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Issue One REWIRE Magazine

War Footing

Author Stephanie Lis
Published 21 Nov 2023

After 13 years in government, the Tories face annihilation in 2024 at the hands of Labour. Or do they? Stephanie Lis, former No 10 deputy press secretary, and Polly Billington, Labour candidate, assess the two parties after power.

Labour’s Ming Vase strategy

By Polly Billington

A 20-point lead in the polls can encourage the casual observer to think that Labour has the next general election in the bag. But that would be to overlook the historic size of the swing required by Sir Keir Starmer simply to secure a majority of one, let alone a working margin, as Tony Blair achieved in 1997.

Labour’s 2019 defeat was of historic proportions, with the party’s worst result since 1934. Many lifelong Labour voters switched allegiances to Boris Johnson and the party’s credibility was shot on a number of key fronts, most concerningly the stain of antisemitism tainting a party that prides itself on tackling discrimination in all its forms. Starmer, then, understands the size of the task ahead. He has a three-stage plan: first to rid Labour of antisemitism, secondly, to demonstrate that the Tories aren’t fit to govern and third, offer a vision of the country that persuades people to support them in enough numbers for a working majority.

The first stage is arguably complete (though don’t rule out ongoing shock waves). On the second, one could argue the Tories have done much of the work themselves, which leaves the final stage. Starmer’s stated goals suggest a scale of ambition that the Party openly admits will require two terms to successfully deliver, but what is still missing is the retail offer required to turn grand ambition into a concrete appeal with the electorate.

Businesses may be beginning to turn to Labour, but they need to know what they’re getting into. Fiscal rectitude and an absence of chaos are a start: “securenomics” (Rachel Reeves’ idea about how to rewire the economy to increase productivity and provide greater financial security for the many) and the Green Prosperity Plan begin to outline what a future British economy would look like: more detail will need to follow so that businesses of all shapes and sizes can see what role they have to play and what it will mean for them.

The Tories aren't described as the most effective political party of all time for nothing. Even with their current dire situation they have the wherewithal to pull new stunts and strategies out of the hat, blindsiding Labour if they take too much for granted. We saw this with the Tory campaign in Uxbridge: locally focused anti-Labour campaigns - especially where Labour actually runs the place, which now includes many constituencies well beyond the cities - could eat into that national lead in enough areas that Sir Keir finds himself without the majority he craves. That final stage is now being delivered in the style of the “Ming Vase” strategy: uber caution.

Starmer’s final stage is now being delivered in the style of the “Ming Vase” strategy: uber caution

This might be enough to win in a large number of seats, but as many doorknockers will tell you, voters are still undecided because they are yet to understand what, if they vote Labour, they are voting for. Many around the leadership insist they understand that re-running the 1997 playbook won’t work this time, but a fundamental of that campaign was a guiding set of principles and values that linked strategy with decisions. Without this, caution can look like followership, not leadership. And that could result in a similar situation the party found itself in 2010 - or for those with longer memories and a more pessimistic view - 1992.

Sunak's last roll of the dice

By Stephanie Lis

Rishi Sunak was always facing an uphill battle. Convincing voters to stick with an incumbent party after 13 years in government would never be an easy feat yet his task is perhaps harder than anticipated. He inherited an electorate exhausted by the psychodrama and mistrust that often characterised Boris Johnson’s premiership and suffering the economic turmoil that resulted from Liz Truss’s short tenure in Downing Street. Few doubt Sunak’s competence, intelligence, or fierce work ethic, but these attributes alone will not be enough to rebuild trust in the Conservative Party. Languishing in the polls, and with an economy that continues to underperform, it is no surprise that businesses are turning to an ascendant Labour.

The next election will also be fought along more complex lines than in 2019. The totemic issue of ‘getting Brexit done’ that dominated then has now faded from voters’ minds. And while it is arguably easier at this point in an electoral cycle to be in Opposition - there is more time to formulate policy positions, and less scrutiny from the electorate – it is undisputable that Keir Starmer has led Labour into a position of strength.

The Prime Minister may have gone into the summer recess with some small glimmers of hope – inflation figures were less severe than feared; Jaguar Land Rover gave a vote of confidence in the UK by announcing a new £4bn battery cell investment; and a feared wipe-out in a set of by-elections was narrowly avoided. But this is scant comfort - the outlook is undoubtedly extremely challenging for the Conservative Party.

Where does the Prime Minister go from here? The answer is a focus on the wedge issues which not only distinguish his Party from Keir Starmer’s Labour, but also play to the Conservative faithful. Of course, a focus on crime and immigration is an established part of the Tory playbook in the run up to any recent election, but Sunak will continue to accuse the Opposition of flip-flopping on illegal immigration over the coming months

The outlook is undoubtedly extremely challenging for the Conservative Party

The Conservatives are also watering down their green credentials. While this will be pitched as an overture to easing the pressure on households struggling with the cost of living, it also demonstrates a clear division between themselves and their opponents over the speed of the green transition. Indeed, Labour have been beset by internal wrangling over their positions on North Sea Oil, which the Tories have moved quickly to magnify.

Many may not thank the Government for moving the goalposts, but the calculation will be one based on electoral advantage. Businesses must remember that everything will be assessed for its vote-winning potential, above all else, as the election draws closer.

The Prime Minister will need to be deft in taking on a more divisive strategy; not only does it contradict his persona of a responsible, pragmatic politician, it also risks alienating centrist voters already beginning to align themselves with Starmer’s Labour.

With just a year to go, this may well be his last roll of the dice.

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Issue One

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War Footing

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