tories were mired in sleaze. Blair’s safety first approach was in part ideological but in part because there was no need to take any chances. He had it all to lose.
Once in power in 1997, Labour had a programme for change even if it did not involve public ownership or higher taxes on the rich. A minimum wage was introduced. Sure Start centres were opened. Child benefit was increased, new schools were built in poor communities and tax credits came in to boost the incomes of those on low incomes. Today it would be called levelling up, although the plan had rather more substance.
To be sure, the Blair governments made mistakes: some of them – such as a far too cosy relationship with the City that left the banks too lightly regulated – serious ones that would come to haunt the party during the subsequent financial crisis.
But Labour’s record in power challenges the idea that the British public is intrinsically rightwing. There is no real evidence that this is the case. Voters like the furlough scheme, detest the idea that the NHS should be privatised, welcomed the nationalisation of the railways, have no time for tax dodgers and think it is unfair that the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit is being withdrawn. All things considered, the public is actually quite receptive to ideas that would normally be considered leftwing.
It is also instructive to revisit the record of Harold Wilson, the only other Labour prime minister to win big, although again not quite for the reasons normally stated. The conventional take on Wilson is that he surfed the zeitgeist of the mid-1960s, fusing concerns about Britain’s relative economic under-performance with a effort to modernise the country using the “white heat” of technology.
Wilson’s plans went awry soon after he won his landslide victory in 1966, with the government knocked off course first by deflation and then by devaluation. But as Gavin Kelly, a former aide to Gordon Brown, noted in a recent blog, Wilson did more to flesh out his white heat rhetoric than he is usually given credit for.
In particular, the Labour government of the 1960s understood that modernisation and improving Britain’s weak productivity record required both a top-down and bottom-up approach. It meant not just more professional management but workers happy to move from declining sectors to the dynamic parts of the economy. The Wilson government brought in a system of earnings-related unemployment benefits to make the transition to new jobs easier and to try to make the UK workforce less scared of change.
As Kelly points out, the idea worked despite serious flaws both in design and implementation. There was a 44% increase in labour reallocation between industrial sectors in the decade after 1968, surpassing all other decades of the 20th century other than those including the world wars.
Today, Britain has to cope with the challenges of the pandemic, Brexit, the net zero transition, the digital revolution and the growing importance of artificial intelligence. It does so at a time when – as Kelly rightly says – “labour market dynamism, geographic mobility and workforce training are all significantly lower than they were at the turn of the millennium”.
Britain is clearly not match fit to meet the challenges of the 2020s and that is something Labour should be looking to remedy.