In the midst of the deepest fall in living standards on record and at the foothills of what the Bank of England forecasts will be a prolonged recession, people want to know of politicians: “Which side are you on?”
Labour may be about 20 points ahead in the polls but far from riding a wave of enthusiasm, the party is more like the passive receptacle of growing anti-Tory sentiment. Even as the Tories flounder, Rishi Sunak was chosen by 37% of voters in a recent poll as their preferred prime minister, and Keir Starmer by just 29% – trailing in third behind “don’t know” on 34%.
The Tories have imploded, but still the Labour leader generates as much excitement as did George Graham, manager of Starmer’s beloved Arsenal in the 1990s. Graham’s team was famously unwatchable. “Boring, boring Arsenal”, opposing fans used to chant in frustration. But he did guide them to two league titles. Not exciting, not memorable, but more than likely going to win. Keir Starmer is a modern-day George Graham.
This lack of enthusiasm is reflected in the party’s falling membership figures. When Starmer became leader, promising to keep the radical flame alive and combine it with his declared professionalism, he inherited a party with 553,000 members. Today there are 373,000 – a net loss of 180,000, and with them, nearly £6m a year in membership fees (the party posted a £5m deficit in its most recent accounts).
Why has party membership, which soared under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, taken such a turn? Under Corbyn, Labour was ambitious and radical. For the first time in a generation, a significant layer of younger people re-engaged with politics and felt hope – the hope of someone speaking up for them on insecure work, low pay, poor-quality housing. That just maybe there was a prospect of a government that would stick up for them against the companies and landlords ripping them off.
When running for the leadership, Starmer proclaimed: “We should treat the 2017 manifesto as our foundational document, the radicalism and the hope that that inspired across the country was real. So we have to hang on to that as we go forward.” Does anyone believe he has hung on to that? Can anyone imagine hundreds of thousands of young people chanting “Oh Keir Starmer”, as they did about Corbyn?
Part of the answer has to be a lack of policy radicalism. Workers face being made the scapegoat for Tory failure. The government is attempting to drive down workers’ pay, with new anti-unions law being prepared. Labour’s response under Starmer? Abstention. He neither backs strikes nor workers’ demands. He decries a cost of living crisis, but is unsupportive of workers taking action to inflation-proof their incomes.
Starmer told Labour conference in September: “If they want to fight us on redistribution, if they want to fight us on workers’ rights … we will take them on – and we will win”. The Tories do want to fight on that and, far from fighting, Starmer has retreated to neutrality.
Listen to Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, whose members have been on strike. “If you sit on the fence, and Keir Starmer’s been sitting on the fence for too long, you get splinters in your backside … we have to defend ourselves, because clearly the Labour party are not going to do that.”
Contrast that with the bold anti-austerity message from Corbyn and John McDonnell in 2015, which gave confidence to campaigners inside and outside parliament. Their assertion that “austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity” punctured the stale pro-austerity consensus in Westminster.
Reactionary Conservative policies to cut tax credits for low-paid workers and personal independence payments for disabled people were turned back, putting billions of pounds back into people’s pockets. The “scrounger” and “shirker” rhetoric that had polluted British political discourse – and had previously been repeated from the Labour frontbench – came to a juddering halt when challenged.
Defending those on benefits did not initially poll well, but we shifted that polling. Sometimes you have to make the political weather, not just check the forecasts of focus groups.
That approach bore fruit. In 2017, Labour gained seats in a general election for the first time in 20 years. Not enough to win, but enough to deprive the Tories of a majority and force them to abandon plans to bring back foxhunting, grammar schools and deprive young people of housing benefit.
Alongside this refusal to take a radical line is a stultifying bureaucratisation that, as the Forde report and the Al Jazeera Labour files investigation have revealed, has purged members, traduced reputations and stitched-up selections in a way that shames an organisation that claims in its constitution to be a “democratic socialist party”. The journalist Michael Crick, a close watcher of the party’s internal machinations, has said they “verge on corrupt”.
Successful political movements have to catch the mood of the times. Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015, and in 2017 gained the largest increase in Labour’s share of the vote since 1945, because he provided policy answers to the material realities of the time: low pay, job insecurity, unaffordable housing, the climate crisis. That agenda got subsumed by the Brexit stalemate of 2019, and an election that effectively became a rerun of the referendum. But the material problems have only worsened in the years since. We live in times that demand radical solutions, but today Labour feels paralysed by caution, its solutions piecemeal.
This is a Westminster Labour problem. In Scotland, Labour MSPs were a driving force in the campaign for a rent freeze. In London, Sadiq Khan is calling for a two-year rent freeze and permanent rent controls. In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has explicitly backed workers taking strike action, and is reregulating the buses.
Currently Starmer can afford his turgid neutrality: the result in the Chester byelection chimes with national polling and the mood of the country – people have had enough of the Tories, and, luckily for Starmer, that may just be sufficient. But polls often narrow in the runup to the election, and in an age where tribal loyalty is gone, Labour may find its polling leads are more fragile than they appear.