The Westminster circus in the last year has starred three prime ministers, four chancellors, five education secretaries and who knows how many instances of sleaze, from accusations of ministerial bullying to allegations of contract cronyism.
Fortunately for Keir Starmer, most of the national embarrassment that has been the last year has been tied to the Conservatives in the public mind: opinion polling, favourability ratings and anger on the doorstep has made that abundantly clear.
Indeed, seat models seem to project that a sizeable Labour win of 1997-proportions is on the way, with the latest model from Electoral Calculus projects a 194-seat Labour majority and a 19.6 point popular vote win.
But in amidst the bluster and shambles of contemporary British politics and the apparent certainty of a Labour win on the horizon, the Tories still have a path, however narrow, to another term in power. There is not a huge amount the Tories themselves can do at this point to win; the latest fiscal statement contents have boxed them into a corner and the key provisions extend beyond the next election time frame.
The next election hinges predominantly on the Labour Party, and more specifically whether it can offer a truly credible and forward-looking vision for the country.
Much of the solid voting intention survey leads that Labour have developed since Boris Johnson’s resignation is not down to 2019 Conservative voters switching to them, or indeed in many ways traditional Red Wall voters returning home. It is predominantly soft Tory voters who are severely disillusioned with their party and as such are not backing them in polling, handing the opposition seemingly unassailable leads.
But history strongly suggests, as in 2015, 1992, 1983 and beyond, that many discontent Conservatives come home at the end of the day. When push comes to shove and they go to their polling station, will they really put that cross next to the Labour candidate’s name? Probably not – most don’t usually, and past Tory administrations have infuriated the public as much as this one has but gone on to victory down the road. Margaret Thatcher’s first government is a prime example, although admittedly she had some undeniable help from Argentina.
Persistent supporter apathy is a dangerous thing for any political party, but for one that is almost certainly going to be chucked out of government unless it secures an outright majority on its own (given that at present, there is about as much chance of the SNP campaigning for Scotland to remain in the UK during a referendum as any another party propping up a minority Conservative government, especially this one, in this environment), it is particularly concerning.
Tory apathy is responsible for several opposition by-election victories in recent memory, most notably Wakefield to Tiverton and Honiton. Incumbent governments often lose by-elections, especially those in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, so that part in itself is not necessarily particularly worrying for the Conservatives.
Taking a closer look at those results reveals a mediocre fact for Labour. They successfully overturned disgraced Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan’s narrow 3,358 majority in Wakefield, but it still was not an ideal result for Labour.
All in all, even with this swing to Labour in this Red Wall seat, they still achieved a lower share of the vote (47.9%) in June 2022 than they did at the 2017 general election (49.7%). It was the 17.3% drop in Conservative support, not the 8.1% Labour gain, that swung the seat. Even in this climate of a seemingly impending Labour government, it is Tory apathy driving it, not a love for Labour or Keir Starmer, whom incidentally the public largely seem indifferent to, unclear on what he stands for.
The picture is even more pronounced in Tiverton and Honiton, where the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,239 majority from 2019. A 21.7% drop in Conservative vote share was responsible, coupled with tactical voting from Labour voters, a feat unlikely to be replicated on such a scale in a general election. Whilst it is not impossible, electoral pacts have already been ruled out by most parties.
It is not just unimpressed soft Tory voters, but also swing voters who are open to floating between parties, and indeed opposition party supporters, that will decide the next election. The ball is in Labour’s court to energise its supporters, draw in swing voters and either convince some Tory-leaning voters to do so too or get them to stay home. The way to do all three is a coherent vision.
Critically, as touched on before 53% of Britons do not know what Keir Starmer stands for, which is both a drawback (inviting criticisms of fence-sitting and disingenuity), and an opportunity (to present a fresh, positive and optimistic vision for Britain that can convince a clear plurality of voters to support and deliver a majority).
It is on Labour and Keir Starmer now to offer that vision, as Tory apathy alone will not put him into Downing Street. That fact alone will probably decide the winner.
It will be largely irrespective of what Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives do between now and the next election given that he has shown he is not going to offer a clear optimistic vision for the UK but rather limp from issue to issue and mitigate self-inflicted damage, a state of play which plagued the last part of Boris Johnson’s government. Sleaze and dishonesty continue to wreak havoc on the Tory benches and even the Cabinet, with the latest spat over the dubious tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi, an alleged pay-to-play with the BBC chairman appointment and a certain former Prime Minister, and a plethora of other instances.
Labour should leave the Tories to continue self-destructing and providing the ammunition for the opposition. Let them tell the public themselves why they ought to oust them; what matters is if Starmer can offer a genuinely convincing (and realistic) plan and a fresh start from the Conservatives, he can bring it home. The British people clearly don’t want to vote for the Conservatives at the moment, but they need to be assured they can vote for Labour instead.
As the National World phrased it, ‘to win, and to win by enough, Mr Starmer must give people a reason to vote Labour, rather than trusting that people have seen enough reasons not to vote Conservative’.